Sweat Shop Transit

Transit did not come to Lake County until 1995. By then contracting of normal government services was all the rage. For years contracting agencies paid enough to attract new drivers but not enough to keep them. Part of the problem was that drivers were hired part time with variable hours. People who planned to raise a family did not stay.

The last burst of effective hiring was in 2013 when a slew of new drivers were hired to replace drivers who went on strike. To accomplish this feat standards were relaxed to the legal minimum. Most did not stay long and I moved up to full time faster than I expected. Since then, even recruiting new drivers has been a problem. During most of this period full time drivers have been on mandatory 6 day work weeks. Under Affordable Care adding hours for part timers has been risky.

Although a few drivers appreciate the overtime, because otherwise they would have to get a second job, most are getting burned out with no life outside work. They are looking for other jobs or planning early retirement. This will make the driver shortage even worse.

In a market economy if you want more of something you offer to pay more. But local government funds are limited to one-quarter of one cent of the local sales tax. Lake County has a weak sales tax base. Fares are 19.2% of operating costs, a better percentage than richer counties. With starting pay dangerously close to minimum wage on January 1st (10.48 per hour) the General Manager suggested that cutting routes to pay higher wages was a future option.

At the end of 2015 the aftermath of the devastating Valley Fire created a brief reprieve. Relief funds could be used for transit if enough paperwork was filled out, a process that is ongoing after 3 months. When the check is in the mail it will amount to a new starting wage of 11.34 per hour, a smaller margin above minimum wage than before the 1st of the year. Assuming the funds materialize soon, imminent collapse of Lake County’s bus system is averted and transit returns to a mere staffing crisis.

With no strong support from local government, grant sources tapped out, and resistance from the Transit Authority to hiring people with ancient felonies there appears to be only one way to eliminate a permanent driver shortage – niche marketing to predisposed groups. I have identified two groups that the transit job unintentionally appeals to. Management ignores pitching to these groups. Probably because it will look cheesy to do so. But these groups are currently overly represented in the driver ranks so why not improve and control the process? No policy needs to be changed as far as hiring standards. This is purely a marketing approach.

The easiest and most politically acceptable group to target is the over 55 job seeker. They need to be marketed to because many have given up looking for work. Public service announcements beg employers to hire the over 55. Lake Transit will be able to present themselves as a socially responsible place to work. I’ve printed an “Over 55?’ flyer.

The second target driver group has an image problem. These are people who plan to bolt at the first better opportunity. The training and certification to drive a bus is time consuming and expensive but gives potential drivers a ticket out of town. A case can be made that driving for Lake Transit can be considered an “internship”, gaining the experience to get those high paid government transit jobs somewhere else. Drivers currently move on to greener pastures so why not add a small incentive to induce them to stay 2 years – an internship certificate, costing maybe 30 cents. Others who may not have bothered to apply if they didn’t plan to stay may sign up.

One thing these two target group approaches have in common is that they do not present the driver job as a career path to raise a family. This is a job for people who have already raised their family or plan to raise their family somewhere else. The goal is well within reach – a net gain of 4 drivers. Drivers keep leaving so if 2 leave during the target campaign we will need 6 drivers. Net gain is the key word. In a typical class of 3 drivers, one will get a better job during training or wash out, one will pass all tests but after a few months they decide they can’t handle dysfunctional passengers and quit, and one will last more than a year but maybe not as long as we hoped for.

Since transit in Lake County is not offering a career path for younger workers they have to play to focus groups. The alternative is to lose 2 more drivers and have to start canceling routes due to lack of drivers to drive the buses.

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