A deep dive into the pandemic-related bus shortages that have hit Orange County this year


Throughout the fall semester of 2021, Chapel Hill Transit and Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools struggled to address bus driver shortages.

As a result, there has been a general reduction in transit operations at UNC and an increase in travel times from forty-five minutes to one hour and fifteen minutes for students on CHCCS buses. With Chapel Hill Transit’s temporary service changes from late September still in effect today, many wonder what progress has been made in meeting the demand for new drivers.

Brad Johnson, director of transportation at CHCCS and Brian Litchfield, director of Chapel Hill Transit, said the bus driver shortage crisis had complex origins. However, they highlighted the impact of COVID-19, which has changed the labor market for drivers by altering the demand for drivers.

“We had a trend in this direction before the pandemic,” Johnson said. “The pandemic has only exacerbated the problem. “

Johnson added that the transition to work and home shopping made work for other companies – notably Amazon and FedEx – more attractive to commercial drivers. As a result, he said, the driver market has become much more competitive, with several transit services struggling to attract a limited number of applicants.

“Before the pandemic, Chapel Hill Transit averaged between 400 and 500 applicants with little to no publicity in a year,” Litchfield said. “In the last 10 months, we have received around 100 applicants with aggressive advertising. “

Another problem for transport services has been the extensive training required for drivers.

“Even if we start to get people to apply, it will take a few more months to train them,” said Pro Mayor Tem Michael Parker. “You need a commercial driver’s license to drive a bus – we’ll help them get those licenses, but it takes time. “

In addition, not all applicants become employees. According to Litchfield, only one in 20 candidates becomes a member of the team, which is not enough to replace the losses of frontline and technical staff at Chapel Hill Transit.

Johnson and Litchfield both mentioned efforts by their respective organizations to attract new bus drivers, which they said were aimed at responding to the more competitive market.

“[CHCCS] has developed an aggressive global recruitment and retention strategy in which we offer a signing bonus of $ 4,000 to people who come to work with us, ”said Johnson. “There are various things we do to attract and retain drivers. “

Other efforts to attract more drivers include a $ 2,000 bonus for employees who recommend new drivers, 40-hour workweek opportunities, and an increased signing bonus of $ 4,000.

Litchfield said Chapel Hill Transit has also made salary adjustments in an effort to become more competitive and attract new employees. However, he said those efforts were not enough.

“Our rates have not kept up with the market for public sector operators and mechanics and are well below most private sector compensation opportunities,” Litchfield said. “We continue to work with the city on salary adjustment options and other retention and recruiting options. “

According to Parker, Chapel Hill Transit remains more than 30 drivers below the desired total. Litchfield and Parker both said they believe the shortage is likely to remain an issue going forward.

“It’s not something that can be fixed in a week or two,” Parker said. “It’s going to take a long time until we can get back to normal. “

@HarrisonGGummel

@DTHCityState | [email protected]

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