Amid low unemployment and few available workers, UTA fights hard to attract needed drivers

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) The Capitol Connector, route 500, picks up passengers at the state Capitol, Jan. 30, 2019.

The ads offer Utah Transit Authority employees up to $1,000 if they recruit a friend who becomes a bus driver for at least a year. But some of the flyers are posted in an unusual place: inside the bathroom stall doors at UTA headquarters.

“It’s a captive audience,” jokes Shari Burgess, senior recruiter for UTA. “Pretty creative, huh?”

UTA officials say creativity is now a must as the agency competes with other businesses for the relatively few people seeking jobs amid Utah’s low unemployment rates. Burgess says UTA currently is working to fill about 50 vacant slots for bus drivers.

That has the agency employing some other unusual marketing tactics.

(Lee Davidson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Poster on the inside of a bathroom stall door at Utah Transit Authority headquarters offers employees up to $1,000 if they refer a friend who is hired as a bus driver.

Electronic signs on bus fronts that normally list a route number now sometimes flash that UTA is hiring. Ads for new drivers are posted inside buses and trains. The agency runs social media ads targeting areas with slightly higher unemployment rates. Officials have gone on TV morning shows to urge people to apply.

Earlier this week, UTA hosted a big job fair for potential drivers.

(Courtesy Utah Transit Authority) Part of UTA's ad campaign for hiring drivers was on display at a jobs fair it held Wednesday, April, 24, outside its Salt Lake City headquarters.

“Other agencies right now are cutting service” because they can’t hire enough drivers to staff their routes, said Pablo Martinez, UTA’s manager of workforce planning and talent acquisition.

Recent news stories show areas where that is happening, or threatened, include Denver, Pittsburgh, San Francisco, Minneapolis, Seattle, New Jersey, Toledo, Ohio and Arlington, Va. Also, Greyhound, bus tour companies and school districts nationwide report driver shortages.

“But we are healthy,” Martinez says, adding UTA so far has been able to fill its slots. “We’re doing a great job of being creative and advertising and reaching out to the right candidates.”

George Chapman, a transit and community activist, says he’s not sure he believes the agency is doing that well — and says drivers and others quietly tell him vacancies are much higher. A constant transit rider and watchdog of the agency, he says he hears complaints by drivers of shortages forcing them to work overtime.

He said many talk about leaving to avoid constant split shifts that force them to be available for 12 hours but work only eight. “The almost $18 an hour, with split shifts, is not enough to attract and keep drivers. Earning a [commercial] license allows them to go almost anywhere else for more money,” Chapman says.

(Photo courtesy of George Chapman) Electronic signs on some UTA buses now promote that the agency is hiring drivers.

The Amalgamated Transit Union Local 382, which represents UTA bus drivers, declined comment for this story. It is expected soon to begin negotiations over pay and benefits because the union’s current agreement with UTA expires this December.

Bus drivers now are paid $16 an hour during training. Afterward, they are paid $17.76. Then they are guaranteed pay increases of 50 cents an hour every six months for five years. They have health and dental insurance, retirement pensions, tuition benefits, free medical clinics for families, gyms at UTA facilities and free transit passes for their family members.

Burgess and Martinez insist that UTA is doing well with recruiting and retention. They say many drivers have careers of 40 years or more before retiring, and about 18 long-term drivers are expected to retire in the next year. The pair says the typical UTA bus driver has now been there about 20 years.

Burgess said some units of UTA have few or no bus driver openings, suggesting pay and perks are sufficient. Its Ogden unit has not had a vacancy in six months. The unit in Utah County has needed only six drivers since August and has two openings now. Paratransit buses have five or six openings.

But in Salt Lake County, UTA has 44 openings. Burgess said all but about nine of those slots opened because of new service being added because of a contract with Salt Lake City to expand bus operations.

“I’m sure we will meet all of those demands,” she says, adding that a job fair created a large pool of applicants and many interviews have been scheduled.

(Courtesy Utah Transit Authority) UTA held a jobs fair Wednesday, April 24, outside its Salt Lake City headquarters. Officials say they were pleased at the response as it attempts to recruit new bus drivers in a tight job market.

Burgess said UTA hires about 120 new drivers a year. She says that only a few leave for higher-paying jobs, while others are promoted, transfer to become train operators or retire.

But she acknowledges challenges. She notes, for example, that many new hires are millennials — and UTA competes with companies that offer jobs that generation seems to especially seek with the ability to work at home, flexibility of schedules or even offers of free lunch at work.

“We can’t do that,” she says. “You can’t drive a bus from home.”

Martinez says the tight job market will continue to force UTA to be creative and competitive.

With today’s state unemployment rate of 3 percent, that means “44,000 people in the state of Utah are actively looking for jobs,” Martinez says. “That’s a very low number.”

He said it’s tough to compete, for example, with growing high-tech companies here. “They offer great-paying compensation. They offer great perks,” including long vacations and paid time off.

“We can’t do that. We just can’t,” he adds. “We have to be cognizant of our funding and that it's coming from our taxpayers.”

So he says UTA will continue to be creative as it looks for new hires — even if it means posting ads in bathroom stalls.

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