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Chicago on the hunt for taxi recruits

Chicago is short 2,000 cab drivers, according to City Hall. To get more recruits in the driver’s seat, the city co-hosted Thursday’s Taxi Driver Recruitment Day at Olive Harvey College.

There, Mayor Rahm Emanuel awarded longtime cab driver Imran Mirza with the Taxicab Driver Excellence Award. The other prize that Mirza gets? A taxi medallion.

A medallion is a city license to own and operate a cab, and having one could change Mirza’s life in a big way. “I felt great,” said Mirza. “After so many years of hard work, I’m very happy.”

Mirza played it cool, but the truth is, most of the city’s 6,600 cab drivers don’t have medallions because they’re too expensive, costing around $360,000 each.

Most drivers lease their cabs from medallion owners, and only take home what they earn after paying the lease and for gas. Mirza did that for 14 years, starting work at 5:30 a.m. and working 12-hour days.

Mirza said becoming a cab owner will bring big changes to his family of five. “Being an owner, it gives you more flexibility, and you’re making your own decisions and you can depend on something,” he explained,  “And it’s good in another way that I can have another driver.”

Mirza hopes his fortune inspires others to get into the business, and so does the city. Rosemary Krimbel, Commissioner of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection, says there’s been a steady decline of drivers in recent years.

Krimbel thinks part of that may be due to perceptions about the job. “Cab drivers, sometimes they take the job part-time while they’re going through college, and then maybe they just kind of end up [driving taxis],” she said. “I want it to be a choice. I don’t want this to be a job that you end up doing because you can’t find anything else. I want you to choose to be a cab driver.”

Krimbel says the mandatory public chauffeur training for taxi drivers has been revamped to focus more on customer service. She says she wants people to think of cab driving not as a job — but as a “profession.”

“Not me, I’m just doing it to pay for my school,” said 22-year old Northeastern Illinois University student Hocine Drouche. “Whenever I’m done, I’ll just go and work whatever I want to work.”

Several attendees at the recruitment fair said they were students, too, hoping to earn some income while they study. So it may take time to change the perception of cab driving to more than a backup option.

As for Imran Mirza?

“To tell you the truth,” he said, “nobody will come here and say ‘I’m going to be a cab driver for the next 40 years.’ I don’t think so. But it’s a good middle step, I would say. And it keeps your family going.”

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