OC Bus, Tram Driver Recruitment Ramped Up

OCEAN CITY — Resort transportation officials are already embarking on an aggressive bus driver and Boardwalk tram driver recruiting effort.

It’s no secret Ocean City, like most jurisdictions and the private sector, in recent years has struggled to fill out its staffing ranks for a variety of reasons. Perhaps hit most acutely by the labor shortage has been the town’s transportation department, including municipal bus drivers and Boardwalk tram drivers and conductors.

For example, prior to the pandemic, the town employed 150 bus drivers to meet its deployment goals. Since 2019, the pre-COVID benchmark by which deployment and ridership numbers are still measured, the number of municipal bus drivers employed has dwindled to around 90. The transit system has managed to meet its deployment goals for the most part, and ridership numbers have remained steady but finding bus drivers continues to be a struggle.

During a Transportation Committee meeting this month, the discussion continued on how best to recruit, hire and retain municipal bus drivers and tram drivers and conductors. Last year, faced with a shortage, the town adopted an hourly wage increase for drivers and tram conductors along with an attractive incentive program.

For example, the new hourly rate for a new municipal bus driver is now $20.50, while a returning driver will earn $21.00.

In addition, other incentives have been proposed. For example, there will be a seasonal employee referral bonus wherein a town of Ocean City employee will be eligible for a $500 bonus for referring someone to work within the transportation department. Also in place is an end-of-season loyalty bonus wherein a transportation department employee can be eligible for a $300 bonus for sticking it out through the end of Sunfest with certain conditions attached. Council Secretary and committee member Tony DeLuca said the town’s hourly wage increase appeared attractive on the surface, but the department needed to keep an eye on what neighboring jurisdictions were paying bus drivers.

“This was done midseason last year,” he said. “We really need to monitor this and see if our competitors are raising their pay rates. That goes for the solid waste division also.”

DeLuca asked if there was anything the town was planning to do differently with the recruitment and hiring of bus drivers this offseason. Operations Manager George Peake said the town was going to be aggressive in recruiting bus drivers.

“The big thing we can do now is get the word out early,” he said. “There was a time when we had 150, but I could function very well with 90. I would be happy with that. I’d like to go back to pre-COVID numbers, but that probably isn’t realistic.”

In terms of the Boardwalk tram drivers and conductors, similar wage increases and incentive programs are also in place. Peake said the ideal number for tram drivers was 25 but last season the actual number was more like 18 or 19. The trams for the most part did meet their deployment and ridership goals, but it was always a matter of doing more with less. Councilman and committee member Frank Knight said it was imperative to keep the tram fleet out on the Boardwalk during the peak times of the season.

“This is a money maker for us,” he said. “There was discussion about paying the conductors the same as the drivers. We want to be competitive because we want to keep the trams out there.”

For the trams, the drivers’ hourly rate is set at $15.91, while the conductor rate is set at $15.50 for the upcoming season. Mayor Rick Meehan asked if there was room to nudge those figures a little higher.

“Is it better to round it up?” he said. “I think it might be better to be at $16 per hour instead of $15.50 from a perception standpoint.”

Public Works Director Hal Adkins said maintaining a stable of reliable tram drivers and conductors would allow the department to reach its deployment goals.

“I’d hate to not be able to run them completely because we don’t have the drivers,” he said. “We need to have good communication. It’s really about the man-hours. If the number we need is 25, maybe we can get 27 or 28 if they can meet the man-hours.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.