When William Daniel asked his friends and family about a stable career that wouldn’t require a college education, they had a ready answer: Metro Transit.
The requirements to secure a bus-driving job at the agency included a high school diploma, a clean driving record and three years of full-time employment history. And he knew several people, including his sister, who already worked there as bus drivers.
Daniel also thought working for Metro Transit could be a career, not just a job. Drivers earn a starting pay of nearly $19 an hour and get health benefits, paid vacation and overtime opportunities. “Metro Transit is a place where I can succeed and grow,” he said. “I see this as something I can stick with for years.”
Since Daniel began the application process two years ago, however, the prospect has come to seem beyond his reach: Despite repeated attempts, he hasn’t been able to move past the agency’s pre-employment process, even with a good driving record and a commercial driving permit under his belt.
Which raises the question: What’s preventing Daniel, 27, and so many other applicants like him, from making headway in the hiring process, especially at a time when the agency is facing a serious driver shortage and a wave of retirements?
Need for drivers
Nationwide, the transportation industry has a big need for drivers of all kinds, a labor shortage that’s been an issue for the past decade, according to the American Bus Association.
In Minnesota, that need is expected to grow in the coming years. According to a 2014 report from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED), the state expects to see more than 23,000 driving job openings this decade.
For Metro Transit, the need for drivers became more pronounced in 2014, when the Green Line — the light rail line connecting the downtowns of Minneapolis and St. Paul — was opened, as many of the agency’s bus operators shifted to take up new roles as light rail drivers. “The light rail operator positions are directly drawn from bus operator positions,” said Christine Kuennen, Metro Transit assistant director of bus transportation. “[As a result], our operation rate started to fall off … and all over, it’s harder to find people interested in this line of work.”
Today, Metro Transit, which has a little over 1,500 part- and full-time drivers, is short more than 50 operators. And the agency is facing the prospect of even more openings. Wolf Tattenbach, workforce outreach coordinator for the Met Council, which oversees Metro Transit, said about 18 operators are retiring this month.
While Metro Transit authorities are quick to say the agency faces a driver shortage, they don’t necessarily face an applicant shortage. In 2016 alone, for instance, the agency received more than 2,600 bus operator applications, an 18 percent increase from the previous year.
Yet it hired less than 300 of the applicants.
There are many reasons so many applicants don’t make the cut, including not meeting all the agency’s basic requirements for drivers: a good driving record, a valid driver’s license, three years of solid employment history and a high school or GED diploma.
But many applicants say the agency’s pre-employment test — an extensive exam that includes questions about map reading, customer service and driving skills — is the biggest barrier preventing them from obtaining employment with the agency. A particular source of complaint among applicants is the customer service portion of the test.
Daniel, for one, said he passed the map reading and driving skills portions of the test when he took it in November. But he couldn’t get a passing grade on the customer service test. “I was really confident, going in and taking that test,” said Daniel, who graduated from St. Paul’s Interstate Truck Driving School. “Unfortunately, I did receive a letter about a week later that I didn’t score high enough on the test. I was really upset because this is my fourth time taking this thing.”
If it weren’t for the customer service part of the test, he added, “I believe that I’d be working for Metro Transit right now; I strongly believe that.”
Daniel, an African-American from south Minneapolis, said he believes the test is unfair to minority applicants — a charge that was echoed by numerous applicants of color MinnPost spoke to. “You will be very surprised how many people are trying to get into Metro Transit,” Daniel said. “But that assessment … does channel out a lot of qualified people [because] of preparatory knowledge that we can’t study for. I feel like that’s unfair.”
One of those other applicants is Edmond Smith, who said he was given this scenario as part of the customer service portion of the test: Say you’re on duty as a Metro Transit bus operator. A passenger gets on the bus and refuses to pay the fare. What would you do?
The best answer, Smith noted, is to pick the safest option: Let it go. But that isn’t how many people of color taking the test would answer. “What gets tricked on a lot of people is they feel like it’s their bus,” he said. “They’re thinking, ‘I work for Metro Transit. You came on my bus and you owe $1.25. I need to get that money.’ And I can see why a lot of minorities were [failing those types of scenarios] because that’s just something we do, culture-wise.”
‘We don’t create the testing questions’
In response to the cultural bias charges, Metro Transit authorities noted that the pre-employment process was put in place to ensure that the agency has the best drivers with the best customer service skills. “We don’t create the testing questions,” said Brian Funk, deputy chief operations officer for bus transportation. “I couldn’t tell you what all the questions are. We do know that we rely on them to ensure … they’re providing us [with] a product that’s free of bias.” Metro Transit contracts with Ergometrics, which also provides testing services to other transportation agencies in other states.
Funk also noted that 60 percent of the bus operators hired in 2016 were people of color, all of whom came through the same process. “So we’re very proud of the efforts that we’ve made in recruiting a diverse population of employees that’s very representative of the communities that we serve,” Funk said.
MinnPost spoke with three current Metro Transit bus operators of color, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of losing their jobs. When asked about their experiences with the pre-employment process, two of them said they failed the customer service portion of the test more than twice before finally passing it and getting hired.
While all these operators agreed that too many people get eliminated in the early stages of the applications process, not all of them think it was meant to exclude people from certain cultural backgrounds. “I don’t think it’s about cultural bias,” said one driver. “They are testing for common sense. Driving a bus requires a lot of responsibility. So, they really need drivers who can make important decisions in split seconds.”
“I don’t know why many people don’t pass the first time,” another one added. “It could be because it’s a competitive profession. A lot of people want to work for Metro. So, I think they want to get the best ones.”
Mark Lawson, president of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005, which represents Metro Transit drivers, said he isn’t aware of particular testing cases because he deals with driver issues when individuals become Metro Transit staff. But he said he has heard of some people who “run afoul of various aspects of Metro Transit’s standards or they can’t pass the start test.”
Shortening the process
To assist those struggling with the assessment test, Funk said that Metro Transit created last year free, six-hour-per-week study sessions at community centers in south and north Minneapolis. He said the agency is trying to ensure that the applicants are prepared for what it takes to be a “successful bus operator” and the many responsibilities that lie ahead.
That’s one way to reduce barriers in the application process, Kuennen said. Another way the agency is improving the process is by shortening the wait period between each retest, something that discouraged many applicants from reapplying for the job. Daniel, for example, had to wait for six months before he could re-apply for the position.
But last summer, Metro Transit introduced a pilot program that will invite people to retest after three months, instead of six. The pilot program is part of a marketing campaign and community outreach program to attract more skilled applicants, Kuennen said, and is scheduled to run through May.
The change, of course, is good news for hundreds of applicants like, Daniel who — because of the pilot — was able to schedule for a retest in February. “I think it’s a really good idea that they shortened it up,” he said. “But I think that they should make it standard because it gives people more of an opportunity to study and learn what they need to do to qualify and make it to the next step in the employment process.”