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Driver Recruitment and Retention – Update

Last Updated on: 17th May 2022, 09:46 am

Background

OSTA’s Operators have had many challenges recruiting and retaining drivers for a number of years.  COVID 19 is exacerbating the driver shortage because drivers fear getting sick, or infecting their vulnerable loved ones, among other reasons.  Consequently, hundreds of students have been affected by long-term route cancellations over the past 2 years as Operators do not have enough spare drivers to cover open routes.  As they recruit new drivers, experienced drivers are quitting or going on long-term medical leaves.

OSTA and its Operators are in this together and it is only by working together to find solutions that we will collectively be able to stabilize our services.  OSTA staff continues to redesign routes and Operators are prioritizing rural and needy schools for coverage whenever possible.

While OSTA is responsible for delivering student transportation services, drivers are actually the employees of the Operators contracted to OSTA.  Consequently, OSTA’s ability to influence the operational coverage is limited to route planning and re-design, as well as contract compliance.  Driver compensation, working hours, hiring, training and discipline are wholly within the purview of Operators.

OSTA staff presented a lengthy report to the OSTA Board of Directors regarding the historical reasons and progression of OSTA’s driver shortage, which can also be applied to other jurisdictions.

OSTA has assisted Operators in getting the word out by:

  1. Creating a recruitment webpage to collect contact information from individuals interested in becoming a bus driver
  2. Creating and distributing flyers to schools and through all our channels
  3. Paying for radio ad campaigns to drive traffic to the recruitment landing page
  4. Mentioning the recruitment page during every media interview
  5. Featuring operator recruitment videos in our social media channels

Operators have conducted the following recruitment and retention initiatives:

  1. Promotional videos
  2. Print ads on OC Transpo buses, on billboards, in magazines
  3. Social media campaigns
  4. Flyers through schools
  5. Posted in Indeed
  6. Recruitment, training and attendance bonuses

OSTA also contracted a communications specialist to create a strategy for dealing with this driver shortage crisis.  Staff are currently working on the operational plan.

Current Situation

Research

OSTA has been conducting some research to determine the current state of affairs with the driver shortage, as well as preparing a plan to bolster our Operator’s efforts in recruitment and retention.  There are a number of areas OSTA is investigating:

  1. Why did our current drivers choose this job?  Understanding this would help create recruitment campaigns with a more targeted message.
  2. What would current drivers like to change about their job?
  3. What happened with the 560+ potential driver candidates OSTA attracted to its recruitment webpage through various means over the past 18 months? 
  4. How many potential driver candidates did OSTA attract to its recruitment page in the past 6 months?
  5. Are potential driver candidates located relatively closely to schools that need service the most?
  6. How many potential driver candidates have Operators contacted and how many drivers stayed to complete the training?  How many drivers in training did not follow through to complete the training, or quit shortly after starting to drive a route?
  7. What are the qualifications to be a bus driver and what are the steps to become a driver assigned to a route?  What are the barriers along the way that cause a driver-in-training to quit?
  8. What does the driver of the future want from a job?  Is the bus driver job a match?  Will OSTA need to make changes to the way it delivers service to meet the “driver of the future’s” expectations?

As the research progresses and these questions are answered, OSTA can work with the Operators to develop a more effective recruitment and retention strategy.

Current Drivers

OSTA conducted a driver survey to determine:

  1. Why they became drivers in the first place and what they love about their job.
  2. What the most significant things they would change about their job were.

OSTA offered 20 gift cards valued at $50 each (Walmart, gas, etc) for any drivers who submitted their name and contact info.  All responses are confidential and the survey accepted anonymous submissions as well.

OSTA received responses from 406 yellow bus and wheelchair bus drivers, or more than two-thirds of the fleet, which is an excellent response rate. There were only 30 van drivers who responded.  This is not a large enough sample from which to draw any conclusions.

Twenty options relating to the positive aspects of the job were presented around the compensation, the job structure, community aspects, work hours, care of their own children, etc, as well as an “other” category.

In the section regarding what drivers would change, twenty options were provided from which to select the number 1,2 and 3 things they would change, including scheduling of route and route structure, bus technology (cameras, paperless), compensation, health benefits, hours of work, etc, as well as an “other” category.

Another section allowed drivers to submit a short story of why they decided to become bus drivers.

Observations

  • The majority of respondents listed the same top 3 reasons they became drivers: a) the job fits their lifestyle, b) they like have their weekends and summers off, c) they love kids
  • Contributing to their community was very important.
  • Drivers generally enjoy being “out and about” and driving.  Being connected to their employer and feeling like part of a team is also important.
  • Very few listed this would be a great way to gain experience for a future driving job.  This is significant because Operators have stated that drivers are leaving to find full time work or better paying driving jobs elsewhere.
  • Very few listed the fact they could bring their own kids to school or their pre-schoolers with them to work as a significant reason they chose or enjoy being a bus driver.  This is significant because current ad campaigns are designed to recruit stay-at-home parents with the advantage being they can bring their kids with them.

OSTA then divided the responses based on years of service to see if drivers’ reasons for becoming a driver were different.  (Note: There is no way to gauge the age demographic based on years of service).

  • Regardless of the years of service, a majority of the respondents listed the same top 3 reasons they became drivers: a) the job fits their lifestyle, b) they like having their weekends and summers off, c) they love kids. 
  • Those with less than one year of service had a very strong desire to serve their community.  This would be reflective of recent messaging about the driver shortage and students not getting to school.

Top 6 things drivers would like to change:

Observations

  • Better pay and health benefits are the top two things drivers would change, with stop-arm cameras being #3.
  • If we group bus technology-related answers (stop-arm cameras, internal cameras, going paperless), having technology on the bus actually closely matches “better pay” as the top thing drivers would change
  • Few respondents stated they wanted full time hours.  This is significant because Operators have stated that drivers are leaving to find full-time work elsewhere.

Top 6 things drivers would like to change by years of service:

OSTA’s Next Steps

  1. OSTA is requesting quotes from 3 health benefit providers to gauge whether a basic health benefit group could be formed for Ottawa drivers.  Potentially, OSTA, the Operators and Drivers could share the cost of premiums.  Should this be a possibility, OSTA will conduct competitive procurement to select a provider.
  2. OSTA has reached out to two advertising agencies to create a small recruitment ad campaign to be deployed in the next 2 months, utilizing electronic channels.  These will use the results of the driver survey for core messaging.
  3. OSTA is currently working towards the implementation of a bus technology platform that includes stop-arm cameras (no enforcement), internal cameras, tablets, GPS, ridership app and bus location app.

Bus Driver Preparedness Course – OCSB Continuing Education

The OCSB Continuing Education ran a Bus Driver Preparedness Course in the winter of 2020 and fall of 2021.  There are plans to run another session in the spring of 2022.  So far, 15 participants have completed the course, 6 of whom graduated in 2021.

OSTA’s Next Steps

  1.  OSTA will distribute the course recruitment flyer through all its channels, as well as through school channels.

Operator Driver Training and Status

Operators send a weekly coverage report to OSTA that explains to which routes they are allocating spare drivers, which routes have temporary coverage using route-doubling or route-splitting, which routes have long-term cancellations and which routes are expected to be taken over by a driver in training in the near future.  The recruitment success rate is 59% with 41% washing out of the training program.

Operators report fielding more than 350 inquiries regarding becoming a bus driver since September 2021.  Some of these inquiries were initiated through OSTA’s driver recruitment web page, which received 193 submissions. Operators report hiring 138 new drivers and losing 132 experienced drivers during the same time period.  OSTA is currently ahead by 6 drivers. We need 30 more drivers to cover the current service and 120+ drivers to cover next year’s full service.

Issues with Ministry of Transportation

Operators report a number of issues getting driver candidates’ paperwork and testing through the MTO processing centres.  This includes criminal reference checks, medical paperwork and subsequent follow-ups, licensing and the testing centre.  The MTO relies on fax machines for paperwork, which is often lost or illegible.  This requires multiple follow-up calls and re-submissions of paperwork.

Larger Operators have their own in-house testing staff, which streamlines this part of the process.  However, mid-sized and small Operators rely on the MTO testing sites for their driver candidates.  The MTO has contracted out the testing function to a third-party vendor.  The MTO, like any other workplace, is also having staffing issues, which further adds to delays.

Operators report that the testing has changed recently, and testers are asking drivers extremely rare and difficult questions that really don’t relate to the day-to-day operation of their vehicle.  They are also failing drivers who don’t consistently repeat certain phrases after every question.  This is not unique to the Ottawa region, as other consortia throughout the province have reported similar experiences.  OSTA has learned that this has also been a complaint from the firefighters as well, so this is not unique to school bus drivers either.

The failure rate for drivers at these testing sites has increased.  Drivers who have failed, and require to be retested, often quit instead of going through any follow-up training and retesting. 

OSTA Next Steps

  1. OSTA has reported this to the Ministry of Education and to the representative of the Ministry of Transportation OASBO liaison.  The MOE has an inside contact at MTO and when an Operator reports a delay, they send the driver’s information to OSTA (with the driver’s explicit permission), who send it to MOE who then tries to get the clearance expedited through MTO.
  • OSTA will investigate how elected officials could be engaged in promoting change at the MTO to modernize their processes and prioritize bus drivers for clearance.

OSTA Recruitment Web Page

In the past 18 months, more than 560 individuals have requested to get in touch with Operators to find out more about becoming a bus driver.  While this seems like more than enough potential candidates to cover the open routes, Operators reported that many of the individuals did not have the basic qualifications to proceed with training, while others did not like the terms of employment.

Candidates in Training September to December 2021 
Candidates that started training and quit before finishing the training24
Candidates that were let go because they did not demonstrate the necessary skills to finish the training or be acceptable drivers14
Candidates whose route start date was delayed due to MTO delays and quit36
Drivers, who finally got through the training and licensing, quit before taking a route10
Drivers, who finally got through the training and licensing, quit within weeks after starting a new route10
Total driver candidates who were qualified for training and did not continue as a bus driver94

That being said, some Operators also stated that OSTA’s recruitment page, and recruitment activities such as distributing electronic flyers through our channels, were some of the most effective tools for generating leads.

From August 2021 to date, OSTA has received 193 inquiries for Operators.  When we cross-reference potential driver candidate locations to schools with long-term cancellations, however, we can see that there is a dearth of interested candidates in rural areas. 

OSTA Next Steps

  1.  OSTA is engaging a research company to produce and distribute a survey to collect information from the potential candidates themselves to find out why they did not proceed with becoming a bus driver.
  • OSTA will be re-designing its recruitment landing page to clearly describe the basic qualifications and requirements to become a bus driver with the hopes of pre-qualifying the interested parties.  Then, the page will highlight the Operators’ websites and recruitment links more effectively.  The page will continue to have a link to a contact collection sheet.

The Driver of the Future

Who is the driver of the future?  If OSTA and its Operators once relied on retirees to fill the role, and we know the retirees are quitting in droves right now, is it wise to continue recruitment efforts aimed at this demographic?  On the other hand, Ottawa’s age demographics show that there will be a wave of retirees in the next 5 years and it would seem to make sense to continue targeting that demographic. 

New Canadians have also been a target for recruitment campaigns.  The plan is to initiate them to driving, give them enough experience over a period of a few years on an enhanced part-time basis, and then move on to full-time jobs elsewhere.  Looking at current drivers with 1 to 5 years of experience, however, not many anticipate leaving to find full-time work.  Even less likely those in the 6+ years of experience.

Stay-at-home parents have been another recruitment target.  Yet current drivers have not expressed the advantage of taking their kids to work with them as being a primary reason they became a driver in the first place (less than 3%).  When reviewing Ottawa’s work demographics, stay-at-home parents (particularly mothers) who wish to work part-time, are already working.  There are certainly plenty of part-time jobs available in the market that remain unfilled.

How has COVID changed the intentions of workers in Ottawa’s labour market? Will retirees change their plans in terms of work, travel, staying home?  Will parents with school-aged or pre-school children work from home part-time, rather than taking an external job so they are available for “pivoting” school scenarios?  Has the potential for saving money during shut-downs and restrictions, or learning to live within a reduced budget, eliminating the need for supplementary income?

It is crucial that OSTA, and its Operators, have a good sense of who the driver of the future will be, and what they want/expect from their job, before investing in ad campaigns and incentives.

OSTA’s Next Steps

  1. OSTA will be hiring a research company to conduct research in the Ottawa labour market to gauge the level of interest in qualified people to become a bus driver.  They will identify target demographics for those most interested and most likely to pursue this option, as well as reveal their expectations.  The research will also reveal the barriers that prevents them from pursuing this job.
  • This research company will also conduct a series of four focus groups with a variety of target demographics, with one being wholly for rural demographics.

Recruitment Campaigns

OSTA recently released a new recruitment video that was created in partnership with Envirocentre. This video has been distributed widely through OSTA channels, to schools, and to Trustees.  Envirocentre has distributed it through their social media as well. 

Recruitment is an ongoing process, however, there are some key times throughout the year when it makes sense to invest in additional promotion and marketing.  At this time, OSTA is more inclined to focus on campaigns and messaging that raise the profile of the bus driver job.  By emphasizing the positive aspects of the job, and drivers’ contributions, rather than outright recruitment, messaging acts as a retention tool as well as increasing visibility of the job itself.

The next true recruitment push will occur in June, in preparation for September 2022 start-up.  This timing reminds current drivers to come back to the job, as well as engaging new drivers to join the fleet.  Training occurs over the summer.

OSTA’s Next Steps

  1.  OSTA is requesting quotes from three marketing/recruitment firms for a short-term recruitment campaign that will utilize electronic channels.  The goal is to have a new campaign out by Easter.
  • OSTA will also request quotes from three marketing/recruitment firms for a more fulsome recruitment campaign, which the Operators have agreed to partially fund.  This campaign will be based on the “driver of the future” research.  The goal is to have this campaign out by the end of June.

Retention

The drivers who are quitting are a) afraid of COVID, b) taking extended leave for medical reasons or c) fed up with being a driver (or basically fed up altogether and making a change).  There isn’t much OSTA can do about drivers who require medical leaves.  The other two reasons, however, are mostly a “frame of mind”, and OSTA does have the opportunity to influence drivers’ commitment to staying on board.

Connecting with drivers is one of the strategic objectives OSTA has identified in its plan.  We know that drivers may be feeling isolated in their jobs because of COVID protocols and restrictions.  They can’t gather with their fellow drivers or hang out in their dispatch area.  There’s a degree of separation that is inherent in the job, but now that separation is imbued with fear. 

OSTA’s Next Steps

  1. OSTA will create an electronic newsletter that will be shared with Operators, describing some of the activities OSTA has been up to to assist drivers.  This will be especially important during the transition to bus technology.
  • OSTA will ask Operators to distribute video messages and other community-based messaging through their channels.  While some drivers are likely to be signed up for OSTA’s Twitter/Facebook or may even be an email subscriber, the Operator has the most direct messaging link with their drivers.
  • OSTA will be distributing $10 Tim cards with a special message from the GM/CAO to all drivers.
  • OSTA will be creating and distributing more content exhorting the positive attributes of drivers and their job by highlighting drivers who have expressed an interest in sharing their story.

Driver Compensation

OSTA has received many comments like “just pay the drivers more”.  OSTA is not responsible for setting driver wages.  In other consortia, they have included a wage minimum in their contracts that range from $18-$22/hr. Consequently, their overall costs have increased, and some still experience driver shortages (mostly due to COVID). OSTA’s Operators are currently advertising their hourly rate as $18.95/hour, although some guarantee minimum hours which effectively increases the compensation rate depending on the length of the route. This rate has not changed since the start of the school year.  The Ministry’s Driver Retention Program also pays drivers up to $2000 per year for good attendance or an estimated additional $3 per hour.

OSTA had provided Operators with funding for a driver wage enhancement a few years ago.  Some Operators declined the cash.  Others accepted the additional funds and applied them to their drivers’ wages.  After spending close to $1M, the average driver wage in the Ottawa market increased approximately $0.75cents.  The good news is that wages have increased significantly in the past 10 years, from an average of $9/hr 15 years ago to almost $19/hr today.

The following table demonstrates the additional budget pressures an incremental increase of $1 per hour, and more, could occur should OSTA decide to implement a contractual requirement for minimum compensation requirements.  Please note, the hours used in this table are only the ones recorded in OSTA’s system for live routes.  The additional time drivers get paid for circle checks, driving to and from yards, minimum guaranteed hours, spares, etc is not included in this calculation. 

Furthermore, the increased wages Operators would feel compelled to pay dispatchers and other office staff to prevent grid compression (of sorts) is also not included. The employer’s contributions for remittance to CRA would also increase. The actual additional budget pressure would likely be 50% more than the amounts listed, not to mention any cost of living increases to match the Consumer Price Index which has risen over 5% and continues to rise.

Operators may advertise the same pay rates, but how they calculate the driver’s work time and what qualifies as “work time” is different from Operator to Operator.  It is not entirely clear to potential driver candidates how they will get paid and must learn the system before they can make an informed decision.  Operators now present the total potential compensation a driver might receive for performing a route, but the hourly rate that is applied may change depending on the job function.  A driver may receive a different rate for cleaning their bus, then for driving their bus, or certain “minutes” for waiting between schools versus drive time, or a different bonus for good attendance or completing training.  Some get paid for PA days and snow days, and some may only get a portion of their pay or none at all.

Conclusion

As OSTA continues to implement changes like new bell times and a transportation confirmation process to contract the system, the plan is to continue supporting and assisting Operators in their recruitment and retention efforts.  The bus driver’s job is critically important and OSTA’s role is sharing that story far and wide.