Workforce Development

As the transportation industry salutes the recipients of Mass Transit magazine’s “Top 40 Under 40,” it may be instructive to notice the paths that led the recipients into the transportation industry. Why pursue a profession in transit? Why stay in the industry? Who served as a mentor or provided encouragement along the way? What are their aspirations and how can the industry help to reach those goals? The 40 professionals are being recognized as future transportation leaders and their answers to these questions matter as we strive to retain their talent and prepare them for the rest of their careers in public transportation.

It is not, however, just these 40 whose talent we wish to employ and retain. These questions may also be posed to the operators, mechanics, supervisors, mid-level managers, accountants, engineers, safety officers, human resource specialists and senior leaders. Why transit? Why stay? How can the industry help them reach their goals? It is the answers to these questions that can help to inform our actions and to establish public transportation as the ‘employee of choice,’ to attract talented and diverse employees, and to retain our valuable workforce.

A 2004 Transit Cooperative Research Program (TCRP)-funded needs assessment study, conducted by the Eno Transportation Foundation, examined the pathways to leadership of 50 seasoned transit leaders. The CEOs interviewed joined the transit industry early in their careers and moved through the operations ranks or through planning, finance, engineering or policy. Others reported entering the transportation field “by chance” or from a circuitous route through the military or the public and private sectors. When queried for educational background, degrees varied and ranged from planning and engineering to history, architecture, public policy, marketing, liberal arts, finance, operations, education and business. Continuing education and lifelong learning were universally valued as was the role of mentors and advisors. In response to the question “Why stay?” respondents cited the ”good work” of transit, the continuous learning and “the fine people in this great industry.”

While there was not a predictable route to CEO in this sample of transportation leaders, that observation alone widens the field of possibilities when recruiting future transportation professionals. In addition, the implications from this study suggest a role for mentors and continuing education opportunities in the development of the transit workforce, as well as the importance of TCRP funding for research that enriches the products developed to recruit and retain transportation employees.

On the occasion of recognizing Mass Transit’s “Top 40 Under 40,” a look at the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) efforts to cultivate, retain and train the industry workforce is timely. This article provides a historical review of workforce initiatives, followed by current efforts of APTA’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Workforce Development, and the complementary efforts of APTA’s human resource committee’s workforce development subcommittee. The review will show the concerted efforts and great strides made to develop the transportation workforce.

Historical Perspective
Retirements across all job categories in transportation agencies, significant changes in technology, projected staffing requirements for new and expanded service, and a new generation of workers have been the universal rallying cry for workforce development initiatives. Every 20 years or so, a new wave of retirees exit, forcing a discussion of succession planning and the need to develop the transportation workforce. Forward-thinking leaders have found ways to elevate this discussion, find the resources and define the measures to ensure that transit professionals are trained to carry on the ”good work of transit.”

In the 1960s, the Urban Mass Transportation Administration (UMTA) recognized the need to develop the next generation of transportation leaders and, under the direction of then associate administrator Jerry Premo (now AECOM), funded university-based management training programs. A mid-manager course at Indiana University, the international studies program at Carnegie Mellon University and the National Urban Mass Transportation Seminars at Northeastern University in Boston were three such programs. The funding was renewed for FY 1982 as Section 11: Research and Training Grants, specifically for “those already engaged in professional activities in public transportation and to attract more of the nation’s young talent into careers in public transportation.” (The UMTA University Research and Training Program FY 1982 announcement.)

The Northeastern seminar alone trained more than 2,500 mid-level managers between 1969 and 1995. (The names of seminar graduates may be found on any list of transportation industry leaders, many of whom attribute their career choice and stamina in the industry to the lessons learned with industry peers in these national seminars.) The lesson from these programs was that continuing education courses made a difference in the careers of transit professionals. From mid to senior level, in and out of private sector, the managers trained over those 25 years are now looking toward retirement.

As funding shifted in the late 1980s, the seminars at Indiana and Northeastern waned from training-specific single agency grants to allowable use operating funds for training. With the passage of ISTEA in the early 1990s, training funding was shifted away from transit agencies to the current network of university transportation centers (UTCs) and National Transit Institute at Rutgers. The availability of training-specific fellowships was repealed in the SAFETEA-LU legislation; however, the use of operating funds for training costs remained.

While the change in funding may have curbed the Indiana and Northeastern models of management training, the international study missions continue through TCRP funding. In addition, the development of the network of university transportation centers to provide training and education continues to flourish.

In 2001 and looking to the needs of the 21st century workforce, then APTA chair Ron Tober (now Sound Transit) established APTA’s Workforce Development Initiative (WDI) to conduct a comprehensive overview of the human resource challenges for the transportation industry. Co-chaired by Beverly Scott (then vice chair of human resources) and Stephanie Pinson (Gilbert Tweed Associates), the resulting report, Workforce Development: Public Transportation’s Blueprint for the 21st Century, raised awareness for the need of succession planning citing an aging workforce and difficulty recruiting for specific job categories, as well as a generational and diverse workforce, and set in motion research to identify the issues and craft solutions. This effort spurned exceptional research and programs, but also served as a model for exploring the industry workforce needs.

From the mid-1990s on, the industry has responded to the transportation workforce’s needs. A partnership between APTA and the U.S. Department of Labor led to the continuation of the Transportation Learning Center’s efforts to develop national training standards and certification and advance bus and rail maintenance training. The National Transit Institute (NTI) provides vital technical, supervisory and project management training; the TCRP International Transit Studies Program continues to expose 20 transportation professionals annually to lessons from our international transportation partners. In addition, the Eno Center for Transportation Leadership educates transit professionals across the career span, complementing the Leadership APTA program. Research continues through TCRP and university centers. The nation’s youth have received exposure to the industry through the APTA Youth Summit and college students are encouraged by the university transportation centers and through APTA Foundation scholarships. APTA’s implementation of Webinars to feature critical issues has complemented industry conferences. While this list should not be considered a comprehensive survey, it provides a flavor of efforts to date. Additionally, there are countless education and training efforts not mentioned above — in transportation agencies, private sector partners and through partnerships with labor, the disability community, WTS, COMTO and TRB — that are vital to the transportation workforce’s development.

Central to workforce efforts described previously has been the funding of university-based research by the Federal Transit Authority (FTA) and through the Transportation Research Board’s (TRB) TCRP. The listing of TCRP workforce studies reads like a history of workforce issues — from total quality and performance measures in the 1990s to workforce availability and succession planning, gender and racial diversity, generations at work, training needs and workforce practices and certification and compensations studies. Each has added to the body of knowledge that has practical application in the delivery of workforce development programs and initiatives.

All of the programs mentioned were conceived by industry leaders with the passion and foresight to see the need and find a solution, and, implemented by countless volunteers and staff who believed in moving the industry forward.

APTA Blue Ribbon Panel on Workforce Development
In her October 2008 acceptance speech as the chair of APTA board of directors, Dr. Beverly Scott (CEO MARTA) focused APTA’s attention on workforce development, announcing the formation of the Workforce Development Blue Ribbon Panel. The goal of the panel was to establish a long-range plan for the development of transit’s workforce, including the cataloguing of current workforce initiatives and the rebranding and repositioning of transit as an employer of choice.

Referencing the achievements of the 2001 APTA Workforce Development Initiative, Scott noted that the work to enhance the transit workforce is never finished; the questions of 2001 remain relevant as the industry considers the workforce needs over the next 10 years. How do we position our industry as an “employer of choice” and strengthen the image of public transportation as a vibrant, meaningful place to work?

Doran Barnes (Foothill Transit), APTA vice chair of human resources, was appointed to chair the panel. The work is being conducted through the following six working groups:

Immediate Issues Working Group
This working group was charged to review, analyze and advance legislative proposals related to potential workforce development programs, including authorization, impact of economic recovery legislation and immediate legislation addressing workforce needs for all job categories.

Image and Branding: Making the Business Case for Workforce Development
The result of this group’s effort will include a plan to increase the visibility and attractiveness of transportation career opportunities.

Higher Education Working Group
Defining higher education as community colleges, undergraduate and graduate programs, trade and technical schools, and specialized institutes addressing the academic and development needs of the public transportation industry, this workgroup has guided efforts to identify current academic programs, consider research and programmatic initiatives that promote and expand the workforce pipeline.

Youth Outreach and Awareness Working Group
Recognizing the importance of building the future workforce, this working group targets youth K through 12. The goal is to educate the next generation of prospective workers about the transportation industry by building on existing youth outreach programs and identifying partnering opportunities in communities.

Partnerships and Collaborations Working Group
Under the direction of Robert Prince (AECOM) and Mary Ann Collier (San Joaquin RTD), this group is investigating the opportunities for collaborations and partnerships to further the development of workforce initiatives.

Performance Metrics/ ROI/Benchmarking Working Group
This group considers the development of models to measure return on investment and the establishment of a benchmarking program to measure the effectiveness of transit workforce development programs. The group has investigated current metrics and considered the next steps in research needed to further this effort.

Scott charged the Blue Ribbon Panel to move the industry forward with a concrete research agenda and specific program recommendations. Each working group has outlined specific short- and long-term initiatives to establish transportation as a career of choice. Final recommendations will be presented in fall 2009. For more information, contact Pam Boswell at or Joe Niegoski at

APTA HR Committee: Workforce Development Subcommittee Initiatives
In addition to the targeted Blue Ribbon Panel effort, APTA ensures that ongoing attention is paid to workforce development through the human resource committee. The committee is managed through two subcommittees: labor and workforce development.

Six areas have been identified for the 2009-2010 subcommittee agenda:

9,000 IN ’09
The 9,000 in ’09 initiative launched to communicate career opportunities available in public transportation to 9,000 students of all ages. The 9,000 in ’09 Web site ( was created to record and quantify the impacts of student outreach efforts being initiated, organized, or sponsored by APTA’s members and partner organizations, result ing in a database efforts and contacts helping transit agencies to establish their own programs.

The second phase of the program is to partner with Junior Achievement of America to help local transit agencies recruit youth in their communities and develop several pilot programs to demonstrate the model. Organizations can register their efforts to introduce transportation to youth at the Web site.

University Transportation Center Webinar
The goal of this initiative is to provide an online industry forum where university transportation centers (UTCs), students and leaders can engage in a robust dialogue about transit professional development programs, industry needs and career goals of prospective transit professionals. For details, contact Starletta Gaddis at

Marketing the New Generations
In 2007, a working group of Leadership APTA prepared the “Next Generation” report that highlighted the values, goals and work ethic of the next generation of transit professionals. The project has been adopted by the workforce subcommittee who is working closely with the Blue Ribbon Panel to develop strategies to help attract and engage this next generation.

Build and Communicate the Case for Dedicated Funding and Training
This is a collaborative effort with the Blue Ribbon Panel’s Immediate Issues Working Group to secure a dedicated source of funding available for training and education. While transit agencies may use operating funds to support training activities, in the current economic climate there are less available funds with which to operate and the education and training of workers lags.

Career Education and Development Roadmap
A Web-based brochure of transit industry training and development opportunities will go online in fall 2009. The initial phase will be to catalogue the senior-level programs and courses such as Leadership APTA, Eno’s Senior Executive Seminar, TCRP’s International Transit Studies Program and NTI’s Leadership Institute. As the Blue Ribbon Panel completes its work, the road map will be expanded to include training initiatives across the transportation workforce.

APTA Business Members’ Workforce Needs
Building on the results of the Blue Ribbon Panel and the APTA member survey and collaborating with the APTA business member committee, the work to identify the workforce needs of APTA business members will commence in fall 2009.

The transit CEOs queried in the 2004 study were on target when asked “Why transit?”, “Why stay?”: The transportation industry attracts fascinating people who engage fully in the “good work of transit.” Take a moment to thank your colleagues and the hard-working APTA staff for the good work they do to further the workforce development efforts for this great industry.

Dr. Barbara Gannon chairs the workforce subcommittee of the APTA human resource committee. She is the executive director of the Eno Transportation Foundation’s Center for Transportation Leadership.