When Lee Estis began as a bus operator in 2013, he frequently turned to peers with more experience for advice.
One particularly useful insight – “When all else fails, just stop the darn bus and think about what you’re doing” – has come into play more than once.
So when Estis had an opportunity to pass that and other words of wisdom along as a mentor to new operators during their first year on the job, he didn’t hesitate.
“I really got a lot out of the older guys who showed me the ropes and taught me some things that are still with me today, so I thought if I could have that kind of impact on anybody why wouldn’t I do that?” Estis said.
That willingness to share, and a positive reception from new hires, has helped Metro Transit’s Bus Operator Apprenticeship Program get off to a successful start. The program, a partnership between the ATU Local 1005 and Metro Transit, was recently celebrated after 29 operators recently finished their first year on the job.
By participating in the mentorship program and meeting other training criteria, the new operators became Metro Transit's first Certified Bus Operators. The apprenticeship program is modeled after programs for plumbers, pipefitters and other skilled trade workers.
The apprenticeship program is ongoing, with 50 mentors working with more than 150 apprentices. Future new hires will also have the chance to participate.
At a recent graduation event, several mentees and mentors spoke positively about their experience, which included one-on-one meetings, ride-alongs and group meetings where they could speak freely about challenges they were facing.
Operator Monica King said her mentor, Monique Mitchell, was an invaluable resource during her first months on the job. King’s previous experience included regularly riding transit in North Minneapolis and a couple of long-distance drives in a U-Haul.
“We got a lot of information in those first five weeks, so a lot of stuff wasn’t clear or didn’t stick,” King said. “Having this program helped in a lot of ways. If I had questions, I could come back to it when I thought of it again.”
Operator Anthony Yates spent four years as a bus operator in Kansas City, Mo., and moved to Minnesota to be closer to family. While that work history gave him an idea of what was in store, Yates said he was grateful for the assurance provided by his mentor, Joe Hester.
“It’s a different place with a different breed of people, and it really helped to have a mentor who could help you get past that, to tell you to just do your thing, focus on you and make sure you get home safe,” Yates said.
Like many pairings, Yates and Hester became fast friends, regularly exchanging texts and phone calls. During a recent visit at Ruter Garage, they talked about a forthcoming gender reveal party Yates’ family was hosting and their shared interests – cars, trucks and drawing.
While the mentorship period is ending for the first group of participants, many said they plan to stay in contact throughout their careers. The program’s benefits weren’t one-directional either.
Mitchell said being a mentor made her proud and revealed skills like leadership and communication she hopes will help her further her career. She also found it rewarding to help new operators avoid some of the hardships she faced when she started out.
“I was really hoping for something like this when I was a young driver – to have somebody to talk to, somebody to look to for guidance, to point me in the right direction,” Mitchell said. “I’m glad this program is here and that I’m a part of it.”
If you like working with people and want to make a difference in your community, come help us run our growing transit system! Learn more about what it takes to become a bus operator at metrotransit.org/drive.