RFTA taps Puerto Rico for drivers
August 7, 2008
ASPEN ” The regional bus system is going offshore but not beyond the U.S. border, for the second straight year in a search for bus drivers.
Specifically, the Roaring Fork Transportation Authority is sending a recruiting team to the island nation of Puerto Rico, a self-governing, unincorporated U.S. territory.
The agency picked up about a half-dozen drivers in Puerto Rico last year, from a list of prospects provided by the Rico Manpower employment service in Glenwood Springs, according to RFTA officials.
But this year, officials said, they are sending Jim Engler, an operations supervisor who helps with the annual recruitment effort, as well as another RFTA employee who is a Puerto Rican native, to comb the island for more drivers in September.
“We’d feel really good if we could get about 15 people from Puerto Rico for this year,” RFTA CEO Dan Blankenship said Wednesday.
RFTA’s John Hocker said last year’s crop of Puerto Rican drivers performed well.
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“They all turned out to be very good employees,” he said.
So good, added Kent Blackmer, also of the RFTA operations department, that they offered to promote the men from seasonal status to full-time, year-round drivers.
Several took the offer, and two drivers have moved their families to Colorado.
Engler will operate in the San Juan area, the island’s capital, conducting job fairs using the contacts provided by the native RFTA employee. The agency hopes to tap into the pool of Puerto Rican skilled drivers, although the commercial drivers license issued to Puerto Ricans is not valid in the mainland United States.
“Still, the fact is that they have that kind of training,” Hocker said, so the training process once they get here would be quicker and easier.
From year to year, RFTA employs 115 or so drivers in the summer and roughly 150 drivers in the winter.
“We struggle each year trying to determine what is the right number of people to try to recruit,” Blankenship said.
But with a wide range of variables coming to bear on yearly bus ridership numbers, planning is difficult, he said.
“We sometimes run the risk, if we over-recruit, of people not getting enough work,” he explained, adding that the company administration must plan for drivers taking sick days, general turnover and other relatively unforeseeable circumstances.
Rookie drivers from Puerto Rico, he said, are paid the basic starting salary of $17 per hour, and while they are not required to be fluent in English, knowledge of the language “is pretty helpful.”
Last year’s crop of Puerto Rican drivers all were “were very fluent in English, actually bilingual, basically,” Blankenship said. And Hocker noted that English is taught in the grade schools in Puerto Rico, so the expectation is that future hires will have good English language skills as well.
Puerto Rico is not the only area that RFTA is combing for drivers. Officials said the agency also has tapped into summer resort areas in Alaska, Wyoming, Montana and Cape Cod, Mass., looking for drivers in the bus systems in those areas who typically work the summer months, take some time off and then are looking for winter jobs.
“We want to find as many different markets as we can to recruit from,” Blankenship said.
Hocker added that RFTA “never really did the visa thing,” i.e. hiring recruits from foreign countries, which requires special temporary work visas. The Aspen Skiing Co. and other businesses that have gone the foreign-worker route have reported the federal government is tightening up its visa process and issuing perhaps half as many as in the past.
Blankenship has been working with other local governmental agencies to come up with affordable housing for RFTA workers.
“Affordable housing is the only way we’re ever going to be able to answer our recruitment problems,” he said.
Currently, he said, the agency controls 10 two-bedroom units and four one-bedroom residences in Burlingame Housing Inc., a seasonal complex near Buttermilk; a five-unit apartment building in Carbondale, plus another Carbondale property with 25 beds in it.
He said the agency also owns five acres in Glenwood Springs, three acres in Carbondale and a quarter-acre in New Castle, all of which is being eyed for affordable-housing projects.