Can Taxi Drivers Become Therapists? Creative Solutions to Industry Job Loss

The Future of Work Series

In the next fifteen years, as many as 3.1 million car, bus and truck driving jobs in the U.S. are at risk of elimination by self-driving vehicles. Which begs the question: where will all the drivers go? Using the taxi-driver population as an example, this article explores transferable skill sets and creative approaches to retraining, and stresses the identification of high-growth industries to offset industry job loss.

I’ve spent the last two years in Chicago and – as a city dweller without a car – have taken a lot of cab rides.

Despite the rise in popularity of services like Uber and Lyft, I have remained loyal to the cabbies. I often engage in conversation with the drivers, the majority of whom have immigrated to the United States in order to escape difficult circumstances at home. I have met drivers from Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey and Georgia; Somalia, Angola, Libya and Ethopia; Russia, India, and Pakistan; and most recently a surprising number of female drivers from the far-flung regions of Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.

Who are they? Some are orphans. Others, asylum seekers. Most are brave, hard-working individuals. While their stories are varied, the refrain is similar: many of these drivers are here because they had to flee for a better life. A better job, a better country, a better living arrangement. Many of the young African men haven’t seen their families in years. For some, decades. They don’t know when they will see them again – if they will ever see them again.

They work hard, and – by my observation – they put up with a hell of a lot. Rude patrons, out-of-towners who don’t have a clue where they’re going, suspicious people and – most obviously – the drunks.

Drunk people span a spectrum. The most innocuous ones are simply more chatty than usual. The moderately risky ones ask the same questions repeatedly and try to lean through the cab partition. The high risk ones pass out, throw up, become verbally abusive to the cabbie and/or try to run out without paying. The worst ones won’t get out of the cab and have to be forcibly removed. During a recent ride, a jovial middle-aged Indian man described one such situation:

“The man was lying across the back seat, and I was telling him to get out of the car and go to bed. ‘I am in my bed!’, he said. He kept repeating himself, saying ‘I’m home! I’m home! This is my home!’ I laughed and told him he could have the taxi for his home if that was really his desire! I had to call the police to remove him. This happens more often than you might think.”

Recalcitrant drunks aside, there has been another theme across the dozens of stories I have heard – another group of people who (drunk or not, but admittedly more open after throwing a few back) are seemingly in need of….attention. They have problems to share and they are not afraid to divulge the (often sappy) details.

These are the folks who spill their stories to the cab driver as if he were the bartender at the neighborhood pub - or better yet, their therapist. The younger set – college students or professionals in their twenties and early thirties – seem especially needy. Give them a few mojitos and you may hear more than you ever wanted to know about Millennials and the City.

A few observations on the drivers who divulge these stories to me: they have patience. And good listening skills. And, from what I can tell, pretty damn good advice – to the extent I’ve started wondering how many young, suburban-raised kids have been talked down from a bad (perhaps life-endangering) decision by one of the last people their parents would expect. (I have a similar theory regarding bathroom attendants – to be explored in a future article.)

One driver told me he is technically prohibited – by his cab company’s policy – against offering advice. But that didn’t stop him from trying to interfere when he saw a bad situation. Upon learning of my date at the park one day, the gregarious Pakistani driver, smiling in the rearview, said:

“That is great you’re going on a nice date. People these days, they don’t do that so much. You should see what I see. Girls crying in the back seat. Every weekend! Every weekend, ‘He doesn’t like me, why doesn’t he like me? What did I do wrong?’

And then the men, they are so much worse! There will be two of them in the back seat, I drop off the girl, and then the guy says take me to xyz address and he meets another one! And I ask myself, what is wrong with the world today? What is happening here?

I am not supposed to offer advice, but how do I sit here and say nothing when people are making these decisions? When the girl is crying in the back seat? So I say things like ‘You are better than you think you are. Don’t put up with that.’ I say things like that, and after a few minutes maybe the girl doesn’t cry so much anymore.

I am a driver, yes, but I am still a person sitting up here. I am still human – you know?”

An At-Risk Industry

According to a recent White House report, in the next fifteen years between 2.2 and 3.1 million car, bus and truck driving jobs in the U.S. will be eliminated by the advent of self-driving vehicles.

The numbers are staggering. Taxi companies have already been hammered by the rise of ride-sharing companies like Uber, Lyft, and Sidecar: take Santa Ana, California as an example. Between March of 2014 and 2015 the number of registered taxicab drivers in the county dropped 18 percent to 1,315 drivers; in 2016 that number dropped by nearly 35 percent to 857 taxicab drivers registered through the Orange County Taxi Administration Program.

Which begs the question: where will all the drivers go?

Transferable Skills – Thinking Creatively About Industry Job Loss

The question runs through my mind every time I leave my apartment complex and see the dozens of cabs idling across the street. But this paranoid thinking, in and of itself, is futile. We need to start asking better questions, and we need to do it now. Instead of wondering endlessly where the jobs will go, we need to look at traits and other skill sets, and we need to look at industries poised for growth – for example, transportation or other services to support the burgeoning elderly population, which will grow to twenty percent of the world population by 2050.

Let’s look at the taxi driver population as an example. What skills do they possess? What personal traits? How can these skills and traits be repurposed? For which jobs can they potentially be re-trained?

On a general level, the following can be surmised:

Skills:

  • Bilingual or multi-lingual

  • Conscientiousness/sense of awareness

  • Business Savvy

  • Hard-working

  • Good interpersonal skills (in some cases)

Traits:

  • Resilience

  • Entrepreneurial

  • Risk-takers

A few professions come to mind:

  • Therapists

  • Interpreters

  • Customer Service Reps

  • Retirement transportation contractors

  • Non-emergency medical or recreational transport

The first three possibilities draw on a combination of hard and soft skills, with an emphasis on language ability for interpreters and CSR’s. The fourth point illustrates industry poised for rapid growth in the coming decades, which will be the transporting of seniors, whether it be from their home or assisted living facility to any number of necessary or desired weekly locations (grocery store, bridge night, doctor’s appointments, etc).

This is the start of what I hope to be a much bigger conversation around transferable skills, retraining and action plans as we face the reality of industry job loss to automation. We need to think outside the box, and we need to act fast.

The economy depends on it.

Interested in more articles like this? Follow me on LinkedIn for future installments of “The Future of Work Series”.

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