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— by Julie Sneider, assistant editor
Rich Andreski knows from personal experience the value a mentor can bring to a young professional's developing career.
Now chief of staff of New Jersey Transit's rail operations, Andreski didn't start out in the transit rail business: His first job after college was in sales in another industry. At the time, his awareness of transit occupations was limited to the train conductors and bus operators he saw on his way to work. It wasn't until Andreski started volunteering for a local citizens group that introduced him to people who worked at NJ Transit that he realized the transit industry offered much more intriguing work than initially met the eye.
After a bit of networking, Andreski landed an entry-level job at NJ Transit. That was 14 years ago. Had it not been for the mentors he met along the way, he probably would have left transit and moved on to another line of work.
"Over the years, I've had about a half dozen folks who've been really good mentors, kind of watched out for me, offered feedback when I was running into a career decision point or a work issue that I had to deal with," says Andreski. "For me, those mentors made all the difference. I very likely would not have stayed with the industry had it not been for those mentors."
Andreski would like to see similar support for today's young professionals entering the transit industry. As co-chair of the American Public Transportation Association's (APTA) new Early Career Program, Andreski has helped establish a year-long professional development initiative designed exclusively for people in the first three to five years of their transit careers. APTA will kick off the program at its annual Rail Conference in June in Philadelphia. The curriculum will offer professional development coursework combined with a "strong mentoring component" to provide public- and private-sector transportation professionals with the skills, knowledge, insight and networking opportunities they need for career advancement in the industry, APTA officials say.
The Early Career Program is among a handful of recent attempts in the rail business to recruit and retain a new, younger workforce to replace the baby-boom generation now entering retirement. U.S. railroads are expected to hire as many as 11,000 employees this year, primarily in response to retirements, according to the Association of American Railroads. And according to APTA, more than 50 percent of transit industry workers are expected to retire in the next five to 10 years.
"We are seeing a wave of individuals retiring from our industry, and that is creating a gap in experience and expertise," says APTA Chairwoman Flora Castillo, who chaired the association's Workforce Development Task Force that identified, among other issues, the need to retain young professionals in the early stages of their careers.
The issue isn't just a matter of replacing retiring workers to tend to the day-to-day business of running railroads and transit agencies. Attracting and retaining young talent also matters in the big-picture strategy to "redefine the railroad industry for the next 100 years — as an American hallmark, an industry of innovation and an outstanding career choice for future generations," according to a Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) October 2011 profile of the railroad industry.
"The railroad industry requires an image overhaul to recast it as a vibrant, highly innovative, diverse and viable industry within which to invest one's career and financial future," states the FRA report.
APTA officials hope the Early Career Program will help do just that for the youngest generation now entering the transit workforce. The program specifically targets people with three to five years of experience because workers at that stage are "most vulnerable" to leaving the industry for advancement or opportunities in other fields, says Castillo, a member of NJ Transit's board.
"We know that a lot of young talent out there is interested in coming into our industry — and they are coming into it," she says. "But, they are exiting it as well. The focus of the Early Career Program is to take a very aggressive approach to make sure those individuals understand the possibilities. It's not just about coming in as an engineer or planner or bus operator. There are so many opportunities that you can leverage once you are in transit."
And it's up to the industry to point out those opportunities to young professionals, particularly those who are part of the millennial generation, says Castillo.
To retain young recruits, railroads and transit agencies also will have to adapt to the career expectations of the millennial generation, generally defined as those born between 1980 and 2000. What the millennials want for their work lives is different than what their boomer parents or grandparents did, Castillo and other transportation industry officials say.
Unlike earlier generations that valued long-term careers with one or two employers, the millennials — who will make up about half of the global workforce by 2020 — likely will change employers multiple times during the course of a career. Once they land a job, they tend to want to move up quickly within the organization. If they don't see those advancement opportunities early on, they're comfortable with quickly moving on to a new employer that offers better options, according to a 2011 PricewaterhouseCoopers' (PwC) survey of 4,300 millennials. Fast-track-career progression was a "main attraction" in an employer, even more important than competitive salaries, which ranked second, the PwC survey found.
Such characteristics present new challenges for railroad and transit recruiters and human resource executives. For example, transit agencies with rules requiring staff to work a minimum number of years before being eligible for a management position might not jibe with a millennial's desire to achieve immediate job satisfaction.
Transit agencies may not always be able to offer young professionals an immediate path to a promotion, but the transit industry can meet other "must haves" on millennials' career checklists, says Jill Stober, a planner at KFH Group Inc., a Maryland-based transit consulting firm. Stober co-chairs APTA's Early Career Program with NJ Transit's Andreski.
"A lot of young people want to have a meaningful job that impacts their community in a meaningful way, and public transportation is perfect for filling that desire," says Stober, herself a millennial who has worked in transit planning the past seven years.
Stober entered the industry after receiving an American Public Transportation Foundation (APTF) scholarship while a graduate student studying urban planning at Virginia Tech. As an APTF scholar, she got involved in the foundation's efforts to attract and retain young people in the transit industry, and later was invited to participate in activities of APTA's Workforce Development Subcommittee, which began preparing the Early Career Program about a year ago.
"I think public transportation is as good a place as any to make an impact on your community," she says. "I see myself working in transit for a long time."
Stober believes APTA's program will help other millennials better understand transit-career opportunities, teach them the networking and other skills needed to advance, and introduce them to transit leaders through a national mentoring program.
Mentors can play a key role in helping a young professional successfully navigate a career ladder within an organization or industry, says Stober.
"Young people want to know when they're doing a good job," she says. "They want to know someone is looking out for them and that they can go to that someone for advice."
Some transit agencies already recognize young recruits' interest in mentorships. The Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), which operates bus services and oversees Metrolink rail service in Orange County, Calif., launched a formal mentoring program two years ago.
"Knowledge transfer is a critical part of the reason we have a successful mentoring program, and it's an elemental part of the succession plan here," says Patrick Gough, OCTA's executive director of human resources.
Gough led an effort to set up the initiative, which matches mentors and young hires based on personality tests. Mentors meet with their "mentees" regularly to discuss goals and work issues, and share experiences, advice and lessons learned.
"An alarming percentage of our workforce is within five years of being eligible for retirement — it's well above 50 percent," says Gough. "If we don't have something in place that can affect the transfer of knowledge ... to the next generation of transportation professionals, we'll be sadly surprised."
To help get young hires through the door, OCTA offers paid internships to expose recent college graduates to transportation career opportunities, says Gough.
Both the internship and formal mentor program helped keep Laura Scheper at OCTA after she graduated with a degree in communications from Chapman University in Orange County. Scheper knew nothing about the public transportation field when she applied for her internship.
"I came in planning to be here [at OCTA] for six to eight months, and then move on," says Scheper, now a community relations specialist at the agency. "But my understanding of transportation and the organization grew, and I enjoyed the internship experience. After I graduated, I was offered full-time capacity and five years later, I'm still here."
Last year, Scheper took the next step in her professional development by signing up for an OCTA mentor. She was matched with Carolina Coppolo, OCTA's manager of contracts and procurements, who encouraged Scheper to set goals that would improve her skills at working with the news media. The result: Scheper gained new confidence in her abilities to take on bigger job challenges and responsibilities.
While the Class Is don't have the same challenges that public agencies do in retaining young professionals — employees can move up the career ladder more quickly in private-sector jobs than in the public sector, for instance — Class Is have had to adapt to a new generation of workers, nonetheless.
At Norfolk Southern Railway, for example, creating a sense of community between young hires who are spread out across the Class I's 22-state network presents a challenge, says Tom Winters, NS director of human resources, planning and staffing.
To reach across the geographic divide and help them get to know each other, NS launched in 2009 an employee resource group known as "YoungNS" that offers support, mentoring, professional development, social activities and volunteer opportunities. YoungNS-sponsored activities have included a "leadership series" in which company leaders present talks on pertinent topics such as personal branding, business writing techniques and ways to advance at NS. Another employee resource group, which is focused on volunteerism, organizes volunteer activities like the company's annual participation in "Clean the Bay Day," which brings together veteran and young NS employees to meet, mingle and network while doing something for a good cause: cleaning up litter and trash around Chesapeake Bay in Virginia.
"At an event like that, you have brand new employees of NS who get to meet the 20- or 30-year veterans who have lived and breathed the freight railroad for their entire career," says Winter. "They exchange stories, and now those new employees have a contact in another department."
In an effort to cement young recruits' commitment to the railroad business, NS offers a year-long management trainee program.
"In the course of the year, not only do they get a lot of time to learn about the department they've been hired into, they get several weeks of operations training," Winter says. "We take them to our training center in Atlanta, teach them about the railroad, give them classroom instruction on communication, presentation and other skills for being successful managers. We also give them rotation time early in their careers to get them exposed to other departments so they get a broad view of the company."
Exposure to all aspects of railroading is important early in an employee's career.
"We know that we lose a number of young employees [to other industries] each year," says Winter. "Some folks realize railroading isn't for them. We try to eliminate that early on. We try to give our candidates a clear picture of what they can expect during their first few years; they don't always get the best shift to manage or the best time slot, and we may have to put them in a location that's foreign to them. We try to make it as favorable as we can, and still meet the company's needs."
Like his HR contemporaries in the transit industry, Winter sees generational differences in the millennials' expectations for work.
"All generations have strengths, challenges and uniqueness. That's why we try to get engaged with groups like YoungNS, to help us understand what is important to them," he says.
Another way NS is trying to appeal to a younger generation is by not tying career advancement opportunities to location transfers.
"If you talk to a 30-year transportation senior manager, they'll talk about moving 15 or 20 times in their careers. As we see this generation, that doesn't sound as enchanting," says Winter. "We do see that providing growth and development opportunities is important [to millennials] at their current location and having access to [higher] positions in other areas as they become available. To the extent that we can manage that and still meet the needs of the business, we're trying to be more accommodating."
As they continue to adapt to millennials' work preferences, NS executives embrace the diverse assets that young hires bring to the Class I's workforce. They may not have much railroad experience, but many do have experience working on teams to solve problems. Also, they're very comfortable working with technology, have been exposed to different methods of learning and have traveled more than previous generations, says Winter.
"We're really trying to reinforce to the entire organization that each person — and the diversity they bring to the organization — needs to be valued, respected and heard," he says. "For a lot of what we're doing companywide, it doesn't matter if you're a young professional or you're a year away from retirement. It's about getting that engagement in the company and contributing to the benefit of everyone."
NJ Transit's Andreski, who describes himself as Generation X, agrees that the millennials will bring their own set of qualities to the transportation workforce.
"Technology is very much a part of their every day life," Andreski says. "I consider myself tech savvy, but the millennials are leaps and bounds beyond what I can do."