In a ‘Help Wanted’ world, RTD competes for recruits

Is there a chance your train or bus was canceled because of the sky-high cost of housing in Denver or the fact that Amazon pays $15 an hour?

Absolutely. At least, those are two of the reasons. As Denver’s cost of living skyrockets and the pool of job seekers continues to shrink, openings in public transit and all metro-area transportation careers just don’t get filled.

RTD management hates canceling trips and strives mightily to avoid it, knowing how the blowup of a scheduled trip causes untold trouble for riders – one might miss a class, another a health appointment, and another might be late for work. Even with the extension of the E, F and R light rail lines to Lone Tree this year, requiring dozens of new trips, RTD completed 99.95 percent of its trips in July.

But trip cancellations have crept up for RTD in 2019, a sign that long-term strains in hiring adequate train and bus operators are finally beginning to show through to frustrated passengers. Even a fraction of a percent in canceled trips can mean 1,000 hours of service lost in a month across RTD’s metro-wide system.

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And the severe shortage of qualified hires extends to every corner of every RTD building, from mechanic sheds to body shops to entry-level operators and beyond. Among light rail operators alone, 25 have left since June, said Assistant General Manager of Rail Operations David Jensen.

“We are in a vicious cycle right now,” Jensen said. “They leave because of the overtime they are required to work and the loss of a day off, and then it affects more people who have to work even more because the workload itself doesn’t change.”

The shortage is clear: Rail operations need 216 full-time operators on staff to cover scheduled runs without overtime or other fill-in measures. Jensen’s branch has been chronically short for the past few years, with numbers as high as 50 to 60 of those operators. Bus operations, which dispatches 841 buses at the peak of a typical weekday, was short 75 full-time operators from its budgeted total of 945 for July, on top of the shortages in every support category.

When an operator calls in sick, RTD tries to avoid canceling all routes on that shift by plugging in floating operators from a backup pool, or seeking overtime from other operators.

Prospects considering RTD for a job should know the attractions of the work go far beyond the concrete perks of good starting pay, health and other benefits, as well as union protection, said Daniel Yazzie, an RTD trainer who started as a bus operator.

“If you want to help people, this is the place to be,” Yazzie said. “When our buses are moving from place to place, they are servicing people.” Each passenger, Yazzie said, has an important story of needing to get to work, or a medical appointment, or a class. Many live with a disability or a disadvantage that means RTD is their lifeline."

“There are rewards in this job you can’t attach a dollar value to,” he said. Still, having noted that view, Yazzie is quick to attach tangible values: In addition to the pay and benefits, RTD’s system offers frequent chances for promotion or a jump to a new career track within the agency.

“It’s a great place for advancement,” he said.

RTD may have a great need for skilled operators, but it is hardly alone in the transportation industry for a metro region where the unemployment rate fell to 2.7 percent in July, according to Colorado Department of Labor and Employment Economist Monicque Aragon. That’s down significantly from the already-low number of 3.2 percent a year ago, Aragon said. Colorado’s overall job growth, meanwhile, is over 1.9 percent, markedly higher than the national rate of 1.5 percent, she said.

Nationally, the shortage among major metro transit agencies for new operators is often just as acute.

In Colorado, analysts see more help wanted ads posted for bus operators and other transportation jobs, Aragon said, and the ads are staying up longer than in previous years, indicating they are harder to fill. And the average age of transit operators is going up.

“A large majority of those workers are on their way out of the industry, so we’re going to see more and more of these openings popping up,” Aragon said.

RTD leadership and economists cite a few key factors in the recruitment and retention troubles:

  • Train operators need to command a high-tech, $16 million, multi-car vehicle with hundreds of lives on board. Bus operators face increased metro traffic, new scooters and e-bikes, passengers with mental health issues and more. Stress and pressure build.
  • Facing such a demanding job, the difference between $19.98 in RTD starting operator wages and the promise of $15 at Amazon or Target is not great enough to attract sufficient candidates.
  • Other driving jobs, while not offering consistently high pay or benefits, do provide flexibility that younger job candidates demand. An Amazon Flex delivery operator, for example, can quickly learn the system, set time parameters, and accept or reject work.
  • With median home prices rising 75 percent in the past 10 years, Denver-area housing is out of reach for operators, and the operator income can no longer be the anchor for a single-wage family.
  • While operator unions are concerned most members are now mandated to work six days a week to cover shortages, RTD says it needs even more flexibility from the union in assigning shifts and transferring operators.

Recruiters say they are trying to keep RTD competitive with as many incentives as they can.

The agency recently gave its bus and rail operators and some entry-level jobs in other categories an 8 percent raise. RTD now offers signing bonuses of $2,000 and $1,000 for a successful referral. Operators get an extra $2 an hour for working scheduled days off, and $2 an hour for split shifts, where they do runs in the morning, have unpaid time off, then drive again later in the day, said Fred Worthen, RTD’s assistant general manager of bus operations.

The fight for more recruits is a daily battle, officials said, and RTD continues to brainstorm with the board of directors and employees for new ways to fill the gaps.

Our schedule is our promise to our customer, and we’re doing everything we can to not break our promise,” Jensen said.