Steve Gieske can tell you exactly when it became harder to keep his body shop employees at the Regional Transportation District (RTD): May 2017, when the mother of all hail storms hit Northern Colorado.
“That's when we really started to see an issue,” said Gieske, RTD's general superintendent of maintenance for bus operations.
That storm caused $2.3 billion in damages and some 167,000 auto insurance claims. That meant a boom for autobody shops and for the people who staff them.
While RTD’s body shop workers are unionized and are guaranteed 40 hours a week, Gieske said the temptation of higher wages in the private sector proved too great.
"You work a little bit harder, you can make a lot more money than you can make here," he said. "That's probably why we aren't seeing the guys come here."
More hail storms have hit the area since then, which Gieske said contributes to his current shortage. He’s about 16 body repair workers short of the 35 he needs to fully staff a large 15-bay RTD shop in Denver’s River North neighborhood. Gieske said he also is about 40 mechanics short of the 189 he needs.
The shortages mean that some buses are back on the street before every ding and scrape gets buffed out. It also means RTD is subcontracting some minor work, like upholstery for light rail vehicles. That costs more than doing the work themselves, Gieske said.
“We would much rather do it inside,” he said.
The worker shortage goes beyond hail damage, said James Boone, a technical trainer and RTD employee of 22 years. Where workers at a private body shop specialize in one or two areas, RTD’s employees must know ten—from welding to upholstery to making their own parts.
“Trying to find someone that can do all of that is getting harder,” Boone said.
Gieske said RTD is trying to attract more novice job candidates, so it can train them in all of the necessary areas. The agency is also working with some nearby community colleges to create a pipeline from the classroom to RTD.