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May 2013

Rail News: Passenger Rail

Curriculum aims to get college students thinking about careers in public transportation


by Julie Sneider, assistant editor

To help bolster industry-wide recruitment of a younger workforce, a group of academic, transportation and government officials are drafting a standard curriculum that would teach college students the basics of public transportation.

Since 2011, the National Transit Curriculum Advisory Committee — an Eno Center for Transportation affiliate — has been developing a semester-long course that universities nationwide could offer. Committee members hope to have the curriculum ready by December so that campuses could offer it as soon as 2014, says Jill Hough, the committee’s chairwoman and program director of the Small Urban and Rural Transit Center at the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute at North Dakota State University.

Only a handful of schools now offer a full course that focuses entirely on the fundamentals of public transportation, and they don’t necessarily cover all the same topics. Meanwhile, some schools have wanted to offer such a course, but haven’t had the resources or faculty experience, Hough says.

The idea for developing the curriculum came up during various conversations among transit industry professionals, educators and other Eno Center committee members who were concerned about transit-industry workforce development. Any courses that stem from the work the committee does will contribute to industry-wide efforts to replace retiring baby-boomers. More than 50 percent of transit industry workers are expected to retire in the next five to 10 years, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA).

In addition to Hough, committee members include Paul Larrousse, director of the National Transit Institute at Rutgers University, who serves as vice chair; Eno Center Executive Vice President and Executive Director Barbara Gannon; and representatives of APTA, the Federal Transit Administration, the Community Transportation Association of America, transit agencies, universities and a consulting firm.

Hough currently teaches an elective introductory course on public transportation to graduate students. Because she teaches the course online, students from as far away as Boston, Washington, D.C., and Spain have enrolled. They’ve also come from diverse academic interests, including engineering, urban planning, emergency management, environmental studies, natural sciences, agribusiness, applied economics, and transportation and logistics.

"Those who take my class typically have some interest in public transportation, and this course gives them greater exposure to it and many other aspects of transit," says Hough.
Interest in her course — particularly among students from cities with large transit systems — leads Hough to believe the national transit curriculum will be popular at other universities. Ultimately, the goal is to expose college students to transit so that they might consider making it their career.

"With the number of [transit industry] retirees growing, their positions need to be filled, and it is the professors who have great insight and ability to entice students or young professionals into public transportation," Gannon said in a 2012 Eno Center newsletter about the new curriculum.

The committee is drawing its material from Hough’s class and the few transit courses available at other universities, as well as from industry leaders and FTA representatives. Lessons will provide an overview of public transportation modes and agency governance, planning, service and management, Hough says.

Hough also hopes to inject an aspect of mentorship into the national curriculum so that students learn the role mentors play in career advancement. In 2011, she created a mentorship program at North Dakota State, requiring her students to connect with mentors in the transit industry. She modeled the program partly on a formal mentorship initiative at the Orange County Transportation Authority.

"When you go through life, it’s nice to visit with people who have experience that you can learn from. A mentor can guide you and share ideas," says Hough, adding that the hope is that the mentorship continues after students complete the class, graduate and enter the workforce.

Hough also is writing a scope of work to conduct a national mentoring synthesis that would look at mentorships across the United States, a project she expects to begin this summer.

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