The Labor Shortage In Public Transit: Can Technology Help To Mitigate The Problem?

The Labor Shortage In Public Transit: Can Technology Help To Mitigate The Problem?

The transit workforce shortage is a structural and widespread problem that affects transit providers of all sizes across the nation. Many of them would agree that their greatest challenge is the lack of labor workers, especially when it comes to operators, however, labor shortage in transit goes way beyond just bus or train operators. Transit agencies are struggling to fill in the position gaps for over two years now, despite life returning to normal after COVID-19 and there is no clear end to this ongoing issue. The results are at hand; missed services, low staff morale, loss of trained staff, increase in retirements, and passengers left with unreliable service. 

Let’s take a deeper dive into the impact of labor shortage, the statistics, the root causes, and what can be done in the future with the help of technology in order to mitigate this problem.

What do the statistics show?

Public transit is said to be gradually making a comeback in the U.S. after ridership declined as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Transit systems are reported to have surpassed 70% of their 2020 ridership levels, but severe shortages in public transit labor are currently hindering a complete recuperation.  

According to Swiftly’s State of Public Transit report for 2023, which analyzed staffing shortages based on surveys of over 100 transit agencies, it would seem that the deficit of workers in the transport sector is impacting almost every department within transit agencies. Shortages in operators are found to be most severe and present in 95% of agencies, while departments such as maintenance experience shortages of over 65% and sectors such as dispatch around 48%. As for areas such as customer service, it was concluded that more than a quarter of the surveyed agencies are functioning below full capacity at 40%. For other sectors such as operations, it was estimated that an average of 29% in labor shortages was recorded amongst agencies in regard to planning and 26% when it comes to scheduling. 

An alarming 71% of agencies report delays or cancellations in services due to labor shortages, a 6% increase from 2021. This has led to dissatisfaction among passengers who complain of waiting for ’’ghost’’ buses that never arrive.

What Are the Root Causes of Labor Shortages?

In October 2022, the APTA released its new report, “Transit Workforce Shortage: Root Causes, Potential Solutions, and the Road Ahead.” The study surveyed over 190 agencies and provided some very insightful data about the current workforce deficit in transit. According to the report, 96% of agencies are said to be experiencing labor shortages, with 84% of them stating that it’s affecting their ability to provide adequate service to customers. 

According to the findings, there are multiple factors driving the shortages. The most prominent revolves around the increase in retirement, inflexibility in working contracts and arrangements, unsatisfactory compensation, and general competition from other more attractive sectors and industries. Additional reasons discussed in the survey underline a poor work-life balance, long job application processes, lengthy working hours, and a stressful work environment. Increasing competition from private delivery employers is said to be a reason as well. 

Solving the Public Transit Workforce Shortage

The APTA has recommended several actions that will provide short- and long-term benefits for workforce development in the transit sector. The most crucial points revolve around topics such as increased compensation, improvements in work schedules, enforcing a positive work environment, and ensuring the safety of workers. Transit operators should also construct a better strategy for training programs as well as assess the effectiveness of hiring practices in order to increase recruitment success. A clearer and more concise path to promotions and benefits could also help with attracting more workers to the transit sector.

Creating attractive job opportunities 

APTA’s report further suggests that agencies could achieve better results by establishing employee recognition programs and improving amenities at agency facilities. The goal should be to upscale their hiring and recruiting capacities in order to hire and retain workers by improving workplace culture and wisely investing in pathways for advancement and professional growth. 

Another highlight is that initial salaries should be competitive and new hires should attain a median wage to ensure they stay on. Since the number of retirements increased after the pandemic, transit agencies now have the opportunity to hire younger operators so focusing on incentives like tuition assistance is a great way to boost interest. Establishing strategies and relationships with educational providers will further help set various internship programs in motion.  

One way transit agencies can fight worker shortages is to invest in technologies such as mobile hiring apps. These advanced apps can store candidate information and help attain new employees more efficiently while allowing existing employees to share referrals to job seekers. Hiring apps are incredibly beneficial since they combine recruitment and hiring process data to be stored in one place rather than spread across multiple sources, such as spreadsheets or online job boards. 

Improving safety for transit workers

Safety is another major issue making transit workers resign from the industry in fear of their personal safety. Improving operator safety is of critical importance according to the EPA’s report. Agencies must take tasks such as fare collection off the list of responsibilities for operators as it increases the risk of an employee being involved in an accident such as an assault. Creating a contactless ecosystem can help alleviate this pressure off workers since passengers will be able to tap and pay for their fares and there will be no (or significantly less) issuing of tickets. This will reduce boarding times as well as idling which means service will run faster, safer, and more efficiently.  

Upgrading public transit vehicles is also of great importance. Redesigning buses for instance, by moving the door back, away from the driver, and closing off the driver’s workstation is a great way to ensure better safety for drivers. Furthermore, transit operators can invest in newer and more advanced technology such as better CCTV and other security measures and improvements in infrastructure that will make facilities safer for both passengers and workers. 

The Role of Technology in Mass Transit 

With the emergence of intelligent transportation systems and the Internet of Things (IoT), the world is moving toward the next stage of urban mobility, with the help of technology. Smart transportation and the management of smart city traffic are reshaping how cities approach mobility and respond to emergencies while reducing congestion on city streets. This is achieved with the implication of sensors, advanced communication technologies, automation, and high-speed networks. Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) incorporate different technologies to monitor, evaluate, and manage various transport systems in order to enhance efficiency and safety.

Leveraging Smart Technology to fight labor shortages

Data sharing in the smart city

AI is an essential component of any smart city ecosystem and is used to emphasize the application of digital technology and shared knowledge for the benefit of public safety, health, mobility, and productivity. So how can it help with labor shortages in public transit? Big Data helps agencies make better, more strategic, and evidence-based decisions about their business, operations, costs, and employees. It provides valuable insight into what doesn’t work and what shortages are there so that they can take action toward resolving issues.  

What this essentially means is that transit agencies can solve a lot of internal problems relating to employees and operations with the help of technology. If implemented correctly, it can take the pressure off workers regarding certain administration and operational tasks by improving flow, efficiency, schedules, and organization so it makes sense that the working conditions will improve and employees will be far less likely to leave.

Advanced technology in transit will require more workers in different fields

Smart technologies hold the potential to solve a lot of the issues which are causing labor shortages in public transit. One way this will be done is by creating new job opportunities. As the adoption of new and emerging technologies in transit increases, agencies will need extra helping hands in keeping all this high-tech equipment and software up-to-date and running. Advanced technologies in public transportation, particularly AI, will require the skills of professionals such as developers, technicians, analysts, and administrators to help maintain them and bring their benefits to customers, employees, and transit operators.

Smart technology creates a safer and more efficient transport ecosystem

With the help of Smart technology, transit operators and city planners can have better control over city areas that they service and gain valuable real-time data and information about potential accidents, the condition of roads, regulations of traffic, parking spots, and driver monitoring. All of these combined will create a much safer and more efficient ecosystem, for everyone, including transit employees in the public sector. Their working conditions and environment will improve, and they will experience less stress. Additionally, with smart transportation being integrated into city networks, more people will be inclined to use public transit, and there will be more need for drivers, operators, and maintenance staff. 

Smart transportation is cost-effective

Smart Transportation is also cost-effective for transit agencies since it makes better use of the resources available. It cuts down on costs due to its preventative maintenance, lower consumption of energy, and fewer resources used for accidents. With better management comes greater efficiency and the money that transit agencies save can be invested towards hiring more qualified personnel, increasing the pay and benefits of current workers, or investing in better, more modern transport vehicles or tech which will make their employee’s jobs better.  

While the implementation of new tech in transit will not solve the issue of labor shortages altogether, it’s a good step in the right direction for agencies looking to retain new workers as well as keep their current staff. The best course of action is considered to be a traditional approach of improving things internally within the agency and optimizing those efforts with the help of advanced technologies which are now readily available.