BOSTON (State House News Service) — As part of its bus driver recruitment efforts, the MBTA this week launched a pilot program under which potential drivers would no longer need to have a commercial driver's license permit already in hand and instead would get that training as part of the T's regular new bus driver training course.
Federal investigators estimate the MBTA is up to 2,000 employees short of the workforce it needs to run its intended service levels, but it's far from the only transportation agency that is struggling to recruit and retain workers. Workforce shortages were the main focus Tuesday of the Regional Transit Authority Council, which batted around potential reforms to the state and federal commercial license systems with Transportation Secretary Jamey Tesler. The secretary highlighted how crucial commercial driver's licenses (CDLs) are to the MBTA, RTAs, the shipping industry and more.
"We need more CDLs in the market," Tesler said in response to an RTA administrator's comments about doing more to train drivers even if it means they end up working for another transit agency or in another industry. He added, "I think what we need to do is challenge ourselves beyond what we're comfortable with. Take the risk. You just said it, at the end of the day if there are more people driving, there are more people driving and we're all going to be better off. And we're going to need that. We're gonna need a bigger industry two years from today, three years from today, four years from today. So what we need to do is take those risks that get more people licensed and driving. And then even if we lose some people on the way from each of our own places, collectively we're better."
The push to make the CDL process smoother at the MBTA and RTAs comes as the Baker administration has been urging lawmakers since 2019 to adopt new commercial driver's license safety requirements. The administration started to press for changes to the CDL process in the wake of a fatal New Hampshire crash that involved a commercial driver whose license was supposed to have been suspended by the Mass. RMV.
The MBTA used to require that bus driver candidates already have a CDL permit before they were hired, but the agency "has moved aggressively this summer to change its process" as it faces an extended shortage of drivers, chief human resources officer Tom Waye said. Waye said that the T has been seeing strong interest among potential applicants at in-person job fairs, but then runs into "a lot of dropoff in our process flow for applicants to get themselves qualified" to drive.
"We had a number of individuals who are beginning that two weeks of training to get them prepared for the test. And then once they are qualified in that, on that hurdle, they will then be put into our standard training operations for bus," he said. "Again, we view this as a significant game-changer because that was our challenge, we needed to put forth a little skin in the game in terms of engaging these applicants more discretely and helping them."
The cost of a CDL training course, which an applicant previously would have had to have completed on their own, is roughly $4,500 with another roughly $75 for the permit itself, Waye said. And the T is also offering a $4,500 signing bonus of bus operators (paid after one year on the job).
"We want to do a value proposition to them, right. So we're offering them not only the training costs, we're giving them a sign-on bonus, we're actually also giving them an improved training pay while they're going through this process," Waye said. "And outside of them trying to do that, I think we are offering a better opportunity and to benefit them."
Representatives from two RTAs -- Nantucket RTA Administrator Paula Leary and Vineyard Transit Authority Administrator Angie Gompert -- were flush with other CDL-related ideas that they said would make it easier for their island transit agencies to find drivers. On Nantucket, one of the issues is that the Registry of Motor Vehicles is still operating only on an appointment basis.
"If you have to go back two or three times to get a CDL license and the paperwork and the testing, that can be six to nine weeks. We make the appointment, it's a couple of weeks, or we have to pay to send them to Yarmouth. And then you can make an appointment and there's nothing for another three weeks," Leary said. "And so we get stuck in that RMV cycle."
Tesler, a former head of the RMV, said he was aware of the concern but that the Nantucket RMV is a "very limited operation" that tries to balance all sorts of customer needs.
Leary did make one suggestion Tuesday that Tesler seemed to agree with and said he would give more thought to: "Can we pull an RTA card and say, 'Hey, we're a transit authority,'" she said. "I mean, is there something that could be set up to say, 'Hey, we have five people that need to go in. We're a transit authority, we're trying to put service on the road.' You know, is there a trump card? Is there an ace in the pocket?"
Gompert, from Martha's Vineyard's RTA, said that Massachusetts makes it "extremely difficult" to add to a CDL once a driver has earned it, which means that potential RTA drivers face an additional hurdle to getting behind the wheel of a bus.
"Many Class A truckers don't do over-the-road anymore because the hours are too long, or they're too far away from home for too long, but they would consider doing transit. But in Massachusetts, if you have a Class A license, you have to retake the entire skills test. It's overkill," she said.
Gompert said another factor that slows down the CDL process for potential RTA drivers is that the State Police does not always have troopers available to conduct the CDL tests. She suggested to Tesler that the RTAs should be allowed to train, test and permit drivers themselves, with oversight from the state.
"While that's a big ask, it's also going to give us the biggest return in the shortest period of time to meet the demand that's out there," Gompert said.
Tesler asked other RTA representatives to bring back their own ideas, particularly "challenging" ones that might really shake things up.
"There are things both federally or certainly on the state side that we can make better. It's just that it's going to be a challenge for a long period of time. So I encourage all of us to bring challenging ideas to the table, we welcome them," the secretary said. "We're gonna have to do some things differently. We're gonna have to do some things that we did not sort of set out to do. But if we kind of keep doing things the way we're doing, I think we're going to be short on people."
Written by Colin Young/SHNS.