Recession and Opportunity: Driver Shortages in the Era of High Unemployment

Recession is our most common, recent misnomer for the fact that overwhelming evidence makes it hard to deny that America is now, unequivocally, a Second-World country. We are certainly not yet China or even Brazil. But we are also not remotely England, Germany, Sweden, Japan, New Zealand, Canada, Saudi Arabia or Yemen, despite some of their own financial problems. The notion that we are just “going through a phase” or “temporarily bottoming out” in a few areas lies somewhere between subterfuge and delusion.

Rather than roil in our typical denial, however, the U.S. passenger transportation community can actually make a vibrant if small contribution to reversing this reality – particularly in the areas of safety, liability and efficiency – by taking advantage of a valuable resource made possible by our economic collapse: The availability of an affordable, qualified driver pool.

Unemployment Rates and Staffing

When I began directing my own 70-vehicle paratransit operation in 1982, unemployment levels in Southern California were high, and we had little problem attracting qualified drivers at a $5.00/hour starting salary – already more than most of our competitors were paying. By 1985, however, the unemployment rate tumbled, and the quality of our workforce began a noticeable decline. This was not really a gradual phenomena. Instead, it happened practically overnight: The very moment our waiting list vanished, the tonality of our entire work force morphed into a ragtag stream of insubordination, apathy and incompetence. Many drivers stopped wearing their uniforms, vehicle interiors became filthy and pre-trip inspection check-outs sporadic, and regular attendance dissolved into a flurry of three day week-ends and constant sick-leave.

Because the linkage between driver quality and efficiency correlates far more highly in demand-responsive systems, where familiarity with the service area is more critical than in other modes, we immediately offered to re-negotiate our contract to increase our rate in return for increasing system efficiency – and guaranteeing a lower bottom line cost. After 10 months of deliberation, the nincompoops (excuse the kind mischaracterization) in our “lead agency” finally accepted this offer, and we revised our contract to accommodate a starting salary of $7.50/hour – more than 50% higher than that of our competitors. We were immediately deluged with applicants (word gets around quickly when competitors’ drivers serve many of the same destinations), and within weeks, we were able to clean house, dramatically upgrade the quality of our work force, improve efficiency, and reduce vehicle hours of service by roughly 30 percent – exceeding our promise, even though our overall rate had risen by close to $4.00 per vehicle service hour. (We had included some other improvements in the contract amendment that also expanded our management capabilities.) Further, our corporate culture returned to normalcy, and our on-time performance returned to the 99 percent level it had been before its short-lived decline.

Negligent Retention and Driver Shortages

Even nearly 30 years ago, when my own revitalized operation was once again humming, we were surrounded by constant reminders of the driver shortages of our competitors. One major, national contractor actually parked old schoolbuses at strategic locations to use as mini-recruiting stations. More importantly, driver shortages quickly became the industry norm (public sector transit agencies being the exception). This problem has simply gotten worse since, although its economic impacts have been softened largely by a gradual but \C2 significant lowering of standards.

Because my former company’s lead agency was later unwilling to further crank up our salary structure in a 1992 contract renewal, I and my partner literally turned down a profitable five-year renewal and walked away from operations, never to return. Despite the lost profits in the short run, this decision turned out to be a wise move in the long run since transportation wages have declined severalfold, in real dollar terms, since we left the business, and I avoided a remaining career filled with chaos and lawsuits: In Today’s dollars, drivers earning $9.00/hour in 1985 (roughly our average wage at that time) equates to earning roughly $30.00/hour today, if not more. Clearly, only rare transit systems and one Canadian paratransit system I know of pays its drivers such wages. In sharp contrast, I continue to engage in law suit after law suit where drivers are being paid less than ours were 25 years ago.

When drivers earn little more than burger flippers, and considerably less than many retail clerks (Whole Foods provides a salient example), what our industry can attract in a vehicle operator becomes a mix of a few competent drivers and a lot of “the other kind.” Apart from the ability to operate at all with this mix, the formula leads to a rash of accidents and lawsuits that are difficult to defend because of a legal construct commonly known as negligent retention. With severe driver shortages, it is difficult to terminate the ones an operator already has, despite their piling up violation after violation and causing accident after accident. When evidence of the agency or company’s acceptance of the driver-in-question’s work history surfaces in excruciating detail in depositions and trials, most juries conclude quickly that the incident would not have occurred had the driver been appropriately terminated long ago – often in compliance with the defendant’s own policies for such termination that were simply ignored because of the economic realities noted above. No defense counsel I have yet met has had the gall to argue that a work force of “the other kind” was all that his client could afford given the economic environment at the time of the incident.

Negligent retention is also a popular theme with plaintiff’s attorneys largely because it is not highly technical, and not only can attorneys understand it (compared to, say, negligent maintenance or product defects, which are also harder to prove), but so too can most jurors. Further, negligent retention is almost always accompanied by the defendant’s failure to comply with its own policies – increasing the damage award stakes by positioning the negligence higher up within the driver-management hierarchy.

Unemployment and Opportunity

With the rapid collapse of the U.S. economy, hiring shortages in public transportation should be a thing of the past. While some of the replacements may consider themselves under-employed and underpaid, and may be bitter about it, they will still be smarter and more responsible than their predecessors who would presumably be dumped by responsible operators. From certain industries where competent staff were already underpaid, their absorption by public transportation operations should create a bonanza with an unusual upside: A workforce that may actually stick around if and when economic conditions improve.

Within this new cornucopia of potential drivers are a few notable jewels. One of them is the bevy of ex-military personnel who have already begun returning home, and who will continue doing so as they rotate in and out of our various war efforts. Driving buses may not be the jobs they deserve. But they are jobs they can perform. And if anyone deserves employment, it is these individuals. This is especially true for disabled veterans: Schedulers and dispatchers otherwise rolling around in office chairs are a perfect fit for individuals in wheelchairs, and the latter’s military careers have often trained them in the importance of orientation and precision, map-reading, and many digital skills – not to mention coming fully-equipped with the advanced knowledge of security that has become increasingly essential to the provision of public transportation service. Further, many organizations already exist to help ex-military personnel find employment, and tapping into them makes the search cheaper, easier and more fruitful. These employees are often individuals accustomed to radical adjustments in sleep cycles, used to performing moderately well when fatigued, disciplined, used to and willing to take and follow orders and, by their very nature, individuals who care deeply about other people. (Otherwise, why would they risk their lives for them?) They are not only used to undergoing extensive training, and absorbing it (given the consequences of not doing so), but also capable of acting on their own while highly conscious of the importance of also working as part of a team. Combing through hundreds of transportation industry job descriptions over the years, I have yet to find one that compares to that which I have just outlined.

The Perfect Storm

I will not insult the reader’s intelligence by characterizing our economic collapse as an “adjustment,” much less the Perfect Storm to trigger one. For example, already motivated by an obsession for obscene profit, I am not so naïve as to think that G.M. and Chrysler can suddenly make better automobiles or become more profitable companies – even as most of what changes that occur will come about at the expense of simply paying workers far less than they have been earning. But for the public transportation sector, the collapse of our economy places transportation providers inside the eye of the hurricane, and provides an opportunity to improve safety and reduce liability exposure that comes along only rarely. Only this time, this opportunity may be here to stay.

As a nation and an industry, we have many challenges yet to address. But let us not fail to connect the dots where and when they lead to opportunities for improvement. In terms of enhancing public transportation-related safety and reducing liability exposure, our collapsing economy presents a rare opportunity that would be a shame to miss or squander.

Equally as important, if we are to dig our way out of our current woes, it will only occur one shovelful at a time. And we will need a lot of shovellers since a huge swatch of American institutions (banks, HMOs, traders, etc.) will not be among them. If we fail to pitch in individually where opportunity permits us to, we will sink collectively like a stone into a permanent Second World nation. As they commonly say “inside the Beltway,” in a democracy, one gets what he deserves, and one deserves what he gets.” A great deal is obviously at stake here. So we had better not fail to make progress where and when we can find a chance to do so.

Publications: National Bus Trader.