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Erik Burgess, Published September 04 2013

MATBUS hopes to lure new drivers with pay increase

FARGO – With high-paying oilfield jobs enticing workers to western North Dakota, it’s increasingly harder to keep bus drivers working here.

It means with fewer bus drivers, the current crew is being tapped for more overtime hours, which city officials worry could lead to more accidents.

It’s a situation the city hopes to remedy by increasing the starting pay for MATBUS drivers beginning next year in an effort to woo new drivers who might be looking for work in the Oil Patch.

“If you want to go work long hours and live in a man camp, you can make $10,000 a month,” said Planning Director Jim Gilmour. “So we’ve lost drivers to people who want to drive trucks in the west. And it’s kind of a statewide problem for all transit agencies.”

MATBUS drivers now start at $11.16 an hour. The proposal increases that to $13 an hour next year. Drivers today make $12.59 after 90 days on the job. In the proposed 2014 transit budget, drivers would need to work one year before being bumped to $13.37.

The Fargo City Commission has scheduled a public meeting on its proposed 2014 budget at 6 p.m. Sept. 16. The Moorhead City Council is expected to pass its preliminary budget on Sept. 9.

MATBUS now needs 10 full-time drivers, but quality applicants have been few. The city contracts First Transit, a national company with headquarters in Cincinnati, to hire and train drivers.

“They’re having to pay more overtime,” Gilmour said. “Our concern is, if somebody is working long hours, they may be more prone to having an accident … and the city is the one that’s liable in the accident.”

First Transit sees firsthand the lure of high-paying jobs in the Oil Patch, said General Manager Matt Peterson. Some people apply for a job at First Transit, go through training to receive a commercial driver’s license at the company’s expense, and then leave the area for another job, he said.

“The expectation is, yeah, we’re hiring them as a full-time driver,” he said. “And it’s impossible to weed out the people who just want a CDL versus the people who genuinely want a job, especially with a low applicant flow.”

Peterson said First Transit receives one or two completed, “acceptable” applications every week. He hopes more people will apply when the wage is closer to the market average, giving him a larger pool of qualified applicants.

Low starting wages has also led to a high turnover rate for novice drivers, Gilmour said, with only one-third of MATBUS drivers on the job for five years. Half of the drivers have less than two years of experience.

“What we see is when there’s accidents or crashes, more often than not, it’s someone who’s been there less than two years,” Gilmour said. “So it’s in the city’s interest to try to get people to stay in the profession a little bit longer.”

First Transit offers incentives to keep drivers, such as safe driving bonuses of up to $1,000 a year, and $50 a month for drivers who are consistently punctual, have no customer complaints and complete their paperwork.

Next year’s proposed budget also includes small raises for employees who have been on the job for several years, Gilmour said, but he noted that there’s little turnover in that group.

Readers can reach Forum reporter

Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518