On a hot spring day, students circled a Metro Transit bus, watching intently as their instructor gave each wheel a solid whack with a hammer.
Tire pressure, good. Mirrors, adjusted. Brakes and lights and doors, all working smoothly. Bus interior, clean. Everything safe and set for the next class of Metro bus drivers to take the wheel.
Metro Transit is hiring.
Experience has taught transit officials that their next bus driver could come from anywhere. They've put Ph.D.s behind the wheel. They've taught teachers and lawyers and police officers and health care workers how to thread an articulated bus between the potholes and orange barrels of summer construction season in the city.
"We can train people to drive a bus," said Donathan Brown, assistant director of bus administration. "I'd say the perfect person [for the job] is someone who actually likes people."
The pandemic gave Minnesotans time to consider whether the careers they had before lockdown are the careers they want afterward.
Metro Transit is hoping at least 80 to 100 people — people who enjoy the public part of public transportation — will sign on as full-time bus drivers before commuters start commuting again.
German Gonzalez Sr. and German Gonzalez Jr. are father and son and Metro Transit teammate trainees.
During the lesson on how to run the bus pre-check, Gonzalez Sr., 64, took careful notes, even though he's an experienced school bus driver who's used to making sure his vehicle is safe and his passengers are happy.
"We're not just bus drivers," he said. "A lot of times we help the students with their problems. We're almost like social workers in a way."
It's not the first time the Gonzalez family has shared a workplace. Years ago, they worked construction together. Now, they study together, commute to class together and compete good-naturedly to see who scores higher on the training tests.
"There's a little bit of pride that goes with this, to be able to do this with my dad," said Gonzalez Jr. He's been working for Metro Transit, maintaining the vehicles. Now, he's excited to start driving them.
"A smile goes a long way," Gonzalez Jr. said, already looking forward to his first passengers. "If you see somebody in the morning, maybe they're running late for work — maybe you can change their experience. It's an experience we're providing."
Bus drivers see the city at its best and its worst and its weirdest. The best of them like what they see.
Melanie Benson, the 2020 Metro Transit operator of the year, found her calling on a cold, rainy day in 1974, when she was a Macalester College student waiting at a bus stop.
"When that red bus came over the hill, it looked like my savior," she said in an interview posted on the Metro Transit site. "And I just thought, 'Wouldn't it be nice to have a job where everyone's always so glad to see you?' "
Metro Transit has 1,200 bus operators — more than enough to keep its buses on the road and passengers in motion. Especially now. Metro Transit ridership dropped to about a third of its normal levels during the pandemic.
But about 200 drivers have retired over the past year. To encourage their replacements to apply, the system is offering a $1,000 hiring bonus to anyone who applies and completes training.
If the job sounds appealing, Metro Transit is hosting job fairs at its downtown Minneapolis training facility on June 23 and 26. For more information, visit www.metrotransit.org/drive.
Navigating Twin Cities traffic and eternal road construction, being the smiling face that greets bleary morning commuters isn't for everyone. There are days when commuters are crabby. There are days when the bus driver is the first responder to someone who's hurt, or hurting others. There are days with traffic jams and snowstorms and road hogs.
But the good days far outnumber the bad for Dorothy Maki-Green, who started her career on the 4 a.m. shift along Lake Street.
"In all my years of driving, most of it has been so good. Most people are good people," said Maki-Green, who's an instructor now. If you want to know what's really going on in this town, she said, "You ask the bus drivers. We know this city. We are the heartbeat of this city."
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