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by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
In public-transit circles, the word "crisis" is most often used to reference funding issues. Or state budget shortfalls. Declining sales tax revenue. A bankrupt Highway Trust Fund.
But how's this for a crisis: Within the next five to 10 years, more than 50 percent of transit industry workers are expected to retire, according to the American Public Transportation Association (APTA). Filling those shoes — and the wealth of industry knowledge the folks who wear them have — won't be an easy task.
"There are definitely agencies that are going to have a big brain drain over the next few years," says Joseph Black, manager of rail operations for the Lone Star Commuter Rail District and board member of the Railroad Management Association (RMA), which aims to provide networking opportunities for rail industry professionals. "We need to formulate a strategy of how we'll attract talented people in the industry for all skills and backgrounds."
And quickly. The transit industry historically hasn't put much of a focus on workforce development, says Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority (MARTA) General Manager and Chief Executive Officer Beverly Scott.
"We're good about having these capital plans and strategic plans, but we didn't appreciate the importance of the people who move the product," she says. "What are the people resources that are required in order to support the infrastructure?"
That's what association leaders and agency human resources managers are trying to determine. Although they might be behind the curve when it comes to recruiting new talent, they're hoping to make up for it by implementing more aggressive recruiting programs and succession planning strategies while working harder to attract younger generations to the industry. It's a daunting task — especially since agencies don't have the funding at their disposal for large-scale recruitment programs — but one they'll need to carry out nonetheless to meet the workforce needs of the not-so-distant future.
"Recognizing there's a problem is half the battle. Once you identify the nature of the problem, you can start talking about solutions," says Black. "Sometimes, we get so caught up in the day-to-day of running the system … but we have to think long term. We have to do a better job of selling public transit as a career field."
APTA officials believe they've got a plan in place that will do just that. During Scott's tenure as APTA chairperson in 2008-09, she established a Blue Ribbon Panel comprising representatives from the public and private sector, labor and academia. The panel was charged with reviewing research and recommendations from a workforce development initiative launched by former APTA Chairman Ron Tober in 2001; identifying gaps, new opportunities, programs and services to help create a stronger workforce; and defining APTA's role in providing ongoing support to the industry on workforce issues.
The panel completed its work in early 2010 and issued a final report in October that outlined six areas of concern: legislation, image and branding, higher education, youth outreach and awareness, partnerships and collaborations, and performance metrics/return on investment. The report includes 32 recommendations to address the concerns, says APTA Vice President of Program Management and Educational Services Pamela Boswell.
To address legislative concerns, APTA officials included a workforce development component in their legislative agenda for the surface transportation authorization, calling for extra funding to develop new programs.
The association also will work to build a campaign to promote public transportation as a career choice, highlighting its position as a "green-sector" industry, says Boswell. The campaign target younger generations through social media and other technologies.
And, APTA is planning strategies to get its career message across at universities, community colleges, and vocational and technical schools to recruit not only new managers, but operations and maintenance workers. APTA plans to target younger students, as well.
"We used to talk to students at the high school level and realized that's too late," says Boswell. "We need to be talking to students at K through 5 and middle schools, so we're developing programs to address that."
For example, the association developed a public transportation tool kit geared toward younger students, featuring transit-related art materials and coloring books. In April, APTA plans to hold a national public transportation career day.
"We'll have a major event here working with the D.C. public school system, and encourage other agencies to either enhance what they're doing or create new programs," says Boswell.
Also on the planner: a youth summit to be held in June. APTA previously hosted a summit in 2008, bringing in 50 high school juniors and seniors from across the country for a three-day program that included transit system tours, meetings with federal officials to discuss the benefits of public transit and a visit to Capitol Hill to hear from members of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.
Meanwhile, APTA will work with partners at the U.S. departments of transportation, labor and education, as well as labor unions, to develop training programs and curriculum for specific occupations, says Boswell.
And finally, the association is working to determine how to measure the return on investment on workforce development and training programs to ensure employees are getting the training and professional development they need at a cost-effective rate.
The panel's report outlines recommendations that can be accomplished during the next 18 months, such as the youth outreach programs, and longer-term goals that can be accomplished within three to five years, such as quantifying training-related return on investment, says Boswell.
As APTA addresses workforce issues at an industry-wide level, transit agencies are implementing their own programs to prepare for pending retirements and attract younger workers.
In 2008, the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) created the Management Development Program, a two-year program that teaches a small, select group of young employees or recent college grads the agency's ins and outs. The authority chose four people to participate in the 2008 program. Participants spent six months each in the operations, human resources, marketing communications, and management/budget departments to get a "down and dirty" lesson on each area, says Deputy General Manager of Human Resources Bruce Hampton.
"It's designed to give exposure in the main functional areas of the transit authority," says Hampton. "Then once they graduate, they are immediately placed into managerial roles."
Another group currently is going through the development program.
Lauren Rudman is a graduate of the program's first class. Now serving as an HR performance specialist, she and three other program graduates created the Future Leaders Club in late 2009. Open to all employees, the club meets monthly and brings in speakers to discuss various transit-related topics.
This year, GCRTA plans to take a more formal approach to developing future leaders. The agency's HR department is creating a talent management strategy to recruit, train, develop and monitor the performance of all agency employees, says Rudman.
The Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) is in the midst of developing a more strategic workforce development program, too. In late 2010, the agency began implementing a succession plan that would provide a trained pool of candidates ready to assume higher positions as needed, says Sylvester Fadal, organizational development and office of civil rights manager.
"We look at employees eligible for retirements in critical positions and we then design a program that employees apply into," he says.
VTA managers take into account a worker's skills, background and experience before admitting the employee into the program. Once an employee is accepted, agency HR leaders develop a training program to prepare the worker to take on a higher position when it becomes available, says Fadal.
The agency also offers a college tuition reimbursement program and encourages employees to go back to school for job-related education. In addition, VTA managers identify critical training needs and offer training programs to expand or improve employees' skill sets accordingly.
VTA also plans to reinstate a paid internship program this year that was suspended in 2010 due to budgetary issues. The agency works with area universities to bring in students, who work at VTA for up to one year. Agency leaders mentor students and teach them the inner workings of transit operations. The program was in place for nine years prior to its suspension, and VTA had up to 15 interns at any given time, some of whom were hired to work at the agency upon graduation, Fadal says.
VTA's workforce development programs have better positioned the agency to adapt to changing workforce demographics.
"The retirement age has changed due to prevailing business circumstances and personal conditions," says Fadal. "Most of our employees were retiring between 55 and 58, but for the past few years ... we've had employees staying on until 60, 62. So for us, retirements are not a major problem at this time."
That's not the case for MARTA, where more than 70 percent of the non-represented workforce will be eligible to retire within five years, says GM and CEO Scott. And, 44 percent of the entire workforce is more than 45 years old and 70 percent is more than 40 years old.
"I'm not suggesting everyone's walking out the door," she says. "But you're not going to build a new world on a workforce largely in that category."
In 2009, MARTA contracted consulting firm Hay Group to examine wages, salaries and benefits, and provide MARTA officials suggestions for developing a structured succession strategy. The agency "didn't have a lot of money to throw at it" when Hay Group completed the study, but MARTA plans to begin developing it succession plan in FY2012.
"We downsized a lot in the last year, and now we really need to be looking to identify people who could come to the senior director and assistant general manager levels," says Scott.
But the Hay Group study identified one critical issue that might hinder MARTA's workforce development strategy: The agency's wages aren't competitive.
"In these economic times, we can't do a whole lot about it, but if you don't even know where you are, you'll never get where you want to be," says Scott.
The compensation issue isn't unique to MARTA. GCRTA hasn't provided a wage increase to non-represented workers in three years, says Hampton.
"The labor market in Cleveland is not that great, so we've been able to hang on to most of our employees," he says. "But as the economy is picking up, we're starting to see some turnover, so that's a problem we'll have to address."
Just how cash-strapped transit agencies will work around wage concerns remains to be seen. They also have to combat a recent wave of layoffs that further reduced their talent pools and hiring freezes that have prevented them from bringing much-needed new faces into the industry.
"Transit agencies aren't hiring at the level the Class Is are right now," says RMA Executive Director Greg Deibler. "Class Is are seeing a rebound, whereas funding limitations on the passenger carriers is inhibiting their ability to go out and actively recruit consistently."
Although the layoffs, and hiring and wage freezes are "the biggest stumbling blocks" to attracting and retaining new workers now, trends such as rising gas prices and concerns about sustainability will work in public transit's favor in the long run, says RMA's Black.
"Just like in many other industries, business is cyclical, but long term, public transportation is a growth industry," he says.
To recruit new workers to meet that growth, agencies will need to market themselves to highlight transit's role in addressing sustainability and livability, as well as its increasing use of information technology, MARTA's Scott believes.
"Those are the things that really resonate with the younger generation," she says.
It's also important to highlight the various careers that public transit has to offer.
"We try to showcase the broad range of the different areas within the transit industry," says VTA's Fadal. "People think it's all about rail and bus operations systems, but transportation has technology, planning and development, construction and other areas ... the transportation industry can embrace all these different areas of opportunities."
And there will be an abundance of opportunities for younger workers in the transit industry, agency leaders believe. The public transit industry is poised for a boom, and agencies will need to find ways to ramp up recruitment efforts despite funding shortages. APTA's Boswell likens the movement to the U.S. space program's push to attract workers decades ago.
"There was a movement to get as many people involved in that process as possible," she says. "We see public transportation as a similar model. Looking toward the future, we expect we'll need the best and brightest, and the need for that talent will continue to grow."