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January 2013



Rail Industry Trends Article
Santa Clara VTA aims for succession planning success with IT department pilot



Rail Industry Trends

By Angela Cotey, Associate Editor

The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s (VTA) workforce development needs are not unlike those of other transit agencies — or freight railroads, for that matter. A wave of retirements will leave the authority with a lot of holes to fill in the not-too-distant future. But VTA officials believe a new succession plan pilot program will help them meet the hole-filling challenge.

Several years ago, members of VTA's Organization Development and Training, and Office of Civil Rights were charged with identifying critical positions that would be impacted by pending retirements and implementing a pilot program to fill the job from within. The task force began by conducting a workforce analysis in each division. Based on the number of retirements coming up and the importance of that division to VTA's success, the task force chose to use the IT department as the "target division" for the program, says Maria Luisa Sanchez Ku, a VTA human resource analyst and project leaders of the succession plan task force.

From there, the succession plan team began developing a curriculum for the pilot program based on the information systems supervisor position.

"That position might be a little bit of a lower level for normal succession planning, but it was ideal for us because they had different positions at that level that needed to be filled," says VTA Human Resource Analyst Joe de Gier, who serves as a member of the task force.

After a thorough job analysis and many discussions with IT department senior managers, the task force identified about 17 "competencies" they believed would be critical for a person in the information systems supervisor position to have. Among them: accountability, analytical thinking, conflict resolution, customer focus, interpersonal skills, organization and planning, project management and team building. 

"You have to build and design the selection process, minimum qualifications, minimum proficiency levels you need to partake in the program, as well as the proficiency level you want applicants to be at once they finish the program," says Sanchez Ku. "That forms the basis for evaluation criteria for selection in the program and also determines the scope of your leadership curriculum."

The pilot was launched in September 2012; 10 IT department employees are participating in the voluntary program, which aims to train employees on the various skills, or competencies, identified as part of the curriculum.

VTA's succession plan approach is different from the traditional model of identifying potential successors and focusing all workforce development efforts on those individuals.

"This lays the foundation to create a leadership academy of sorts," says Sanchez Ku. "This has a developmental focus, not a selection focus. We are completely separate from the recruitment and selection process."

VTA officials believe the succession plan program will help build morale by showing employees the agency is being proactive in developing skills and providing opportunities for advancement. But completing the program doesn't ensure a promotion.

"Ideally, it would be great if one of the people in the training program would be selected, but it's not a requirement," says de Gier. "The manager still has discretion on who they select."

For VTA, the succession plan strategy is more about building skill sets for the long term.

"Basically, we're building a pipeline of talent for the organization," says Sanchez Ku.

Once the IT department pilot wraps up in summer 2013, task force members anticipate they will begin implementing the succession plan strategy throughout the agency. Now that the foundation has been laid, VTA will be able to implement the program in other divisions relatively quickly, says de Gier. The end result? A talent pool that will help relieve agency execs’ stress over how pending retirements and job changes will impact the organization.

"This is a great way for an agency to make sure they are nimble," says Sanchez Ku. "As you have a bigger bench of talent, you can move more quickly in the direction needed to fill positions, as you don't have to wait to find someone who can do the job internally or only do external hirings."






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