How Top Pay Cripples Transit Drivers

Golden handcuffs are a collection of financial incentives that are intended to encourage employees to remain with a company for a stipulated period of time. Golden handcuffs are offered by employers to existing key employees as a means of holding onto them as well as to increase employee retention rates”

Driving transit can be a really lucrative job. I go on record quite often saying it’s still the only 6 figure entry-level job in the country, and while that can be very promising, it also comes with huge drawbacks.

Once upon a time ago, when Supir was a different kind of recruitment firm, we talked to literally thousands of drivers, who all wanted to leave their agency or switch positions.

But the majority of them had one common problem.

They couldn’t afford too leave.

I can’t tell you how many times we’ve worked with drivers on trying to find them different opportunities but simply could not meet the requirements. Not because we were bad or inefficient, but because the salaries we had to meet weren’t the rule, they were the exception.

It is my belief that the average driver has about 10-15 years of transit operations before their morale and temperament start to deteriorate. This isn’t the fault of the agency or the operator, rather circumstance. 15 years of doing any high-stress job is more than enough for anybody to lose a step or two psychologically

In that period you grow stale, frustrated, and quite frankly bored. In my experience, I have discovered that as an operator, you tend to hit that ceiling around your 7-8 year mark. There are only so many routes, so many shifts, so many runs, so many picks, and so many challenges before your brain masters most of them, and goes on full autopilot.

This plays a big part in “rude” bus drivers who tend to be mean to customers. While some of it is poor performance, another part of it is stress. Imagine being somewhere you don’t like, but knowing you cannot leave. 

When I began my career as a transit operator, starting pay was $13 an hour while top pay was about $25, with the difference being 5 years of operational time. I left bus operations in my 10th year, leaving behind an hourly rate of $33 per and a final W2 of about $103,000 that year.

Regularly clocking $100,000 a year by the age of 30 placed me in the 15th percentile of earners in this country. 

Awesome right? 

Not really.

All it did was eliminate potential opportunities and set an unreasonable bar for what I needed to make to sustain my current quality of life. Look no further than my brief tenure in MDOT’s service development department. I loved it there but just couldn’t afford to stay.

But how and why does this happen?

Like most bus drivers, (not all!) I did not come into bus operations with an extreme level of college education that would allow me to demand a particular salary had I had chosen to leave. This was all I had. My rates as a driver was determined by third party contractors CBA’s, and unions. Everyone had a say so in my salary, except me.

In 2022, The average rate for a transit driver is between $39,000- $52,000. I had never made anything under $55,000 per year at MDOT. (Overtime and extra shifts)

What I and others like me had earned was not the norm and as a result of that, a lot of operators end up paralyzed financially. “Golden Handcuffed”.

I was fortunate enough to have not purchased a home during my tenure at MDOT.  I didn’t have a lot of expenses that I wasn’t willing to part ways with and things of that nature. Truthfully,  when I left my job to build Supir,  I was 100% ok with a car being repossessed, paying a few bills late, and having my credit take an absolute dive to get my golden handcuffs off. 

For me, I knew that would be the only way I could build economic stability, however just because I was able to do that, doesn’t mean that is possible for others. In fact, that is not a particularly practical path for many, and If I had to be 100% honest it hasn’t all been great. I wrote an article about that and its impact on my mental health. You can read that at www.Gosupir.com or just click here

Here is the true issue in all of this, using myself as the example. I, like most drivers at least in a metro area come from a certain type of background and upbringing. While I won’t get into too much detail about it, the background wasn’t super great.

As a result of that, like a lot of other operators, driving transit was the first time I actually “had money”. Driving the bus opened many doors for me, and exposed me to things I’d never thought I see or have.

I was able to put my kids in private school, travel the world, and buy new cars about every 2 years. I had a lot of things and had a lot of access.  However what I did not have was an understanding of financial literacy, and how money works. No one told me how liabilities and assets actually operated in the real world.

I was taught to just work, make more money, and if I needed more, work overtime and then repeat the process.  As time would go on I would see just how unsustainable this actually was. 

You will burn out QUICK.

The unfortunate reality is that when people like me lack financial literacy they spend more money as they make it. Never breaking away from the middle-class trap.

When my salary was $15 an hour, my life reflected that. I had a used car that worked fine, a 2 bedroom apartment that I loved, and I was pretty happy. I had everything I needed to live comfortably.  Then my pay jumped to $20 (2012) and I naively left my apartment, got a condo downtown, and financed a brand new fully loaded Hyundai Sonata. (Which had the worst terms ever by a bank that was eventually shut down by the feds!)

Crucial mistake.

In hindsight, I didn’t have to leave my apartment and my car worked fine. I didn’t “need” to upgrade to anything. There was no logical reason for me to change anything outside of the fact I “could afford to”.

As a result of this mindset, the amount of money I had leftover to invest, save, etc never really changed. As my finances grew, so did my expenses.

 I would repeat this same pattern when I jumped to $25, and $28 per hour. I didn’t know better so I didn’t do better. When I hit 29 I read one of the best quotes I had ever seen. It said, “just because you can buy it, doesn’t mean you can afford it”.

 It would change my thinking moving forward about money and earning potential.

Imagine what I could have done financially If I maintained my $30,000 a year lifestyle while making $50,000. Unfortunately, I learned a lot of these money lessons really late, and it’s taken me the better part of 4 years to get things manageable. It took a lot of losses and I’ve downsized incredibly. This allows me more leverage for when If I choose to drive again. I would now only need to make $40,000-$50,000 a year as opposed to $70,000-$90,000.

As an operator regardless of what you make, try your best to keep your expenses at the “market rate”. This will grant you more flexibility and give you more options down the line if you choose to ever leave the bus. While $30+ per hour is great, it can be crippling if not managed correctly. With the help of a good friend who manages money for a living, we put together this article that highlights financial mistakes that bus operators need to avoid. You can read that here.

Golden handcuffs aren’t exclusive to bus operators as a lot of middle-class jobs have them. However, I’ve never worked any of those jobs so I’m not super qualified to speak on it. Investopedia has a great read on it, which you can view here.

If you are trying to break free of the golden handcuffs, here were some of the books that helped me.

Secrets Of The Millionaire Mind

The Magic Of Thinking Big

Be sure to share this article with your friends and other bus operators.

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