Retirement of baby boomers puts the industry in a critical position as there will be a shortage of skilled employees over the next five to 10 years. The industry is responsible for attracting and developing employees to ensure it maintains a sound workforce.
The industry is working at developing programs and sharing best practices so information and resources can be shared to ensure stability as the workforce ages.
The American Public Transportation Association’s Blue Ribbon Panel for workforce development was tasked with looking at where APTA and where the industry was in terms of workforce development; what gaps there were and what was needed to do in terms of moving the discussion and the work related to this topic forward.
Doran Barnes, the blue ribbon task force chair and executive director of Foothill Transit, says APTA recently completed a survey of its members focusing on the question of workforce development and of what’s going to be happening in the industry in terms of planned retirements and departures. That work began almost concurrent with the blue ribbon panel work. “As preliminary results came in, it helped inform the work of the blue ribbon panel,” Barnes says.
“We’ve got some interesting data in there in terms of some trends, some issues as they relate to what the participants saw, some forecasts in terms of who might be leaving the industry that will help us determine the magnitude of the challenges that we’re facing.” It validated the concerns and the challenge ahead for the industry.
“If we don’t have the people and resources to carry out our work, then there’s no way that we can carry out our mission,” says Barnes.
And in recruiting people to the industry, one of the challenges is the image, he stresses. “Most people when they think of transit, they think of a coach operator and a mechanic.” He continues, “Those are certainly very important jobs, but if you look at a typical transit agency, those are just some of the many opportunities that we have available.
“We need people with all sorts of skill sets and certainly we need operators that can perform safely and that can provide high levels of customer service, but we also need planners, engineers, financial professionals, marketing and communications professionals; there is really a huge range of skills that we need in order to make sure the transit industry is successful.”
He stresses, “I don’t think that college students think of all of those possibilities when they think of us as an industry or a career path.”
From his work on the Blue Ribbon Panel, Barnes says there are a lot of really good programs that are out there. “I’m amazed at the incredible programs that are out there and often those programs are operating quietly and without a lot of connection and the ultimate goal in all of this work is to be able to connect all the dots and be able to see what that spectrum of work is so we can really leverage all of that to achieve our ultimate goal of having a high-quality workforce for the industry.
“Agencies need to be telling the story of the transit career choice and that can be getting involved with school career days, it can be including information in their customer communication pieces. We’ve got to make sure we’re all telling the story about what a great career transit is.”
Preparing Future Generations
One of organizations working with youth and potential future transit employees is The American Cities Foundation’s (ACF) with its demonstration project, Project Transit. It is funded primarily through a grant from the Federal Transit Administration and the Department of Transportation and the ACF’s summer internship is funded through the Philadelphia Youth Network.
Project Transit is a program focused primarily to 11th and 12th graders to expose them to career tracks that they can learn about in the transportation industry. It is focused on connecting both youth in disadvantaged urban communities and adults who have values to employment with opportunities in transportation; it exposes young people to what the transportation industry is going to look like in the 21st century. This program builds young people’s skills, supports their academic skills and gives them experiences they wouldn’t get in school.
“Over the last four years we’ve been able to expose about 180 students in a career exploration and develop an internship experience working with employers and the school district of Philadelphia,” ACF CEO Sandra Dungee Glenn says.
“Our students are split up in five different transit-related areas,” explains Director of Project Transit: Youth Programming Constance Davis. One is looking at government; students intern with some of the council people in Philadelphia and look at transportation from a legislative vantage point, more specifically, what legislators need to do to promote more mass transportation.
Students also work in the school district, in the public transit division. Each week the students see how school districts handle transportation. There are students at the Philadelphia City Streets Department and they look at issues that deal with transportation and there are also students in the insurance sector, looking at what opportunities insurance agencies offer individuals, what they offer large corporations and how they will be affected as mass transportation grows.
Twenty sessions are broken down into three different modules. Module one is about job readiness, which focuses on building the soft skills – networking, proper corporate attire and corporate culture – done by Dr. Valerie Adams. She and her assistant, Dr. Brian Coleman, took the time out to separate the students, doing a lot of group activities and one-on-one sessions.
Module two has three components; two trainers from SEPTA for mechanical training, a customer service trainer from the Philadelphia Workforce Development Corp., and a college prep trainer from the school district. Davis says, “Each of these trainers were very well-versed in their background and were able to give the students truthful information to help them to the next level.”
Module three, taught by Davis and ACF’s Customer Service Trainer Teresa Dooley, is job counseling, the final preparation for internships.
“We became involved with SEPTA through the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials. We have a field trip for our interns to SEPTA’s main offices then I have a career day exploration seminar with them and also a touring of their control department and how everything at SEPTA really works,” Davis says.
She explains that in the midst of the three modules, there is a male-enrichment seminar because of the females outnumbering the males in these settings. “We had Dr. Rufus Litch come in and work with our males, kind of bringing them out of their shells,” she says. “What his response to me was, in working with our 12 or so boys, is that there’s a lot of talent in the room and it just needed to be tapped in to.
“Those young gentlemen who stayed with us completely through our process and are interning now, are truly gentlemen who I would say fall into the typical pathways of a young, African-American male in the inner city and they are now looking at other options … really dedicating themselves to being at work on time and getting the most out of their internship experience.”
Getting the teenage psyche to understand that you have to put in the hard work now to recoup the benefits later is one of the biggest challenges Davis says. “And it’s definitely harder in the winter when it’s cold, snowy and no child wants to be up at 7 o’clock on Saturday morning going to a program to listen to somebody talk when you spend five days in school doing that.”
The second hurdle was trying to figure out what exactly is going to enlighten them and encourage them and see that spark, she says. Once they were able to identify what each niche was for each student, things were able to move a little smoother.
The third, and biggest challenge for the program, was acquiring the internships for the students. “A lot of companies are told to say, ‘Oh sure, we’ll take an intern,’ but with the economy being the way it was, it’s not as easy to go to some of those larger companies.” Davis continues, “We had to go to smaller, more private sector employers and getting them. Saying, look, I have very well-rounded students and they’re not any student off the street, which is part of our point in having a 20-week training period,” she says.
Dungee Glenn stresses it is important to get the employers to buy into the notion, the importance of creating a pipeline. “These young people in our city and in our neighborhood schools have great capacity and value and we don’t have to be looking at importing the employees of the future; we really need to be developing the wealth of talent we have right here at hand.”
There’s a match recruitment done through various public high schools in Philadelphia. The program is voluntary and there are no guarantees of internships or paid experiences at the beginning of the program. The students volunteer to sign up and they go through an orientation process. After the reviewing of their application, they are accepted or denied. From there, they volunteer 20 of their Saturdays from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. where they learn all of the necessary skills that will be needed to enter this workforce.
“I had one student, very, extremely, painfully shy,” says Davis. “Now he is very vocal in all of his activities. His work-site supervisors tell me that he is really delighted.
“I meet with the students every Friday and review what’s been going on in their internships.” And the response is consistent, she says. The students say they feel like they know they have new opportunities and know how to enter into those fields.
One of the things ACF watches is the students’ grades and attendance, looking for improvements and changes. Dungee Glenn says, “In addition to exposing them to the next step in their lives, it’s really making sure that they are completing high school.
“In our city we still have a four-year, on-time graduation rate that is, in many of our neighborhood high schools, less than 60 percent; high school graduation is a huge issue.”
She continues, “We’re trying to add a component, and this is what we see as our next step, we’re beginning to track our young people on to their post-high school experience. One of our desires is to strengthen our partnership with Chaney University, who wants to, I believe they’ve set up the preliminary steps, to set up a minor in transportation.”
Another component of Project Transit is the ACF’s entrepreneurship program. Dungee Glenn says, “We talk about Project Transit as about being both youth and adult workforce development, as well as business development, because it’s all about building capacity in urban areas and that’s both the social and economic capacity in those communities.”
“About two years ago we realized we needed to add the entrepreneur and small business development to this initiative,” says Bernadine Hawes, director of Project Transit: Engrepreneurship. “The workforce talent, they need jobs and jobs are developed through businesses.”
ACF has built a website that allows companies to look at opportunities in the transit industry. They have general information on the industry and the types of jobs and types of skills that this industry requires. The site is for small entrepreneurs that are looking to match their business to the transit industry.
“On one hand we do workforce development and career awareness for youth and on the other hand, we’re growing businesses so that once they have developed programs like Constance’s, there are jobs at the other end because we have creative businesses that will create those jobs,” stresses Hawes.
Equipping Our Workforce
Brian Turner, director for the Transportation Learning Center, says the center was created 10 years ago by national transit leaders of APTA and unions, recognizing that there is a serious concern with retirements, dramatic changes in technology, growth in transit ridership and a policy mandate to expand transit’s modal share. As they were going from location to location building partnerships, they saw each agency having to reinvent the wheel.
“Each location had to figure out for themselves, what is it the people need to know to be able to do to be a terrific what-ever-the-job is,” he says. “”They have to figure out for themselves, how would you teach that and what’s the right order of instruction, what materials would you use and how would you figure out if anyone actually learned anything.” That was left up to 1,000 different transit agencies.
Back in 2003/2004 they developed a participative process for the industry as a whole with transit agencies, workers and their unions to develop industrywide training standards so everyone can see what great training looks like.
Apprenticeship is the umbrella that covers all of this work and the industrywide training standards are the framework. Locations that apply this apprenticeship model with these learning standards can expand and improve their training and consistency and do it at a much lower cost with this national framework.
Mark Dysart, senior associate, says, “These are isolated locations that have apprenticeship programs, but the industry has now gotten together and determined what these apprenticeships ought to look like and what kind of an example they should set for others that want to do it in the future.”
Dysart explains that their regional partnership in Pennsylvania is a pattern they hope to repeat in other places around the country. With Pittsburgh and Philadelphia on either end of the state with good-sized agencies and well-developed training capacity, smaller agencies in between can partner with them if the larger agencies can open up some classes or send trainers out.
Investing in the Future
Turner of the Transportation Learning Center says with the transportation funding, there are billions of dollars each year for buses, trains, bridges: the physical capital. “But there’s nothing in there for human capital. Anybody that’s been through a few commerce courses will tell you that if you only pay attention to physical capital and ignore human capital, you’re not going to have the skills that you need to have safe, reliable operations.”
He stresses, “The fact that there are not resources for training is a reflection of the continuing absence of a needed priority of federal transportation policy that there needs to be money for training for the overall transportation package.”
“The issue of developing people has to be one of the important topics that is on every agency’s agenda,” Barnes stresses. “We’ve got to pay attention to it; we’ve got to invest in our people just like we invest in our capital infrastructure.”