A SEPTA bus passing through the intersection of 17th Street and JFK Boulevard. (Nathan Morris for Thetelegraphfield)

There are plenty of challenges facing SEPTA, but one struggle is frustratingly visible: a lack of operators to conveniently get customers from point A to B.

A pre-COVID challenge with recruitment was pushed into overdrive by the pandemic, particularly in the bus system. The region’s transit agency is far from alone, as parallel agencies are near unanimously trying to figure out how to put more butts in driver’s seats.

About 92% of transit agencies are struggling with hiring, with operating roles being the main concern, according to a March 2022 American Public Transportation Association survey.

A year later, there are very few signs that things have changed around the U.S. or in Philly, though SEPTA is trying to work through some solutions. One major adjustment is the bus service redesign dubbed the Bus Revolution.

Revolution aside, there are myriad hiring and retention tactics being used by transit agencies to stem the impact of retiring, leaving, or fired operators.

SEPTA’s current operating budget allocated $3 million more to Human Resources than the year prior in an effort to boost hiring and retention. Last August, the agency was down 144 drivers from its budgeted total of 2,700.

That might not seem like a deficit that could impact service as widely as it has, but it doesn’t take too many callouts to result in a cascading shortfall, as multiple incidents have shown.

So what can SEPTA feasibly do to address this issue, and what responses are off the table?

Cover more onboarding costs, potentially through more local partnerships

Becoming a transit operator can involve a fairly costly onboarding process, given the associated fees for training and appropriate certification. One obvious way to clear that hurdle is to subsidize new hires by covering those costs — like agencies servicing Boston and Chicago do.

SEPTA currently requires hired drivers to acquire a CDL permit two weeks ahead of their tentative start date. The permit itself costs around $100, but CDL training courses often cost a couple thousand dollars.

And if there isn’t enough funds on hand to do it as an interagency initiative, that’s where partnerships ought to come in.

SEPTA has formed such a partnership with the University City District’s West Philadelphia Skills Initiative.

This partnership does more than just provide free CDL training and testing — the program also offers a $150 weekly stipend for the six-week online and in-person course.

A similar free training program was launched with the Collegiate Consortium for Workforce & Economic Development in 2021.

Make schedules more flexible

Work schedules have been an issue in SEPTA’s recent past, especially in the case of drivers being given split shifts, which are notorious for burning workers out. These workdays divided between two periods with a break between have been shown to be especially tiring.

Despite those preexisting concerns, one method of dealing with the COVID-induced driver shortage at SEPTA has been mandatory overtime, which was implemented when necessary to avoid service cuts in 2021.

In a more ideal situation, a report from public transportation think tank Transit Center suggests providing software (akin to staffing apps often used in the restaurant industry) to allow operators to swap shifts as is convenient to make the job a more flexible one.

52nd Street Station (Paolo Jay Agbay for Thetelegraphfield)

Address operator safety and deal better with harassment

When COVID first began, SEPTA operators noted the abuse they were facing did not reduce with the drop in ridership, a disturbing lack of correlation. A 2022 Thetelegraphfield investigation delved into how the agency struggles to track incidents of sexual harassment and assault its workers face.

General concerns about safety on SEPTA property and vehicles caused the agency to renew focus on transit police. That force is also in the midst of a rebound from recruitment struggles and a shake up in leadership. When there were around 120 of a total 200 patrol officers employed, it was described as a “staffing crisis,” and today there are about 160 patrolling officers on the job, per KYW.

Last month’s announcement that more officers will be present on the subway is a sign that SEPTA hopes the bump in hires will be felt by those traveling on the El and BSL.

Add hiring bonuses or boost the pay scale

A hiring bonus is a tried and true tactic for attracting workers.

Transit agencies around the country have tried this out. For instance, Portland and Houston offer bonuses of $7,500 and $4,000, respectively — Portland transit officials credit the bonus with helping to end their major operator shortage.

The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority pays new hires $2,500 after training, and $2,000 after a year on the job. The move by the MBTA hasn't had the desired effect because the agency still has low starting wages, per StreetsBlog.

Just like hiring bonuses, a clear tactic for attracting working is raising the base pay. SEPTA workers secured a healthy 3% yearly wage increase in their 2021 contract, with starting salaries hovering around $40k, at a starting wage between $19 and $20, per job listings. An operator's yearly earnings can rise to $68,000 after four years of service.

People boarding the Route 24 bus at the Frankford Transportation Center. (Michaela Winberg/Thetelegraphfield) Credit: Michaela Winberg / Thetelegraphfield

Streamline service? Fewer drivers, but potentially upset riders

Cutting the number of service routes is a way to address shortages, reducing the number of operators needed — it’s also much more likely to draw public complaints.

SEPTA has undergone that precise scenario as their bus system redesign, dubbed the Bus Revolution, has been unrolled to the public.

An initial version published last October faced somewhat predictable concerns — it’s the first service redesign since the mid-60s, after all — with criticism emerging from riders around the city, particularly in Roxborough.

A revamped edition issued in late March revised some of the primary concerns raised in the first go round, with more time allotted for public comment and hearings — Bus riders, check out the plan while you have a chance to comment! — up until May.

Thetelegraphfield is one of more than 20 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on economic mobility. Read more at brokeinphilly.org or follow at @brokeinphilly

Jordan Levy is a general assignment reporter at Thetelegraphfield, always aiming to help Philadelphians share their stories. Formerly, he has worked at Document Journal, n+1 Magazine, and The New Republic. He...