The recruiting line: Some Western Slope transit agencies using pay raises, incentives to help recruit drivers

Scott Franz
Steamboat Springs Transit passengers load and unload at the Gondola Transit Center in 2014.
Scott Franz

— Bus services across the Western Slope race each year to get enough drivers to carry millions of passengers. This year though, some transit agencies are finding the annual recruiting effort especially difficult.

As the economy improves, skilled workers have more options than driving a bus including higher paying jobs in industries like construction and oil and gas. Here’s a look at how bus services in resort areas like Steamboat Springs are facing the challenge this year.

ECO Transit, Eagle County

Eagle County’s bus service is hoping the reintroduction of a $250 recruitment bonus and a $500 end-of-season bonus along with some new employee housing entices more seasonal drivers to apply and stay with the service.

But in mid-December, the service was struggling on the hiring front.

“We’re currently 240 driver hours short per week,” transportation director Kelley Collier said.

She said overtime costs are mounting and employees were having to juggle multiple positions because the bus service was six seasonal drivers short in mid-December.

Drivers start at $18.54 at ECO Transit.

The service is funded by a half-cent sales tax, fares and advertising revenue.

Free Ride, Breckenridge

This ski town’s bus service was late in its effort to get to full staffing levels this year.

The final two seasonal drivers were expected to go through orientation Tuesday.

“Normally, we would be fully staffed by mid-October,” Free Ride manager Maribeth Lewis-Baker said. “It’s been very, very difficult this year. We’ve had to adapt. We’ve got one route we didn’t start up.”

Lewis-Baker points to national trends as the reason places like Breckenridge are struggling in the recruiting game.

“In talking to a national (commercial driver’s license) temp agency, apparently our profession is more than 250,000 operators short,” she said. “It’s a systemic problem for the entire country, not isolated to our region or the resorts.”

Breckenridge’s bus service pays its drivers $15 per hour when they get their CDL and start to drive.

The town rewards drivers who stick with the job for the entire winter season, and they get a merit pay increase if they return to drive the next winter.

The bus service is funded by Breckenridge’s general fund.

Roaring Fork Transportation Authority

With expanded bus service, RFTA had to hire more than 50 seasonal employees this winter.

The authority anticipated a tight labor market this year and upped its starting pay from $17.22 an hour to $18.

“And that was huge I think in attracting people and trying to stay competitive,” operations manager John Hocker said.

Hocker said he was “pleasantly surprised” at the recruiting success RFTA has had so far this season.

While he thinks the higher pay rate helped successfully fill the ranks, he said he felt the availability of workforce housing was the “biggest thing” for the transit agency because rents in the Roaring Fork Valley are rising.

“It’s only a 15- to 20-minute walk from our facility,” Hocker said about the housing units owned by the city of Aspen where there are 20 beds reserved for transit drivers.

In addition to providing service in the cities of Aspen and Glenwood Springs, RFTA provides commuter bus service between the two cities and from Glenwood to Rifle. It also provides ski shuttle service to the four Aspen Skiing Co. ski areas.

RFTA is its own taxing entity that pulls funding from sales tax revenue.

Summit Stage

Summit County’s bus service had 59 of its 65 drivers ready in mid-December.

“Like everyone, we’ve been struggling to entice people to apply,” Summit Stage Director Jim Andrew said. “We’re not hurting though. All of our basic work is covered. But we still would like to fill those remaining positions.”

New employment ads for the bus service tout a pay increase to $16.89 per hour for starting drivers.

Andrew said his transportation service is a little different from that of other resort areas because it focuses on recruiting year-round drivers, even during the winter.

“To some extent, we’re kind of victims of this improving economy,” Andrew said. “Because of the economy recovering, everyone is having trouble recruiting employees. It’s probably not just the bus systems but also the ski resorts.”

Andrew said 80 percent of the bus service’s budget is funded by a three-quarter cent sales tax.

The service carried 1.8 million passengers last year and is on pace this year to outperform those numbers.

The Mountain Express, Crested Butte

Chris Larsen said that a number of years ago, the bus service he oversees was having recruiting challenges.

“My board of directors decided to offer a really nice benefits package for drivers, and the more seasons they work, the better it gets,” he said.

For example, seasonal bus drivers who have worked more than 10 seasons get health insurance year round.

Today, hiring challenges aren’t impacting the service. But interest in the job among new recruits is fading.

He said the service hired six new drivers this year, and he noticed there weren’t as many applications as in previous years.

“We normally get two to three times as many applications as we need. This year, we only got eight,” he said. “The economy is picking up. Building is picking up, and there are a lot of construction jobs that pay more than we do.”

Mountain Express drivers earn $15 per hour when they start.

The bus service is funded by a 1 percent sales tax from both Crested Butte and Mount Crested Butte.

It also receives funding from a 1 percent tax on lift tickets sold in Mount Crested Butte.

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