Driver Recruitment, Training, and Retention


The most important part of a transit organization is a team of well-qualified, well-trained, and motivated drivers. An agency’s drivers not only essential for operating the service, they are responsible for safe and reliable service, and are the most visible representatives of an organization. It can be challenging to recruit and retain good people, particularly when funding is tight. This section of the toolkit introduces both requirements and suggested practices in the areas of driver recruiting/hiring, retention/motivation, and training. Many excellent resources exist that can provide more details on each of these functions, and these are referenced throughout this toolkit page. While this section of the toolkit is focused on drivers, the Human Resources section of the toolkit provides information that applies to all of the employees in the rural transit organization.

This section includes the following subsections:

Driver Recruitment and Hiring

Suggested Practices for Recruiting and Hiring Drivers

When unemployment is low, it can be especially challenging to attract qualified new drivers. The job description should be the basis for advertising open positions. Transit managers should also review the wages and benefit packages for drivers to ensure that the transit organization is a competitive employer. For job description and salary range examples, National RTAP completed a job title and salary range survey of rural and tribal public transit agencies in August 2020 that includes responses from 275 agencies. The spreadsheet contains the database and a summary table. Transit managers should consider the cost of living in their area and typical wage rates and benefits offered by employers in the area to determine if the wages and benefits they are planning to offer can compete with other employers.  The state transit association may have this type of information available from other transit agencies in the state, and national associations may also make industry-wide wage and benefits information available to their members.

The following are some ideas for recruiting new drivers and evaluating how well they would likely fit the job.

Recruiting New Drivers
  • Promote job openings on the organization website and social media accounts.
  • Post driver job openings on popular websites for job seekers, such as IndeedTransit TalentFacebook, and Craigslist, (websites are provided for informational purposes only; National RTAP does not endorse or recommend any specific websites) as well as the classifieds of the state transit association.
  • Appeal to job-seekers who are interested in making the world a better place and giving back to their community. This can be very important for attracting millennials and retirees. Government and non-profit organizations can post job listings on Idealist.
  • Appeal to job-seekers who are veterans, who offer experience, skills, and qualities that transit systems need.
  • Consider starting an employee referral program, rewarding employees who refer successful recruits.
  • Create a realistic job preview video featuring several drivers talking about what it is like to work for the organization and why they do it. Ideally, the drivers in the video should represent a diverse workforce to appeal to potential recruits from different backgrounds. Post the video online and share it through the organization’s website and social media accounts.
  • Other ideas for getting the word out include hosting a career day, participating in other organizations’ career days, sending job listings to school employment services (including technical schools and community colleges), and posting job advertisements on transit vehicles (because a passenger may know someone who would be interested).
Evaluating Candidates for the Job
  • Ideally, the drivers hired will have a positive attitude and enjoy working with people. Transit managers can provide training on skills, but the right attitude is something they should screen for in the hiring process. If an applicant seems to exhibit great customer service skills, but doesn’t have for example a CDL, perhaps he or she should be considered and trained in the job function.
  • Be mission-driven. See the Mission and Leadership section of this toolkit for more information about this. Talk about the organization’s mission with each job candidate and make sure they understand what their role would be if they are hired.
  • If salary is an individual’s top priority, he or she might not be a good candidate for the job. Consider telling potential applicants, “You may make more money elsewhere, but this may be the most rewarding job you’ll ever have.” Hiring drivers who seek a hiring salary other than what an agency is able to offer may translate into high turnover which is costly to the organization.

Most of the above suggestions were gleaned from a workshop conducted by Caryn Souza of the Community Transportation Association of America (CTAA) in September 2017. Related resources include:

Federal Requirements that Affect Driver Hiring Decisions

In addition to the general federal requirements that apply to all new hires (introduced in the Human Resources section of this toolkit), the following requirements apply to drivers.

Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations Related to New Driver Qualifications

The U.S. DOT Federal Motor Carrier Safety Regulations (FMCSRs) have a number of requirements that may apply to some or all of the drivers that that are hired, depending upon the vehicle size and weight, and whether they cross state lines.

Under 49 CFR Part 383, drivers of the following passenger vehicles (as well as mechanics who test drive these vehicles) must have a valid Commercial Driver’s License (CDL):

  • Vehicles designed to seat 16 or more passengers including the driver
  • Vehicles with a gross vehicle weight rating (GVWR) exceeding 26,000 pounds
  • If an agency employs drivers to operate vehicles that require a CDL, it has a responsibility to verify that the drivers have a valid CDL before operating these vehicles. This could be one of the minimum qualifications for the job, or alternately the agency may choose to train new hires without CDLs to prepare them for taking the CDL exam.

Under 49 CFR Part 391, drivers of the following types of passenger vehicles must pass a U.S. DOT physical, background check, and road test before operating these vehicles:

  • Vehicles requiring a CDL
  • Vehicles designed to seat 9 to 15 passengers if operating for direct compensation and crossing state lines
  • Vehicles with a GVWR exceeding 10,000 pounds
  • Under 49 CFR Part 380, drivers of vehicles requiring a CDL that cross state lines have entry level driver training requirements. This will be mentioned again in under driver training requirements.
DOT/FTA Drug and Alcohol Testing Requirements Related to New Driver Qualifications

The U.S. DOT/FTA Drug and Alcohol testing requirements are summarized in the Drug and Alcohol section of the toolkit. Two of these requirements kick in as part of the hiring process for drivers (and other safety-sensitive positions):

  • Pre-employment drug test – 49 CFR Part 655 requires a negative drug test before working in a safety-sensitive position. Pre-employment alcohol testing is not required; however, employers may choose to also perform this test.
  • Testing records from previous employers – 49 CFR Part 40 requires each employer to check on the drug and alcohol testing record of new safety-sensitive employees.

More information on these requirements can be found in the Drug and Alcohol section of the toolkit.

Driver Training

Well-trained drivers are essential for providing safe, high quality transit services. There are a few federal requirements for driver training which are introduced here, followed by suggestions for training topics and potential sources, shared as best practices.

Federally Required Training

All rural transit drivers must be trained in:

  • Passenger assistance and sensitivity – Under 49 CFR Section 37.173, all drivers (and other staff) must be trained to proficiency to assist people with disabilities in a respectful and courteous way, with appropriate attention to the difference among individuals with disabilities. Drivers must be trained to use accessibility equipment and must understand the transit agency’s Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) policies.
  • Substance abuse awareness – Under 49 CFR Section 655.14, employers must provide at least 60 minutes of training to safety sensitive employees on the effects and consequences of prohibited drug use on personal health, safety, and the work environment, and on the signs and symptoms that may indicate prohibited drug use. Employers must also display and distribute informational materials. Although alcohol misuse training is not required for safety sensitive employees, as a recommended practice, employers should also provide information about the effects and consequences of misuse of alcohol.  (Note the supervisors and others who are responsible for making the call to conduct reasonable suspicion testing must have 60 minutes of training on the physical, behavioral and performance indicators of probable drug use, and 60 minutes on the indicators of probable alcohol misuse.  For more information, see the Drug and Alcohol Programs section of this toolkit.)

Entry-level CDL drivers that cross state lines must also receive training in FMCSR requirements specified in 49 CFR Part 380. An “entry-level driver” is defined in this part as having less than one year of experience operating a commercial motor vehicle with a CDL in interstate commerce. As detailed in 49 CFR Section 380.503, entry-level driver training must address:

  1. Driver qualification requirements: Under the FMCSRs on medical certification, medical examination procedures, general qualifications, responsibilities, and disqualifications based on various offenses, orders, and loss of driving privileges (as detailed in 49 CFR Part 391, subparts B and E).
  2. Hours of service of drivers: Including limitations on driving hours, the requirement to be off-duty for certain periods of time, record of duty status preparation, and exceptions (as detailed in 49 CFR Part 395), as well as fatigue countermeasures as a means to avoid crashes.
  3. Driver wellness: Including basic health maintenance and the importance of avoiding excessive use of alcohol.
  4. Whistleblower protection: Which protects the right of an employee to question the safety practices of an employer without the employee's risk of losing a job or being subject to reprisals simply for stating a safety concern.

Minimum Suggestions for Bus Operator Training

Other than those training requirements listed above, there are currently no national training requirements for transit bus operators.  State DOTs, however, may have bus driver training requirements for Section 5311 subrecipients, and rural transit managers should check with their State DOT. In any case, training promotes safety, morale and a greater partnership among employees and management.

New Hire Training

Minimum training suggestions for newly hired bus operators include:

  • Company overview – transit policies and procedures, driver handbook
  • Pre-trip process
  • Defensive driving (preventing accidents regardless of conditions or the actions of others)
  • Emergency procedures
  • Safe boarding and deboarding of passengers
  • Passenger assistance/safe lift operation and wheelchair/mobility device securement (required)
  • Sensitivity and disability awareness
  • Customer service
  • First aid and CPR
  • Bloodborne pathogens
  • On the road and route training
  • Drug (required) and alcohol (recommended) awareness training
  • Responding to accidents and incidents
  • Pedestrian awareness
  • Other training that should be provided to all employees, not just drivers, such as workplace harassment, diversity awareness, general employee policies and procedures, and human trafficking awareness
Refresher Training

Experienced drivers can also benefit from training. Refresher training should periodically be provided for safety topics, other areas where drivers may need to update their skills, and emerging issues and service needs.

  • Every year
    • CPR (if applicable in an agency)
    • System safety, including evacuation
    • New policies and procedures
    • New rules and regulations
  • Every two years
    • Defensive driving
    • Passenger assistance/safe lift operation and wheelchair/mobility device securement
    • Bloodborne pathogens
    • Security awareness
  • Every three years
    • First aid
    • Organization-wide topics including diversity awareness and workplace harassment
    • Drug and alcohol policies

Additional training topics to consider for experienced drivers include winter driving safety reminders, problem-solving for customer service challenges, training on new equipment added to the fleet, and basic Spanish phrases for frequent communications with passengers with Limited English Proficiency (LEP).

Sources of Driver Training

Many State RTAP programs support driver training in some capacity, and transit managers should check with the State DOT to find out more.  A Directory of State RTAP Managers and Directory of Trainers are available. 

Many excellent programs exist for rural transit driver training.  The following are commonly used in the industry on a national level.

National RTAP’s training programs and materials for drivers include:

Driver training courses developed by other organizations that are available through the National RTAP eLearning portal include:

A helpful resource is FTA's catalog of Safety Training Resources for Bus Transit Agencies.

The U.S. DOT-funded Transportation Safety Institute (TSI) offers a comprehensive train-the-trainer course for transit driver training as well as webinars on specific topics. Although geared toward urban fixed-route systems, rural transit systems can also benefit from TSI offerings which include:

  • Instructor's Course for Transit Trainers (5-day instructor-led course held at locations throughout the country; currently $145 tuition)
  • Curbing Transit Employee Distracted Driving (30-minute online course; free)
  • Fatigue and Sleep Apnea Awareness for Transit Employees (30-minute online course; free)

Among Community Transportation Association of America’s (CTAA) training and certification programs is the popular PASS (Passenger Assistance Safety and Sensitivity) Driver training, a three-day train-the-trainer course and a two-day driver training and certification. Certification is valid for three years.

The National Safety Council (NSC) offers 4 to 8 hour defensive driver training and certification geared toward automobile drivers (also applicable to transit drivers) as well as a 4-hour Coaching the Van Driver instructor-led course.

Other sources of defensive driving training for transit drivers include the Smith System and Taptco.

Additional training resources on human trafficking awareness include:

As noted above, transit managers should also check with State RTAP coordinators on the training provided for rural transit programs in the state. Many State RTAPs sponsor some of the programs listed above and/or training customized for the state’s rural transit drivers, either at the “train-the-trainer” level or directly training drivers.

State transit associations are another potential source of shared training.  For example, the PennTRAIN program provided through the Pennsylvania Public Transit Association provides training on a variety of training topics.

Keeping Drivers on Board

Once a transit manager has recruited, hired, and trained drivers, there is still work to be done to keep employees motivated to perform at their best and stay with the organization. Suggestions for retaining drivers include:

  • Create an employee recognition/incentive program, or enhance the program the agency already has - and enlist employees to help design/improve it to ensure the requirements are possible and the incentives are meaningful.
  • Provide employees with periodic on-board performance appraisals (suggested 90 days for new hires) aligned to their job descriptions (making sure the job description aligns with their current responsibilities, or updating the job description). Be sure to provide plenty of advanced notice - the appraisal shouldn’t be surprise. On-board appraisals are recommended for evaluating drivers because this helps the manager more fully understand the demands of the job and provides a coaching opportunity.
  • Consider developing a mentoring program to provide new hires with peer support as they grow within the organization.
  • Provide ongoing training opportunities to help employees improve, grow, and stay engaged. Consider cross-training, mentoring, and coaching.
  • If the transit agency trains new drivers to obtain their Commercial Driver’s Licenses (CDL), as an incentive to prevent them from immediately moving on to a higher paying job requiring a CDL, the transit agency could consider requiring the drivers to reimburse the organization for their training time if they leave before working a minimum span of time (90 days to one year, for example), and paying them a higher wage after they have earned their CDL.
  • If the agency relies on seasonal employees, consider providing a bonus at the end of the season (such as an extra dollar per hour) for employees that stay through the full season.
  • Even if the organization has a limited budget for a formal employee incentive program, consider giving out thank-you gift cards for “above and beyond the call of duty” performance when it happens, celebrating special milestones (including employment anniversaries and birthdays), and occasionally surprising employees with pizza to express appreciation.
  • Finally, transit agencies that have problems with driver hiring and retention may need to take a hard look at the salary scale. While working as a transit driver can be a very satisfying and altruistic job, the bottom line may be the employer’s need to pay a reasonable wage.

The above suggestions are in part from “Ten Tips for Hiring and Retaining Drivers,” Maryland Transit Update, Fall 2017, p. 4.

  • “Retaining a Sustainable Driver Workforce,” archived CTAA webinar, March 2018, presented by Caryn Souza, Josh Baker, Lyn Helleguard, and Michael Noel (can be accessed through the CTAA Webinar Archive.) 

Additional suggestions for improving employee morale are found in the Human Resources section of this toolkit.

Section Sources

Updated November 11, 2020