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What’s harder to get into: Stanford or SEPTA? The incredibly competitive world of transit careers

To drive for SEPTA: These careers, whether on the bus, trolley or train system, have long been desirable jobs for people in Philly. And indeed, the transit authority offers a lot of field positions from bus and light rail operator, to train conductor or engineer. But getting one of those jobs might not be as easy as you think.

SEPTA aims to hire approximately 22-26 people per month. Specifically, in 2014, they hired 264 people. Keep in mind, they received 10,472 applications. That’s a 2.5 percent acceptance rate.

For context, Stanford, which is the most selective University in the country, has a 5.7 percent acceptance rate.

That’s a lot of applications, but for good reason. SEPTA Workforce Planning Manager Joseph G. Quinn says a career as a bus operator can provide a nice living for people. Beginners start off by making about $16.62 an hour, and that number increases by approximately $3 each year until year four, when drivers are making the maximum amount of about $27.70 an hour.

Tony Linsay, a 27-year veteran who currently drives for SEPTA’S Midvale District, told us why so many people have been applying for these positions.

“The way the economy and job market is, it’s easier to meet requirements. You don’t have to have a Master’s or Bachelor’s.” But, he said, “There’s more to know than just driving. You have to have customer service skills.”

Though established drivers like Linsay may consider the job relatively easy, Quinn says SEPTA wants a ton of applications because that allows for a very selective hiring process.

“We’re serving the public,” he told Billy Penn. “It’s extremely important that we have the best people we can possibly have.”

So how do you become a SEPTA bus driver?

There are nine bus/light rail districts: Allegheny, Callowhill, Comly, Elmwood, Frankford, Frontier, Midvale, and Southern, and Victory. These districts deploy bus and light rail routes throughout the area mentioned above.

There is a general, five-step process to becoming a driver on one of these routes:

  1. SEPTA looks at the preliminary screening questions that applicants initially complete online. “The screening questions give us a quick look at the candidate and help us determine who to look at first,” said Quinn.
  2. SEPTA chooses applicants based on a review of their online profile from their submitted online application, looking for the person who comes the closest to their view of a “perfect candidate”
  3. If selected, you have to do a “behavioral assessment” administered by Vangent Inc., a government health-care contractor. The company’s test is designed to detect unethical and counterproductive behavior. It measures personal characteristics like honesty and decision-making, but also touches on safe work habits and drug avoidance.
  4. The last bar is a three-year good driving record. Without that, you’re definitely not getting an interview.
  5. If you get an interview, you’ll need a Commercial Driver’s License, or CDL, if you don’t have one already. This lets people operate larger vehicles like buses — and it’s an out-of-pocket cost of $100 you’ll have to pay. Then you’ll need a full medical exam, which includes a drug and alcohol test.

Requirements

A high school diploma or GED is mandatory. But an operator must also have people skills. For example, my freshman year of high school, I took the same bus with the same driver every morning, and each morning I stepped on the bus to a personal greeting. As small as it may seem, being that warm and friendly can help people remember you for a long time.

“We can teach anyone to drive. We want to see people skills — being able to engage with and relate to the public,” Quinn said. “[Drivers] are out there on their own. They need to be able to turn complaints into compliments.”

Quinn also pointed out that SEPTA complies with Philly’s “ban the box” policy, which prohibits employers from asking candidates about criminal history on the first application. A criminal record could still be a red flag though, especially if the record is drug- or alcohol-related.

Oh, and SEPTA gets your full driving history, so when you go in for an interview, don’t even think about lying about the time you got busted for speeding when your friends challenged you to a race on the Boulevard.

Once you have the job

There is a four- to six-week training program for bus operators. This is where you learn the different routes and areas of your assigned district.

SEPTA has an instruction department. This department consists of mostly former drivers who train new drivers. Instructors rotate from district to district to assist newcomers. If you went through the application process and you’ve been hired, you can lose your job if you drive poorly during training.

Andre Jones, a 25-year veteran of SEPTA’s Southern District, said the most difficult thing he had to learn was familiarizing himself with a new part of the city.

Another difficulty Jones struggled with is the lack of awareness riders have of rules bus drivers have to follow. Did you ever run after the bus that’s already pulled away from the stop, and think the driver was a jerk for not waiting for you? According to Jones, drivers are mandated not to stop. Signs are posted advising SEPTA passengers of this rule in transportation centers.

Some days, driving the bus is the least of his worries. “You have to be customer-friendly,” Jones said. “There are so many different hats you have to wear. It’s important to know when you have to wear each one.” Jones told me he had to wear his “paramedic hat” when he dropped a person off near the entrance of a hospital to tend to a gunshot wound to the foot.

“It takes five years before you become a professional driver,” Jones said. “It takes certain situations and experiences to really mold you.”

SEPTA drivers are subject to random drug tests over their careers. But barring any violations on those, once you’re in, you’re likely in for life. Operating careers last around 30 years, and some last as many as 45.

How to become a rail operator

Rail Operators are very desirable positions.

“People just find the idea of operating trains to be really cool,” Quinn said. So don’t expect to see a job posting very often. If you want one of these gigs, you better watch SEPTA’s website like a hawk.

People come into this job as a conductor/engineer trainee. There’s a six-month training process. Then, they start off as assistant conductors. Assistant conductors simply punch the tickets of passengers. To become a conductor or engineer, you have to learn a lot about the system.

The system includes:

  1. All of the geographical area SEPTA’s regional rail routes cover
  2. Learning the routes of each regional rail line
  3. Learning how to operate a train
  4. Reading rail traffic signals

As a rail operator, vigilance is critical. Some regional rail lines share tracks with Amtrak trains. There are also a number of railroad crossings and the possibility of people straying onto tracks. Honestly, it sounds pretty stressful.

Tips for aspiring SEPTA operators

Quinn has a few tips for young people interested in a career in SEPTA, and the first one is to check for new job posts every week.

“Working in different places like McDonald’s can benefit you,” he said. “There, you have to work with people face-to-face everyday.” Having good face-to-face, out-of-the-office people skills, along with self-motivation, are among the top qualities for candidates.

In addition, Quinn said it is important for people’s applications to speak to the story of who they actually are. In other words, be as transparent about things they ask you about as possible.

He also pointed out if you want to have a career with a company badly enough, it is important to know as much as possible about the company going into an interview process.

Not interested in operating a bus or train? Public Information Manager Kristen Geiger had some pretty good things to say about other SEPTA careers — custodians, cashiers and customer service jobs. “Our field is always evolving,” Geiger said, though she also stressed the importance of customer interaction here. “There’s more to SEPTA outside of just operating a bus.”

Photo by Dan Marvin from Wikimedia Commons

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