Nearly 350 job seekers filled CTA headquarters Friday morning for the agency’s fifth job fair of the year, learning about roles as bus drivers, mechanics and rail flaggers who can one day move up to train operators.
The CTA is still short more than 600 full-time bus and rail operators. As the transit agency tries to reverse service and staffing losses, it’s been putting a big focus on hiring.
Applicants on Friday got a chance to hear about open positions, take tests and do interviews — and hear from the CTA’s president, Dorval Carter, who thanked a room full of job seekers for coming in and told them, “I just want you to know how much I need all of you.”
The CTA’s staffing shortfall predated the pandemic, as WTTW News has reported. But COVID-19 made the problem even worse.
“We lost a number of people to retirement and resignation, and so we’ve been working hard to start to rebuild our workforce,” Carter told WTTW News at the fair.
He said the agency’s current complement of bus and rail operators is about 85% of the workforce in CTA’s budget.
“We’ve been holding, literally, monthly job fairs and they’ve been … very successful,” Carter said.
According to its most recent data, the CTA said it has 715 of 839 budgeted full-time train operators and 3,220 of 3,707 budgeted full-time bus drivers. So far in 2023, the agency said it has hired 225 new bus drivers against a goal of 700 by year’s end.
“We’re actually ahead of target on our goal,” Carter said. “We look forward to seeing more people in the near future.”
In addition to hiring, the CTA has also been changing its bus and rail schedules to reflect the runs it can actually provide given its current workforce.
“The actual number of runs every day is lower than what we saw even a year ago, but it is more reliable,” said Brandon McFadden of the transit advocacy organization Commuters Take Action. That group has been pushing the CTA to address its widespread and well-documented problems.
McFadden independently analyzes system-wide data and said the CTA is now delivering 85-90% of promised service each day, “which is significantly better, 20 to 25 points better than what we saw back in June and July of 2022, and even in months prior to that.”
He’s glad to see the focus on rail flagger jobs in the most recent fair, since that’s the necessary entry level before someone can become a train operator.
“We’re seeing a slow trend downwards in the number of rail operators and more or less the same number of bus operators in the network,” McFadden said.
The staffing challenges the CTA is facing are an industry-wide problem. But the agency’s facing plenty of other complaints, including those about cleanliness, security and social services for people with mental health issues or who are homeless.
“For any number of reasons, it’s a tough environment right now,” Carter said. “We’ve contracted directly with social service agencies … and we’ve also increased the presence of security personnel and other CTA employees to provide more visibility and more eyes and ears on the system that can help report crime and help address issues before they become more problematic.”
Amid the systemic challenges, Carter has taken his fair share of hits from passengers and politicians. Asked in a WTTW News interview earlier this month whether he’d keep Carter in the job, Mayor-elect Brandon Johnson said only that he planned to have a conversation with the CTA president.
“I think that’s important. I’m not a dictator,” Johnson said. “I have a particular vision. The city of Chicago surrounded my candidacy around the vision. I’m going to hear him out, and his expertise and his experiences in this particular role, and from that conversation we’ll make that determination on what the best pathway forward is for CTA.”