Completed on time and on budget, the Euclid Avenue project presented the problems most agencies see with New Starts, which Calabrese says is all about keeping your focus.
“New Starts projects are difficult. You’ve seen a number of people who’ve gone through that,” Calabrese says.
“I think it’s just staying positive, being out there with the public and not hiding in your office. I think one of the big differences we do today that I think a lot of other systems don’t or maybe other general managers don’t is really the fact of being out with the community.
“Being on local boards. Being on local committees. Getting to know your people. Continually telling the story. Working on the image of the agency. Working on how important the agency is to the integral overall economic development growth of the city.
“And it’s ignoring some of the bad stuff. Keep pushing the positive stuff. Don’t dwell on the bad stuff or it will drive you crazy.”
Joe Calabrese understands the value of experience. Coming into the transit industry he had no idea how it worked, but he underwent a comprehensive self-developed training program, which gave him insight into the various facets of transit. Now he’s giving back through a program bringing in college graduates to transit and throwing them into the same deep end he dove in years ago.
“It’s difficult to hire people you don’t need, especially in tight economic times,” Calabrese says.
“But we’ve got a management development program. A couple years ago we were able to go out and hire five of the greatest, smartest, young kids out of college that you’ve ever met and said to them do you want to learn an industry.
“We put them through literally a two-year training regiment [where they] work in HR, work in legal, work in operations and work in maintenance. They just graduated a month ago and now they’ve assumed permanent positions.”
Calabrese says that the results were so positive that they are continuing the program with four more candidates for another two-year program.
“It does a couple things. It teaches them the industry, and it also teaches them the people they are going to be working with. You need to know if there is a problem or if you need information who to call — who does what where. Among many transit systems, especially among the large ones, they’re so decentralized. There’s 10 different buildings, you can work someplace 30 years and never meet people.
“These people are in every building and end up being very productive. Not just training but very productive.”
I asked Calabrese if he was concerned about the candidates undergoing the training and then jumping ship to another transit agency and his response was candid,
“Of course. But the alternative is not doing it.
“I tell you I am a little surprised and also very delighted that they went through their two years and didn’t leave.
“And we don’t do this at the detriment of current employees. Current employees could have also applied to be part of this program and one did. One of the five is a current employee.”
Calabrese says it’s all about putting together a good staff. His staff he would match against any other, “I have a very good staff. I’ve been blessed with a very good staff. Very stable.
“We’ve really tried to focus on hiring better people. You can’t have a great system without great people.
“And I think a lot of transit systems don’t put enough emphasis on the caliber of the people coming in.
“[Transit] should not be a job of last resort. These are wonderful blue collar jobs. Someone with a high school education can come here and make $40,000, $50,000, $60,000 a year with great benefits.
“We can demand the best. And driving the bus isn’t the only thing. They really have to be good with the public — the whole public service thing.
“So we raised our criteria. We used to have an 8th grade educational requirement here. We made that high school.
“Little things like that sometimes are a hassle. Why do we need the high school diploma? Because I think you learn some things between eighth grade and high school. But one thing you do learn is to get your tail out of bed, go to school and accomplish something. So there may be a correlation between education and attendance.”