As METRO Brings Back In-House Bus Service, the Call For More Drivers Goes Out

METRO had to reimagine ways they could bring in new employees to operate their services to recover from losses they faced during COVID-19.
METRO had to reimagine ways they could bring in new employees to operate their services to recover from losses they faced during COVID-19. Photo by Faith Bugenhagen
After reaching a low of 1,357 bus operators during the height of the pandemic, the greater-Houston area transit system METRO is leaning on incentive payments and provided-training to attract new operators for their Park & Ride express bus services.

Despite extending two existing contracts with AFC Transportation and First Class Transportation, two companies that provided bus operators when the transit system needed them – METRO does not plan on renewing them after their termination date in September, said Tracy Jackson, Deputy Chief of Communications for METRO.

METRO’s Park & Ride services will be back in-house by then, due to the increase in hiring over the past couple of months. The transit system now has 1,581 bus operators and an active bus fleet of 1,186. They hired 35 additional bus operators to make up for the 20 AFC and 19 First Class operators that were used since March 2022, Jackson said.

The choice to extend the contracts with both transportation companies was mainly made to provide “breathing room” for METRO’s routine service change in August, Jackson said.

“About four times a year we take a look at what routes have a high ridership and demand for services and we shift resources to where this is,” Jackson said.

After September, Jackson said all buses and bus operators that are a part of METRO’s Park & Ride will be operated by METRO staff.

Currently, the contracted bus operators from AFC and First Class, drive their respective companies’ buses, not METRO’s vehicles. However, the decision to partner with these transportation companies did not have to do with the number of METRO buses available, just drivers, Jackson said.

Although the number of METRO operators are expected to keep up with the rise in ridership – as it is still not quite at pre-pandemic levels – the transit system is not in the clear yet.

“The loss of bus operators was a big challenge, but the shortage of skilled professional drivers wasn’t just unique to METRO or even to the transit industry, where we saw another big challenge was with losing mechanics,” Jackson said.

After lifting the pause on hiring in place during the peak of the pandemic, METRO is providing continued hiring and retention incentive payments for both bus operators and mechanics. These employees will also have access to resources to receive training while actively working with the transit system.

Those who are interested in working as a mechanic, can learn on the job as METRO partnered with several mechanic schools. Although the transit system currently has enough mechanics to keep up with demand of their operations, they are always looking to hire more as they continue to expand future services since recovering from the pandemic, Jackson said.

Those who opt to be bus operators can get their commercial license also while at METRO, the only requirement for operators is to be older than 18 and have a valid regular driver’s license.
For hiring, new bus operators are allotted up to $4,000 and for new mechanics – depending on their skill level – they can be given up to $8,000. The retention pay for union and non-union full-time employees is $6,000, according to Jackson.

METRO continues to provide these incentive payments as they still have routine needs for new hires, such as replacing roles of employees that are retiring or advancing to another higher position internally.

“We’re continuing the effort, we have not pulled back on that, even though we are in a much better position than we were even a year ago,” Jackson said. “We still go through attrition, retirement and replacement – things like that – so we constantly need to bring new operators and mechanics on board.”
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Faith Bugenhagen is on staff as a news reporter for The Houston Press, assigned to cover the Greater-Houston area.