Qwame Dean sat in a large conference room on a recent Saturday morning and waited for a presentation on how to apply for the Chicago Transit Authority to start.
A university coordinator had told Dean about the CTA hiring event, one of several the understaffed agency recently hosted. “I used to always ride the bus, so I thought why not try to drive it. Since they [are] hiring, I thought, let me try it,” Dean explained.
The agency was offering $28.99 as starting pay for bus drivers and $40.59 for mechanics. Eventually, Dean said, he’d want to be a mechanic.
On this particular morning, hundreds of people like Dean cycled through the CTA job fair in the West Loop.
The CTA has been pushing hiring fairs as a way to fill hundreds of vacancies — vacancies it blames for service delays and filthy trains that have been testing the patience of Chicago commuters. The agency has sweetened the pot for prospective job candidates in the past few months, offering to cover the cost of taking classes ahead of the road test for the commercial drivers license, rolling out hiring bonuses and increasing starting pay.
But is it enough to compete with Amazon and other delivery services that are also scooping up drivers? A walk through the fair showed CTA’s latest push is attracting more interest, even if some observers say efforts may be coming late.
Keith Hill, president of the local union that represents bus drivers, attended the buzzing fair, his fifth lately. “Staffing levels are low because [CTA] didn’t hire during COVID-19,” said Hill. “Everybody took a break. Attrition continued through COVID, so they are digging themselves out of a hole now.”
The union president had just wrapped up a talk in the main conference room and was standing in a hallway. He said he was surprised by the crowd that turned up to the most recent fair the last weekend of January. “I’ve never seen this many people come for an opportunity than I saw today,” said Hill, adding that this is what the CTA should be doing from now on if it wants to remain competitive in this job market.
While the CTA did acknowledge a pause in hiring from the start of the pandemic in April 2020 through mid-summer, agency spokesperson Kathleen Woodruff said it resumed hiring in late July of that year.
According to hiring figures of bus operators provided to WBEZ in an email, CTA hired 193 in 2020, 308 in 2021 and 435 in 2022. It is not clear how many of those positions were full-time versus part-time hires. Woodruff said that, starting in 2022, the agency only hired on a full-time basis.
But for the country’s second largest transit agency, the days of simply posting a “Now Hiring” notice on its website are long gone. Positions that used to be super competitive now remain open and unfilled for months.
The CTA has said its workforce shortages have put a drain on its ability to provide routine service. The lack of bus operators and mechanics have made it nearly impossible to keep the buses on time, the agency recently told WBEZ in response to a mostly anecdotal survey of nearly 2,000 public transit riders.
Nearly all of the issues, from delayed buses to dirty trains, that frustrated riders, the agency said, can be boiled down to this one issue.
The CTA, the second largest transit agency in the country, was one of the only transit systems that didn’t reduce service during the peak of the pandemic — even as many people transitioned to working from home. As bus drivers fell sick, the agency pulled from its reserves — a small pool of recently retired bus drivers the agency reaches out to when drivers call off.
But eventually that well had been tapped too. Three hundred bus drivers who were previously under temporary status have been transitioned to full time — and that still wasn’t enough to address the shortage.
The CTA needs to hire 600 bus operators this year, according to its big Meeting the Moment Plan, a blueprint for how the agency plans to recover from the pandemic. In the meantime, it has amended bus schedules to reflect the new realities of a limited workforce.
Chicago isn’t the only city experiencing this issue: It’s a national crisis playing out in big cities across the country. National experts point to an aging population — most transit workers are nearing retirement age— and a more competitive landscape.
There’s also the reality that a commercial drivers license, which is required to drive a CTA bus, can be more lucrative in the private sector where drivers can work for a major shipping or logistics company.
To encourage more people to apply, CTA is offering a $1,000 hiring bonus for all new bus operators, bus mechanics and rail car repair positions. CTA has also significantly increased the starting rate for all jobs. New hires used to start at 80% of the hourly rate and move up to 100% after two years. Now, the agency is giving new hires 100% right out the gate.
These incentives were attractive enough for Mahtan Warfield, who said at the fair that he was looking for a career change. “To just try out something new, in a new atmosphere,” he said. “I already did Amazon delivery driver before. And my mom works for the Metra. So she told me these jobs have good benefits.”
Warfield says it was the prospect of advancement and a pension that sold him on the idea of applying. These are things he said would never have been offered to him at his Amazon job.
Hill and many others who now hold leadership positions often recall their own experience trying to get a job at the transit agency, saying they were lucky to make it. Back in the ‘90s, the CTA had a hiring freeze. Today, the agency is bending over backwards to get drivers behind the wheel.
At the fair, a group of CTA recruiters held presentations throughout the day in which they walked people through the application process, from what to wear during the Zoom interview to what pages are best to study ahead of the drivers test.
At one point, the recruiters asked the job prospects in one room to raise a hand if they already had a commercial drivers license. Barely anyone did.
What would have been a deal breaker 10 years ago now didn’t matter.
Claudia Morell covers general assignments, government and transit issues for WBEZ.
Editor’s note: This story was updated to reflect that CTA paused and then resumed hiring during the COVID-19 pandemic.