As a playwright, Muhammad Bilal “Bi” Islam would see stories everywhere he looked. Now a SEPTA bus driver, Islam still sees details that would wind up in plays, if he hadn’t left that career behind.
“Since I’ve been driving, I can’t look at people that way,” said Islam, whose career as a playwright came to an abrupt halt when the pandemic struck. “My mind is on operating the bus.”
He was in the middle of working on six shows in production when theaters closed in March 2020. He and his wife tried to hang on, relying on her salary, but money grew tight. It was time to pivot.
For Islam, the future of work is driving a bus.
“If I put my mind to it, I could find the stories,” he said. “But my mind is not there. You have to watch the fare. You have to watch the people get on the bus. You have to watch the traffic lights. There is so much.”
Islam, 59, of Darby, started at SEPTA in January. He came into it with an advantage. He already had his commercial driver’s license (CDL) and had been driving school buses, a part-time job with a weekends-free predictable schedule that left him enough time for theater.
People who want to drive a bus for SEPTA do not need a CDL to be hired. SEPTA will help them obtain it as part of the training. More important is a clean driving record, punctuality, and good people skills, said Greg Branch, SEPTA’s director of recruiting and training.
The operator “has to drive the bus, but he has to maintain a level of civility on the bus,” Branch said. “Anger management issues, drug issues — they encounter all those things on a daily basis driving a bus. That can be tough.”
SEPTA bus operators earn $18 to $19 an hour to start and about $55,000 a year after about four years on the job, Branch said. Overtime is often available.
In the Philadelphia region, the annual median wage — meaning half earn more and half earn less — for transit and intercity bus drivers was $22.21 an hour, or $46,190 a year, according to the U.S. Labor Department’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Some drivers earn more than $64,200 a year, while pay at the bottom end runs around $15.46 hourly.
It’s interesting that the Atlantic City/Hammonton, New Jersey area ranks as one of the best places to work in terms of pay. Only about 250 people have those jobs, but those who do earn more than their counterparts elsewhere — median pay of $28.87 per hour or $60,040 annually, with some topping $67,750. Only 10% or fewer earn less than $23.16 an hour.
By 2028, the nation will need an additional 11,300 transit and intercity bus drivers and 21,600 more school bus drivers, with employment growth in both categories mirroring the pace of growth for all occupations, according to U.S. Labor Department forecasts.
It is not clear whether the government forecasts are taking into account the emergence of automation. Driverless buses are on the horizon, calling into question the future of work for people such as Islam.
Around the globe, in Australia, Singapore and Sweden, bus manufacturers and researchers are building driverless buses. Autonomous shuttle buses move in dedicated lanes in Jacksonville, Fla., and Las Vegas. Gainesville, Fla.’s public transit fleet includes a handful of small driverless buses that operate on the city streets.
For the most part, at least for now, most driverless buses used in transit are still manned, even if the employees aren’t actually driving the bus.
Transit experts see a role for small driverless buses in last-mile situations, such as from a suburban rail station to an office complex. Other possibilities include a bus convoy — all buses moving together to a high-demand location at a high-demand time.
In the future, even buses that have an attendant on board in the streets may be empty and driverless in the depot, where the buses are washed, refueled, or charged, and parked.
That’s the future, but for the moment, neither Branch nor Pam Boswell, the American Public Transportation Association’s vice president for workforce development and educational services, sees any slowdown in the demand for drivers.
Whatever happens in the future, SEPTA needs bus drivers now.
“We’re actively hiring 25 to 30 bus drivers every month,” Branch said. “For the immediate future, we anticipate we are going to move people around in buses until they come up with flying cars or buses.”
Turnover is high in the first few years, he explained. Lacking seniority, drivers end up with the worst shifts and face schedules that change week to week. “A lot of them will transfer to other jobs,” such as maintenance and supervision.
“There’s a lot of discussion around autonomous vehicles,” Boswell said. “I think we’re a long way off from that. It’s not happening in the short-term.”
Islam sees the future of driving the same way. “I tell my nephews: Get your license, get your CDL.”
Both Boswell and Branch talked about the potential for advancement. At SEPTA, Branch said, “it’s a great area to start a career pathway,” even for people without a college degree. “We have people who started out as bus drivers moving up to the C-suite.” Some of SEPTA’s top managers started off driving a bus, including Shwana Rogers, senior director of the Northern Division, and Aleta Evans, chief control center officer.
Boswell said that bus drivers often get trained by transit authorities and are then hired away. “Skills they have are marketable in other places. They are being approached by the trucking industry, which may have higher salaries.”
For Islam, the pivot has not been easy emotionally.
“I’m not going to say it was hard to take the job, but it was hard to make the decision to change my life,” he said.
Islam had always loved theater. When he was younger, he tried his hand at acting, but he simply didn’t have the ability to remember lines. He found that he was a quick study at writing with a knack for knowing how to entertain, but at the same time convey important and difficult ideas.
He kept plugging away, but it was only in the last few years that he was finally gaining traction.
When the pandemic struck, it knocked out After the Eulogy, Islam’s play about the aftermath of gun violence. It had been scheduled for performance on March 28, 2020, at the Venice Island Performing Arts Center. He was directing Not Without My Habib, slated for an April performance at the same theater.
“The pandemic changed a lot of lives,” he said. He has four children — the youngest is 15, and his wife works cleaning operating room equipment at an area hospital. Had he been successful in obtaining government loans, he might have been able to sustain production.
“When I got to that point where it just wasn’t happening anymore, I knew I had to get a job — a real job,” he said. “I don’t see theater changing for me no time soon. I can’t hold on to it.
“I’m not the only person that went through it,” Islam said. “I know a lot of people that don’t have the chance that I have. I have an opportunity with this job.”
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