Metro Transit provided an average 120,000 rides on buses and trains each weekday in May, marking the fifth straight month that passenger count has gone up.

As ridership slowly rebounds after taking a nosedive with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the transit agency has struggled to hire enough drivers to fill its routes. Metro Transit estimates it is 200 to 300 drivers short and will need them to maintain current service levels and have enough operators to launch new initiatives such as the Hennepin Avenue bus rapid transit line set to start in 2025.

To fill the vacancies, Metro Transit is reaching deeper into its recruitment tool box by holding a hiring fair in conjunction with Saturday's Bus Roadeo finals, an event that has not been open to the public in decades.

Past hiring fairs have required candidates to come to an office, "but that doesn't work any more," said Amina Wolf, interim deputy director of bus operations. "We are trying to get out more into the community. We are coming to them. We are meeting them where they are."

To whet the appetite for a transit career, Saturday's event in a parking lot on the east side of the Mall of America in Bloomington will resemble a festival. Along with entertainment, activities for kids, and the opportunity to get a COVID vaccination shot, the main event will feature 15 drivers who qualified for the finals of the skills competition. Finalists will perform maneuvers they execute on the street and score points for how well they do.

Drivers, who voluntarily compete on their off hours, have seven minutes to complete 11 challenges. Those include tasks such as navigating constructions zones, making tight turns and lowering a wheelchair ramp at a bus stop with the goal of coming as close as possible to the center of the target. Judges are strict in scoring. Drivers with the best marks earn berths in state, regional and national contests.

Transit officials are hoping the Bus Roadeo will attract drivers like Papani Ata-Edon, who joined Metro Transit as a new driver last year and competed in the Roadeo this year for the first time.

"I like it," he said about driving a bus. "I like being outside, seeing nature and the scenery."

Ata-Edon was one of 100 drivers who participated in the Roadeo's qualifying rounds Thursday, but he did not make the finals.

Driving a 40-ton bus can be intimidating, Wolf admits, but "don't let the big bus scare you," she said. "It can be like driving your own car."

Wolf, a former school bus driver, came to Metro Transit 19 years ago and found a career. During her tenure, she has driven buses and light-rail trains and now is in management. The agency provides all the training and will help candidates get licensed. Driving, she said, provides a vital service.

"We don't just drive the bus through the community, we are part of the community and connect with the community," she said.

Ridership through the end of May has grown across all modes compared to the same time last year. The largest percentage increase is in express bus ridership, which has nearly doubled since last year, to an average of 4,000 weekday rides, the transit agency said. Average weekday ridership on the new Orange Line, the bus line connecting downtown Minneapolis to Burnsville via I-35W, topped 1,000 in May. That was more than double the average on the limited-stop route it replaced, the agency said

Transit officials can't point to a specific reason ridership is rising, but high gas prices and more workers returning to the office could be playing a role, said Eric Lind, manager of analytics and research.

Metro Transit wants to restore routes and trips that were cut when the pandemic hit. To do that, the agency needs drivers, full time or part time. This year, the agency has hired 63 new operators, but 112 have left the agency. The net loss of 49 operators — bus and light rail — illustrates the difficulty the agency is facing.

David Nelson, a 2016 Roadeo champion and 13-year veteran, hopes that making events like the Bus Roadeo public can help stem the staffing losses.

"It shows the community about the job," he said. "It gives it exposure" and maybe people "will give it a try."