Faced with an acute shortage of bus drivers — to the point where trips are often canceled — Metro Transit is embracing a state initiative that uses apprenticeships to help new employees adapt to the rigors of the job.

Metro Transit currently employs 1,600 bus drivers but still has 90 positions open — up from 57 openings in May. Transit agencies across the country are faced with the same challenge of attracting new drivers, due largely to a strong economy and a low unemployment rate.

"This is not only about getting people in the door, but making sure new operators have the opportunity to have someone there to help coach them and mentor them," said Alene Tchourumoff, chairwoman of the Metropolitan Council, which oversees Metro Transit.

The concept of an apprenticeship — where an experienced hand shows a new employee the ropes — dates back to the Middle Ages. In modern times, apprenticeships are common in the building trades but not so much in the transportation field.

On Tuesday, Metro Transit made a formal announcement that it was participating in the Minnesota Apprenticeship Initiative, which hopes to attract up to 200 new employees in coming years. The initiative is operated by the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development (DEED) and the Department of Labor and Industry.

"Apprenticeships are one of the most successful workforce strategies that employers are using," said Jackie Buck, DEED's director of employer services. "It used to be you'd hear about them in construction, trades and unions, and that's part of it, but we're expanding it to nontraditional industries," including manufacturing, agriculture, health care, information technology and transportation.

Metro Transit and the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1005, which represents bus drivers, expect to enroll 40 new recruits this month.

Employers like Metro Transit involved in the initiative receive grants of $5,000 for each apprentice to help offset training costs. And apprentices participating in the program earn a wage while being trained.

Pay for bus drivers at Metro Transit begins at about $20 an hour. Employees are eligible for a union benefits package, and part-time workers are eligible for a pension.

Metro Transit, the state's largest public transit agency, has been struggling with a driver shortage for months as it operates 130 bus routes and provides 260,000 trips a day.

Alec Johnson, a 12-year Metro Transit bus driver and instructor, said peer-to-peer mentoring in the workplace is "somewhat of a lost cause. If you would have told me an apprenticeship was applicable to our job, I'm not sure I would have believed it."

But now he's a convert. "Being a bus operator is not only about operating a large vehicle through very challenging conditions, but there's a high exposure to stress and certain dangers you might not face in other occupations.

"You are front-line employees wearing many different hats," Johnson added. "Bus drivers are customer service reps, ticket agents, information givers, tour guides, security guards, psychiatrists, arbitrators of conflict, social workers on wheels, but at the same time you can feel very alone."

Often family and friends don't understand the challenges of the job, Johnson said.

Ryan Timlin, ATU Local 1005 president, said recent incidents of bus drivers being assaulted by passengers haven't helped efforts to recruit new employees. Several of the attacks have been shared widely on social media.

But, Timlin said, "not every assault is avoidable but there are things you can do to de-escalate a situation." In that regard, he added, training and mentoring can really help new drivers endure tough times.

Janet Moore • 612-673-7752 @MooreStrib