Detroit on a recruiting spree for bus drivers

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News
  • DDOT hopes to hire up to 50 new drivers by year’s end.
  • More drivers will help DDOT with better on-time performance and cover for those who call out sick.

New bus drivers are being heavily recruited by the Detroit Department of Transportation for the first time in years in the hopes of hiring close to 50 men and women by year’s end.

DDOT has already trained two classes of new drivers, and a third class just started. And the new ones say they are undeterred by a high-stress job that often involves dealing with an unruly and impatient public.

“It’s not all what they say it is going to be. You get along with people. You respect them and they respect you,” said new driver James Burse, 46, of Detroit, who received his badge more than a week ago. “What you put out is nine times out of 10 what you’re going to get back.”

Officialsof the city’s much-maligned bus service — plagued with an image problem for being perpetually late and crime-ridden — believe the current environment is ripe for attracting new drivers. Cameras will be installed on all buses by late fall, and transit police are boarding more routes.

DDOT says it’s looking for employees with clean driving records, who can pass regular alcohol and drug tests.

“We’re basically beating bushes down to try and find as many folks as we can,” said DDOT chief Dan Dirks of the recruitment effort. “Our hope is that by the end of the year, we’ll be close to the budgeted amount. We have worked with the ministers in the city to make a pitch. Every time our staff goes out and makes presentations, we do pitches on it. We’re very soon going to have info on the inside of the buses recruiting drivers.”

Dirks said the influx of new drivers — more than 20 of the 50 being sought have been hired — will provide a better on-time performance and give the agency more drivers to cover those who quit unexpectedly or call in sick.

The pay, officials acknowledge, is a sensitive issue. Trainees start out at $8.40 an hour — not much more than the state’s $8.15 minimum wage — but it quickly bumps to $10.15 an hour once they finish the classes and training. The top wage is $15.70, which comes to about $31,000 annually. Drivers and their union, working without a contract, have taken steep cuts in pay due to the city’s financial troubles.

“There’s no question that it’s significantly tougher recruiting drivers for DDOT than it is for other transit systems,” Dirks said. “But part of the issue is the city has gone through and is going through some difficult financial times. We are getting applications. We’re just going to keep banging and try to recruit as many new folks as we can. But it is a challenge, there’s no question about it.”

But for Burse the choice of going after a DDOT job was worth it. He has completed the classroom and road work, driving various routes under the tutelage of more experienced drivers.

And the reputation of DDOT — and all that he’s heard about safety issues — didn’t deter him, he said.

Burse said driving a bus is “a way different experience” than his previous job as a semitrailer driver for nearly 15 years.

“Being away from home a lot and from your family and friends ... this way you get off work and go home and relax,” Burse said. “Then I get to see the city, too, with some places I probably haven’t seen or haven’t seen in a long time.”

People skills at work

Jessie Gordon, 53, who trained Burse for the past week on the Van Dyke route, said he expects his mentee will be successful because he has good driving and people skills — two essentials to being a DDOT driver.

“He’s very good,” Gordon said of Burse. “I really don’t have to tell him too much. He keeps up with the schedule real good and is real courteous with the people. And his mechanics of driving is excellent.”

On a recent Monday morning, the two set off from the Rosa Parks Transit Center in downtown Detroit and, with Burse at the wheel, he announced to the crowded 10:30 a.m. bus, “Please everybody, hold on, we’re taking off.”

The bus was running a little late, in part because it had major exhaust problems on the Van Dyke route back into downtown.

Gordon is a very popular driver on his route who seems to know nearly every passenger. When Burse was approaching a stop he didn’t readily see, Gordon motioned to a bus stop sign that was obstructed, saying, “You’ve got one under this tree right here.”

“You get so many different types of people of who ride the bus that you don’t know how they are going to come at you,” Gordon said. “You just try and be real courteous to them. And that kind of sets the tone in the relationship between them and the passengers.”

Dirks said despite some of the problems that he’s inherited, such as not enough drivers or having broken down buses, “We’re not looking backwards.”

“If a bus would get into a major accident here, they wouldn’t fix it. They would just park it,” he said. “In addition to the drivers, we’re trying to get to buses that haven’t worked for a year or two and we’re doing some significant engine work and transmission work and accident work done so that not only we have enough drivers but we’ll have the buses that we’ll need to make the pullout that we should.”

Frequent bus rider Linda Ross, 63, of Detroit, said she has seen several new drivers — they don white shirts instead of the standard blue ones for badged drivers — and is happy that DDOT is hiring more.

‘A good attitude’

“I’m kinda scared for them because they have to learn how to adjust that attitude with the people that are riding the bus,” Ross said. “Especially the kids. So far I haven’t seen any problems. The majority of the new ones I’ve seen, they have a good attitude. They haven’t been poisoned yet.”

Kathy Greer, a senior service inspector and road supervisor for DDOT who oversees the new hires on their routes, said DDOT driving isn’t for everyone because the standards are high, but it is a positive the agency is hiring.

“You have to be willing to want this job,” Greer said. “This is the job you have to want to keep because you can’t really slack off on it. ... It’s really highly stressful. So your tolerance of stress has to be up there because you know you are dealing with the public.”

(313) 222-2620

If you want to apply

Minimum qualifications: Completion of high school or a G.E.D; valid Michigan commercial driver’s license with Group A or B designation

How to apply: Go to the city’s website,, and search departments and then Detroit Department of Transportation