Minnesota's low unemployment rate, coupled with the stresses of driving a city bus, has made it hard for Metro Transit to find enough drivers.
"It's hard to get through this job and stay in this job," said driver union president Ryan Timlin.
But he expects a new apprenticeship program will help reduce a high rate of driver attrition.
Currently, the transit service is about 90 drivers short of its full complement of nearly 1,600 drivers.
Metro Transit is still providing around 5 million passengers rides each month — but there are fewer trips on some routes. Overall, bus trips have been pared back about 1 percent.
The apprenticeship program will connect new recruits with experienced drivers to try and reduce the drop-out rate, said Brian Funk, who oversees bus operations.
"What we're looking to do is pair up our new employees with existing employees, to say 'I'm a resource for you. I'll put my arm around you when you need help. I'm going take you under my wing to make sure that you're successful during that critical initial period,'" Funk said.
The apprenticeship program is federally funded and has been developed in conjunction with the bus drivers' union and the Minnesota Departments of Employment and Economic Development and Labor and Industry.
Participants will receive 2,000 hours of instruction and guidance.
Graduates will be awarded a national certification attesting to their bus driving skills.
Metro Transit hopes the effort will yield as many as 200 new drivers in the next few years.
Drivers earn about $20 an hour to start. Benefits include health insurance and a pension. But the job is demanding, requiring drivers to maneuver busses through torturous traffic and cope with sometimes abusive and violent riders.
"You have a high exposure to stress and certain dangers that you might not normally face in other occupations," said driver and instructor Alec Johnson. "High exposure to some of the ills of society that the average person maybe only occasionally encounters."
Johnson said the support mentors provide new drivers will be critical.
"The peer-to-peer mentoring will really help them if they happen to struggle with certain demands of the job, things that I know people have had to overcome sort of on their own in the past," he said.
Driver Douglas John drove trucks for 30 years before he joined Metro Transit to pilot a bus several years ago.
"The vehicles didn't bother me," he said. "I'll tell you what — the first two months I went into my manager's office saying 'I don't know if I can do this because of all the people asking questions and distracting [me].' And he just said, 'Hang in there. It gets better and you'll figure things out.' And he was right."