It’s all hands on deck to deal with the significant workforce shortage at the region’s transportation agencies — mostly visibly at the MBTA.
“Some of the things that we’ve been looking internally at is, how we need to be more competitive with a lot of our positions,” said Thomas Waye, Chief of Human Resources for the MBTA. “We find ourselves competing for talent with new market entrants in terms of: we’re not just competing in our transportation space alone.”
Transit authorities like the MBTA are changing old rules and launching new initiatives — or considering them — to make their hundreds of open positions more appealing to candidates. Waye said more than half of Massachusetts transit agencies have increased starting pay in response to worker shortage issues. Thirty-eight percent have implemented sign-on bonuses, and 39% have implemented referral bonuses.
Waye painted a stark picture in a presentation to the Regional Transit Authority Council at a meeting run by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, or MassDOT, where regional authorities pitched solutions to the workforce crisis. More than nine in 10 public transit agencies nationally stated they are having difficulty hiring new employees. About two-thirds of transit agencies indicated they’re having difficulty retaining employees. Nearly three in four transit agencies said they have either cut service or delayed service increases because of worker shortage issues.
“Given the challenges in the market right now, and given the shortages that we face, we're really trying to get outside of our trying to broaden the network of people that we're contacting and trying to reach further people,” said MassDOT Secretary Jamey Tesler.
MassDOT and the MBTA are seeking out hires with recent job fairs, but are also working on YouTube and other social media to get the word out that they’re hiring, and the kind of incentives they’re offering to applicants.
Bus operations jobs are hardest to fill. Part of that struggle has been in getting applicants with a commercial driver’s license, required to drive such a vehicle.
In light of the worker shortage, though, the MBTA changed its rules. The agency used to require job candidates to have a commercial driver’s license permit prior to being hired. But, for the next few months, three classes of bus operator applicants who don’t have the permit will get training in a new pilot program. The $75 fee for a permit will be covered, along with the $4,500 cost of the training course, and applicants will get paid while they’re studying. A sign-on bonus of $4,500 will be given to the new hires after a year with the MBTA.
The MBTA is hoping the pilot yields at least 60 new employees.
“We view this as a significant game-changer because that was our challenge,” Waye said. “We needed to put forth a little skin in the game in terms of engaging these applicants more discretely and helping them because there was a lot of drop-off in our process flow for applicants to get themselves qualified.”
But barriers still stand. Currently, a commercial driver’s license applicant has to take a permit test at the Registry of Motor Vehicles. Massachusetts State Police proctor the tests.
“Given the number of people we all need to hire and train currently, Why can't we permit, train and test our own people with somebody checking in on us through another process?” said Angie Gompert of the Martha’s Vineyard Transit Authority. She said she’d like to see regional transit authorities become able to permit, train and license applicants on their own, with occasional auditing from the Registry of Motor Vehicles.
“I’d like to be able to test them on-site, instead of trying to schedule a road test through the RMV for the State Police to come do it. Dealing with the RMV online system is a drag, and the State Police don’t have enough troopers to test,” she said.
Paula Leary with the Nantucket Regional Transit Authority said having the driver’s test on the island instead of far off on the mainland along with “existence of housing for workforce people” were her greatest concerns.
Gompert suggested the region’s transit authorities have an opportunity to get employees with commercial driver’s licenses through the H-2B visa program, which allows employers to hire noncitizens for labor that isn’t agricultural.
“It seems to me that's some low-hanging fruit, maybe not super easy, but it could be something that could be very beneficial for us because it's proven and has worked previously,” she told the council.
The federal regulation governing commercial driver’s licenses, which Massachusetts opted into more than five years ago, now requires you to be a citizen or permanent resident to obtain one. She suggested consulting with the federal government to allow H-2B visa workers to get commercial driver’s licenses again. Gompert told GBH News there appears to be some flexibility nationwide for immigrants without legal status to get commercial driver’s licenses — it just varies per state.