(VIDEO) ‘Somebody cares.’ TriMet bus operators talk training, benefits and what makes them tick


UPDATE: As of May 1, 2022, TriMet increased the bus operator starting wage to $25.24 per hour. New bus operators are also eligible to receive a $7,500 hiring bonus. Learn more at trimet.org/drive.

What does it take to be a TriMet bus operator? If your answer started and ended with the words, “expert driver,” you’ve only heard part of the story. Just as much as bus operators are safe, dependable drivers, they are public servants. It’s a title that goes beyond the duties of your average driver to include kindness, compassion and care for people. Our bus operators are “people persons” first. They look out for people – the people on their bus, those walking, biking or driving near it, and those who are simply watching it go by. So it should come as no surprise that when you ask a bus operator why they love their job, they’ll tell you that it’s the people. 

As TriMet works to hire new bus operators and reverse the most severe staffing shortage in agency history, we tapped into the experience of bus drivers who love their work, to find out what it’s really like and what keeps them going. These are their unscripted answers to questions we commonly hear, accompanied by TriMet’s perspective. It’s our hope that by providing this information, we’ll convince others to join our team! Visit trimet.org/driveforus to learn how.

The operators

The training

Operator Robert Woodward got a taste for driving large vehicles when he was in the military, but the Oregon City native never expected to be driving a bus in Portland, where he says the streets are narrow, traffic can be heavy and frustration runs high. Now in the driver’s seat for more than seven years, Robert still remembers the conversation he had with a bus operator friend, who encouraged him to come to TriMet:

Robert: I’m like, it’s a 40 foot bus. He’s like no, it’s easy to drive. They train you, come on. I was like alright, I’ll see how it goes. So I went and got my CDL permit and got the interview, and by darn they do. They fully train you on everything, on the bus, how to deal with the public in different situations, and it really put us at ease. Now I absolutely love it. 

More from TriMet: All TriMet bus operators receive seven weeks of paid training. During training, new operators work 40-hour weeks at the starting rate for new bus operators, $21.84/hour. In addition to classroom and field instruction, new operators have the opportunity to earn their Commercial Driver License (CDL) certification during the training period. TriMet starts new training classes about every three weeks and has space for up to 26 new operators per class.

The work

Donnita McCown says that in her line of work as a bus operator, bad days are rare. McCown, who, like Robert, served in the military, spent 18 years as a stay-at-home mom before joining TriMet’s ranks eight years ago. She says the job is a perfect fit for her passion and personality.

Donnita: I love being a bus operator because I love being outside and yet not in the elements. Driving is my zen. It is my favorite thing in the whole world. My other thing is, I love talking to people. I love making them smile. There is no better feeling when someone gets on your bus and you can tell they’ve had a miserable day, and just a good morning, how are you, how are you doing? And they’re like wow, somebody cares. 

More from TriMet: Our bus operators come from all walks of life. They have different levels of education and work experience and one thing in common: the desire and ability to provide excellent customer service. While having a good driving record and being able to pass a background check and drug screen are all requirements of the job, we are also looking for people who enjoy talking with, helping, caring for and driving others, in a safe and professional way.       

The benefits

With nearly 25 years driving for TriMet, Ronald Jackson has his eye on retirement. He plans to drive another few years before parking his bus for good. Ronald’s mom drove for AC Transit in the San Francisco Bay area for 28 years! He says she offered encouragement and support along the way, but there was something Ronald saw at TriMet, that he believes can be hard to come by, with other employers.

Ronald: TriMet was different. It was the benefits, plus it was a union job. These days, health insurance is so expensive, so it appealed to me to get a job with a union, and a pension. My slogan is TriMet is the way to go, because you have the union, 401K plan and benefits. 

More from TriMet: We agree. The benefits TriMet offers to new bus operators really do set us apart. In addition to receiving a hiring bonus of $2,500 and starting pay of $21.84/hour, TriMet bus operators receive:

  • Health, dental, vision, disability and life insurance plans at low or no monthly cost
  • Pension and retirement plans, which include a monthly agency contribution of 8% of an employee’s base pay
  • One week of paid vacation and up to 40 hours sick leave in the first year of employment, with paid time off increasing over time
  • Health care and dependent care spending accounts, if desired
  • Access to our Employee Assistance Program with mental health and counseling services, legal assistance, financial coaching and home ownership programs
  • Annual transit pass (valued up to $1200) for employee and eligible family members
  • 24-hour access to five exclusive on-site fitness centers, with plans starting at $13/month
  • Representation by Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) 757

Ready to come on board? Join Donnita, Robert, Ronald and our team of more than 1,000 bus and rail operators! Visit trimet.org/driveforus to apply today.