Despite the shortage of student bus drivers at the University of Massachusetts Transit last semester, bus routes are being restored for the spring term.
Three routes are being fully restored which were reduced last semester due to lack of drivers. The first change was made on Dec. 21 when Route 33 (Puffers Pond/Stop and Shop) returned to 40-minute intervals rather than 80-minute intervals. Effective on Tuesday, Jan. 22, Route 34 (Campus Shuttle Northbound) and Route 35 (Campus Shuttle Southbound) will return to running in 15-minute intervals, as opposed to the fall semester’s 22-minute intervals.
Glenn Barrington, transportation manager/department head, said the driver shortage was caused by the large number of seniors who had graduated in May. UMass Transit lost a handful of drivers throughout the year to financial struggles and family difficulties, but lost roughly 35 drivers after the most recent commencement ceremony.
“Four years ago we went through a hiring program and hired a large number of student employees… In 2014, we hired and trained 76 drivers. That was a huge number, our largest ever,” Barrington explained.
Four years later, the last of this large crowd graduated and UMass Transit was caught off guard. Not enough drivers were hired and the struggle to fill shifts began. According to a press release announcing the reinstated routes, “Only UMass Amherst students are eligible to drive for these routes.”
A hiring event was held on Sept. 15, where UMass Transit hired 31 out of the 38 attendees and trained them during the semester. Since last May, 34 new drivers were trained. Currently, 18 drivers are training in the winter session program and about 10 of them are expected to have their license at the start of the semester.
To avoid a similar problem in the future, several new bus drivers are being trained each semester. Every year, UMass Transit hopes to hire 75 new drivers, a quota that has not been met in several years. They hope to reach that goal in 2019.
“We have a pretty full training schedule for the spring semester, which will be fantastic for us,” Barrington said. “So our hope and goal for the next semester is to get another 20 to 25 drivers through the training program and over the summer we are hoping to get another 20 or so trainees through the training program. That will put us into much better shape next fall.”
Barrington said the reason for the success in the past semester were the employees willing to step up.
“The students in this organization have to be some of the best student employees on campus. So many kids went above and beyond the norm and picked up additional hours for us in order to help us sustain,” he said. “It was quite remarkable.”
Some drivers trained new employees and worked overtime on top of keeping up with their classwork.
“It’s challenging to train people regardless of numbers, it’s even more so when you have a driver shortage because you’re just stretched so thin,” Barrington said.
Kristen Mich, a senior double majoring in environmental science and anthropology, has worked at UMass Transit on and off since her freshman year. Although she worked only one shift a week last semester, she noticed fellow employees working more hours.
“There were definitely a lot of people who really stepped up and helped to fill in the gaps, and the training department worked really hard to train new drivers as quickly as they could,” Mich said. “I definitely felt bad only being able to work once a week. I knew they needed help, but I personally didn’t end up taking too many extra shifts.”
Not only did student employees put in more effort, so did full-time staffers who also picked up shifts. Almost 200 people employed at UMass Transit have their class B Commercial Driver’s License, including Barrington, the coordinator of training and mechanics, meaning they could help pick up shifts.
Of those 200 CDL licensed employees at UMass Transit, 165 are students and 13 are full-timers. The rest of the staff are temporary non-benefited CC/03 employees (students who have graduated or those who have stepped away from their undergraduate program for a semester to save money and then go back to school.)
Abigail Charpentier can be reached at [email protected] and followed on Twitter @abigailcharp.