Metro Transit has a big need for bus drivers, but the region's largest public transportation agency is having a hard time finding them.

Over the past three years, the number of applicants has fallen 25 percent, and only about a third of those who applied to become bus drivers actually followed through and completed testing requirements.

Meanwhile the agency, which operates 132 routes covering 902 square miles in the seven-county Twin Cities metro area, has a wave of retirements on the near horizon and ambitious plans to beef up service on existing bus routes, with proposals to add two more light-rail lines on the drawing board.

"We have to get more applicants into the system and be creative on how to recruit operators," said Christine Kuennen, assistant director of bus transportation. She noted that it takes 10 applications for every driver hired. "The typical recruitment effort is not enough to get qualified candidates."

So Metro Transit officials are pulling out all the stops to let people know they're hiring. A "Come Drive With Us" marketing campaign will include "we're hiring" banners plastered on Metro Transit buildings as well as bus wraps advertising jobs that start at $17.97 an hour. The effort includes radio spots, "Know Your Operator" videos in which current drivers chat up what they like about their jobs, and open houses at bus garages.

Transit representatives have also taken the "help wanted" message to mosques and churches, workforce centers and neighborhood celebrations to reach people of color and those outside the traditional workforce market. They also have held application and testing events, such as one on Saturday at Minneapolis Community and Technical College, to reach people who may not come to Metro Transit on their own.

"We're trying to introduce more people to the position," Kuennen said. "This is boots on the ground and helping people who may not know how to apply. Going online [to apply] can be complex and not intuitive for everybody. We want to make sure that barrier is broken down."

Newly minted driver Monique White found Metro Transit while attending a job fair at a YWCA and took a commercial driver's license course there.

"I had always wanted to drive for Metro Transit, but I didn't know how to apply or get into the program," said White, a former school bus driver who has been on the job for six months and who drives routes 12, 18 and 664 part time. "I will tell anybody I'm really glad I went."

So is Metro Transit. The agency has been short on bus drivers since 60 were plucked from the ranks and promoted to train operators when the Green Line opened in 2014, Kuennen said. She attributes the sharp downturn in applications to an improved economy and an unemployment rate of less than 4 percent, one of the lowest in the nation's big cities.

Metro Transit has 1,470 full- and part-time drivers, but 117 are eligible for retirement this year. That number will grow to 300 by 2020. By then, the agency will need to replace those drivers and hire an additional 300 if expansion plans for services such as the new bus rapid transit Orange Line from Minneapolis to Burnsville proceed and more light-rail lines are built.

So far, Metro Transit has been able to keep all trips rolling, but it has required paying drivers overtime and part-timers picking up extra shifts.

"We've been fortunate to have a dedicated workforce to make it work," Kuennen said. "It has not been easy."

Many who begin as part-time drivers are promoted to full time within a few months, she said.

Shortages elsewhere, too

The Minnesota Valley Transit Authority, which provides service in eight suburbs south of the Minnesota River, finds itself in the same boat.

"We are in the same situation that other transit agencies are experiencing," said spokeswoman Robin Selvig. "We do have a shortage of drivers, but we are getting by. Sometimes operations managers, supervisors or trainers will take a route out. We've noticed that in recruitment areas, it's been challenging."

Transit Team, one of three companies that provides Metro Mobility service, isn't facing a shortage, but it too has a need for more drivers, said Vice President Stacie Richter. The company says that it has 250 drivers but that it is constantly hiring to stay ahead of the growth of ridership. Last year, Metro Mobility provided 2,109,392 rides, up from 1,261,054 a decade ago, according to Met Council figures. The service provides door-to-door rides for people with disabilities.

"With other businesses and organizations also facing a need for qualified drivers, it can be difficult to differentiate our company and service from other driving jobs," she said. "The hardest part can sometimes be getting the qualified applicants in the door."

With Metro Transit, drivers get on-the-job training, and once on the road, they often stay long-term.

"This is an interesting and satisfying job," said spokesman Howie Padilla. "People often spend decades and careers here."