(Jan. 25, 2019) Fresh approaches for recruiting seasonal bus drivers and marketing to summertime transit riders were kneaded into shape during the Transportation Committee meeting last Tuesday.
Mayor Rick Meehan said when hiring adequate numbers of bus drivers became difficult three years ago, Transit Manager Mark Rickards and Human Resources Director Wayne Evans responded aggressively.
“To date, it’s improved dramatically and we’ve been able to maintain a certain level of drivers in order to provide the service that’s required,” he said.
Despite the recent success, Rickards anticipates that beefing up staffing numbers to fill this summer’s need won’t be easy.
“We have to go from 56 to close to 150 (bus drivers) in the next few months,” he said. “It’s becoming a very competitive environment out there for CDL drivers even when you train people.”
Additionally, Rickards said the city hires 23 Boardwalk tram drivers every year.
Besides competing for CDL drivers with trucking and freight carriers, Rickards said app-based ridesharing services have been marketing aggressively.
“I get an email every day that says, ‘$500 bonus, come drive with Uber,’ and Lyft says, ‘we’ll give you the bonus and a car,’” he said.
Factoring in lowered unemployment rates, Rickards said the pool of qualified and available part-time workers has begun to dry up.
“We have to pull out all the stops to get that number,” he said.
Among the concepts Rickards proposed were new driver signing bonuses and covering new hire costs for CDL testing/licensing and DOT physicals.
Evans concurred with removing a potential financial impediment regarding licensing.
“I think this is the only job we have where the employee has to put money … out of their own pocket in order to come to work for the town of Ocean City,” he said.
Rickards estimated the cost would total $100 each and apply to between 10-15 newly hired drivers.
Turning to staff retention, Evans said a suggestion to provide a $500 bonus for already licensed new hires is similar to the current incentive for bus driver trainees.
“Once [trainees] have been hired and completed a season of 500 hours, we pay them the fully trained bus driver rate,” he said. “That acts as a year-end bonus.”
Evans said the new proposal would provide bonus compensation for licensed bus drivers who sign up and complete 500 hours during the summer.
“We would determine an amount to pay that person as the season closes,” he said.
Public Works Director Hal Adkins said the proposals, which are unfunded in the current fiscal year 2019 budget, would need to be addressed relatively soon and could be coupled with fiscal 2020 discussions planned for the following week.
“You’re receiving applications and we need to disseminate a message in the coming weeks, if not month or so,” he said.
Budget Manager Jennie Knapp said the requests would face funding competition from other city government departments.
Questioning the need for a retention bonus, Councilman Dennis Dare said seasonal bus drivers who opt to collect unemployment during the winter already pad the overall hourly rate.
“It’s good pay for retirees [and] $16 per hour is $20 per hour year round with $4 unemployment in the winter,” he said.
Focusing purely on human resources, Councilman Tony DeLuca stressed the need to have a minimum of 150 drivers to provide scheduling flexibility during peak season.
Rickards agreed the full compliment helps cover unanticipated gaps.
“The deeper bench you have the more likely we are to get people into work and we don’t miss any trips or deployments,” he said.
Meehan agreed with the suggestion to pay CDL licensing costs and will take the matter to the City Council for consideration.
“It’s not a large sum but it’s something that shows we want you to come work for us,” he said.
Adkins said the retention bonus would need to be coordinated between Knapp, Evans, Rickards and City Manager Doug Miller and is time-sensitive for the recruitment process.
Rickards next turned the discussion to revamped marketing efforts for transit services.
“In addition to recruiting drivers, we want to recruit passengers,” he said.
Rickards said with nearly 100 hotels within a quarter mile of a bus stop, the messaging for visitors driving into Ocean City is clear.
“Park your car, you don’t need it again until you leave because of the bus system,” he said.
In many instances, bus stops are located directly in front of lodging establishments, Rickards said.
“They’re coming every 5-8 minutes in the summer … but a lot of the visitors don’t know,” he said.
To reach a broader base of tourists, Rickards suggested marketing transit services at hotel and motel front desks.
“Letting them know the bus is out here and it cost $3 to ride all day,” he said.
Comparable trips may cost in the $20 range with rideshare services, Rickards said.
“Its not going to bring in big numbers, but it might be enough to stop that 4-percent loss every year that we’re seeing in bus ridership,” he said.
Rickards said he would consult further with Communications Manager Jessica Waters, Tourism and Marketing Director Donna Abbott and the Ocean City Hotel-Motel-Restaurant Association to refine the approach.
“We’re not going to reinvent the wheel in terms of marketing, we’re trying to get in the game,” he said.
Waters noted Abbott does comparable work with the Recreation Department to market programs to the public.
“We could certainly incorporate marketing of the transportation system,” she said.
Meehan said bus-themed advertising rack cards should be placed at hotel and motel check-in desks.
“That’s point of sale ... because when they’re checking in they’re looking for those kind of things,” he said.
Dare suggested offering a financial incentive for lodging establishments to market city transit services.
“Do you sell a one day pass at a reduced rate to the hotel and they make a small mark up?” he asked. “Maybe one free ride to get them to try out the bus?”
Waters proposed discussing the suggestions with Abbott and MGH Advertising during an upcoming conference call and returning with recommendations for the Transportation Committee.