Metro Transit is finding it increasingly difficult to recruit bus drivers, and if more aren't found, the shortage could affect transit service across the Twin Cities metro.

It seems transit-loving millennials often take the bus, but few actually want to drive one for a living. The situation has been exacerbated by recent high-profile assaults of local drivers — attacks that have been captured by cellphone cameras and shared widely on social media.

Metro Transit hopes to address hiring problems by experimenting with programs promoting mentorship of new drivers, simplifying the application process and recruiting new employees in diverse communities. One of the main goals is to build a pipeline of drivers and increase the hire rate to 20 percent.

The transit agency has some 1,500 bus drivers in its system, but needs another 57 to fill out its workforce, said Brian Funk, deputy chief operations officer. The lack of drivers is concerning, he said, because "we're trying to deliver service to 250,000 people a day."

The conundrum is not unique to Metro Transit or to employers in other industries in the state looking for help, given the metro area's tight 3.2 percent unemployment rate. That's even lower than the national rate of 3.9 percent.

"With the unemployment rate being low, there are a lot of opportunities in other areas for work," said Jeff Hiott, assistant vice president at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA), a Washington, D.C.-based industry group. "So it does make it difficult for some agencies to attract employees."

Suburban bus service providers in the Twin Cities report similar challenges attracting recruits, although they don't appear to have widespread problems with assaults.

"When the economy gets better, it's a little more difficult to fill these positions," said Len Simich, CEO of SouthWest Transit, which provides service in Eden Prairie, Chanhassen, Chaska, Carver and surrounding communities. "We're kind of all in the same boat."

Chelsea Holiday, who has been a Metro Transit bus driver for two years, applied for a job with the transportation agency after working in a call center. "I rode the bus my whole life," she said, and she likes the work.

"The challenge at first is that driving a bus can be intimidating, but it's not as hard as it seems," Holiday said as she easily maneuvered the Route 865 Express bus in downtown Minneapolis Tuesday.

But the job can have drawbacks. At unionized operations like Metro Transit, new employees tend to be assigned to night, weekend and split shifts, and unpopular routes, according to Polly Hanson, APTA's director of security risk and emergency management. Plus, the job involves a high level of customer interaction, which drivers may or may not relish.

"Not everyone has those people skills," Hanson said, adding that drivers' schedules typically improve with their seniority.

On the flip side, according to Funk, the job offers a retirement plan and health care benefits along with pay that starts at $19.45 an hour with built-in negotiated raises. The top of the pay scale is about $58,000.

The average age of transit employees at Metro Transit is 48, and there's been a 33 percent reduction in bus operator applications since 2013.

"We've been challenged for several years on this front," Funk said. "We have workforce that is aging, a lot of retirements of long-term employees, and not being able to replace them quick enough."

Ridership on Metro Transit local buses declined 7 percent in the first quarter of 2018, likely due to a fare increase last fall and lower gas prices. At the same time, bus-rapid transit, such as the popular A Line, increased 3 percent during the same period. As gas prices creep up this summer, and road construction expands, more people are expected to rely on public transit as an alternative to driving.

"I don't see a lot of millennials behind the wheel [of a bus], although they're good bus customers," said Peter Pantuso, CEO of the American Bus Association, an industry group of private bus operators.

Funk acknowledges that coverage related to recent bus-driver assaults doesn't help with the recruiting effort. But he said the vast number of interactions between drivers and passengers is civil — "it's people moving along with their lives."

Ryan Timlin, president of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1005, said the recent assault of a driver on the Route 5 bus, which was widely shared on social media, "appalled people and showed them how rough the job can be."

As of mid-April, the number of assaults against Metro Transit bus and light-rail operators increased to 56 incidents compared with 49 over the same period last year. In 2017, there were 184 assaults against operators.

Many incidents involve passengers punching a driver in the face, choking, slapping or spitting on them, throwing bottles, and fighting with others on the bus.

Bus driver safety was a key issue during contract talks between the ATU and the Metropolitan Council earlier this year. Twenty-one buses are slated to be fitted for a plexiglass barrier beside the driver's seat in an effort to thwart attacks.

Controversy over the firing of a driver and the discipline of another erupted last week during a raucous Met Council Transportation Committee meeting, normally staid affairs. About 50 drivers attended the meeting, at times chanting, "We move this city!" and "Bring them back!"

Union members said the drivers defended themselves after being attacked. Metro Transit spokesman Howie Padilla declined to discuss specific cases, but said drivers "are allowed to defend themselves, if attacked, until the threat is over. [However], they can't become the aggressor."

Metro Transit and union officials have met to discuss the issue in an effort to reach consensus about how drivers may defend themselves, Timlin said.

"If you are getting punched, you go into self-defense mode, you're going to defend yourself," he said.

Holiday said she has never been assaulted while driving.

"I was given the advice early on not to sweat the fare," she said. "I can't be fussing with people. At the end of the day, we all still got to get home to our families."