The Transit Industry's Workforce Challenge is Still Real

Posted on September 20, 2017 by Paul J. Larrousse - Also by this author

It seems at least a couple times each month we here of a transit CEO who is retiring, technical staff who are leaving, and the difficulty in filling maintenance and operations positions with skilled workers for those who have retired.
KCATA
It seems at least a couple times each month we here of a transit CEO who is retiring, technical staff who are leaving, and the difficulty in filling maintenance and operations positions with skilled workers for those who have retired.
KCATA
For longer than we can remember, we have been hearing about the waves of retirements that are going to hit the public transportation industry. As far back as 2003, the Transportation Research Board 275, The Workforce Challenge, stated that 50% of the transportation workforce would retire in 10 years and we would need to find qualified individuals to replace the retirees. The Great Recession had an effect on many retirements as retirement savings portfolios dropped in value and needed to recover. The industry conducted several initiatives to prepare for the retirement wave that was coming.

This brings us to 2017. Where are we today with the great anticipated retirement wave? It looks like it may finally be starting, if not fully underway. It seems at least a couple times each month we here of a transit CEO who is retiring, technical staff who are leaving, and the difficulty in filling maintenance and operations positions with skilled workers for those who have retired.

In many respects, to quote Yogi Berra, “it’s Deja vu all over again.” If we look back to the demographic of the transit industry in the 1970s and early 80s, our workforce consisted of individuals in their late 50s and 60s or 20s and early 30s. The other age cohorts were not well represented. Take a look at today’s transit workforce and a similar picture exists.

The question arises, where does the replacement talent come from? How do we attract and retain a new generation of workers whose view of the workplace may be different from the people currently holding these positions? How will the transit industry move forward?

The biggest challenge we face is the “brain drain” that will take place with the upcoming retirements. A lot of knowledge and experience will go quickly out the door. With thin ranks of individuals in the middle-age cohort, this is going to put a lot of pressure on the youngest generation in our workforce. This is not to say the younger generation is not capable of stepping up to the task of running our transit agencies. A fresh viewpoint is always good. It is, however, asking a lot of a new generation of leaders and workers to take on the task of ensuring that millions of Americans get to work, school, medical appointments, and other needs each day in a complex, publicly-funded and publicly-overseen industry. So, what do we do?

While there are several courses in various educational programs on public transportation, there is not a degree program specifically designed for public transportation.
IndyGo
While there are several courses in various educational programs on public transportation, there is not a degree program specifically designed for public transportation.
IndyGo

If we look at this issue, it seems like we have a Herculean lift in front of us. Fortunately, that is not the case. A lot of work and effort has already taken place to address what is going to take to have a sustainable transit workforce. One of the initial efforts was the American Public Transportation Association’s (APTA) Blue Ribbon Panel on Workforce Development. The output from this effort provided a roadmap for the industry to use in addressing these issues.

Another key piece of the puzzle was the work of the John J. Heldrich Center for Workforce Development in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. The Heldrich Center analyzed the numerous positions within public transportation agencies and classified them into four functional areas: Vehicle Operations; Vehicle Maintenance; Facilities, Track and Road Maintenance; and Central Services and Administration. The report, entitled Get Moving: Public Transportation Occupational Guidebook, identified 177 occupations and provided information on the skills needed to function in these jobs. It should be noted that this report was funded by the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) and is indicative of FTA’s support in addressing the workforce challenge the industry faces. The report is available here.

While the Heldrich Center report provides a guide to what knowledge and training is needed for the positions within public transportation, the question is where to receive the training. Once again, as an industry, we have made strides in this area. One of the outstanding programs is the Transportation Learning Center (TLC). As their website states, they have created “labor-management partnerships that improve organizational performance, expand workforce knowledge, skills and abilities, and promote career advancement.” TLC has developed programs that address the technical skills needed in many of the maintenance areas particularly in areas where there has proven to be a shortage of skilled transit workers.

Another model program for maintenance training is the Southern California Regional Transit Training Consortium. This particular program has developed a network of community college, universities, transit agencies, and public and private organizations to address the training needs of multiple agencies in Southern California.

The biggest challenge we face is the “brain drain” that will take place with the upcoming retirements. A lot of knowledge and experience will go quickly out the door.
The biggest challenge we face is the “brain drain” that will take place with the upcoming retirements. A lot of knowledge and experience will go quickly out the door.
When it comes to the administrative and supervisory positions within transit agencies, one thing is clear: you cannot learn the transit business in college. While there are several courses in various educational programs on public transportation, there is not a degree program specifically designed for public transportation. You cannot learn our business in school. However, even in this area, we have several programs that assist people entering the industry.

First of all, there is the FTA-funded National Transit Institute (NTI). NTI, which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, is FTA’s training arm. NTI serves to train the industry on the nuances of operating transit systems and complying with the regulations that come along with receiving FTA funding. NTI has a catalog of about 60 active courses. During its history, NTI has trained 178,591 persons who attended 6,270 courses. Information on NTI can be found here.

Our national trade associations have been players in training the transit workforce. The Community Transportation Association of America has training which leads to certification in several topics. APTA provides leadership training on several levels. The Eno Transportation Foundation has mid-manager and executive training programs.

These training programs do not fill all the needs that the industry has. Currently, NTI at the request of FTA is conducting a multi-phased assessment of the transit industry workforce training needs. This has been a long-talked about effort and will represent the first major look at where the industry stands and what we will need for the future workforce. The anticipated output from the study will result in providing resources to address critical gaps in knowledge, focus resources in those areas, and ensure a well-prepared transit workforce.

So, where will all these efforts get us and what other considerations do we need to take into account. If we have a well-trained workforce, we will address on of the critical issues we are facing know. This can be identified as the industry not having a deep bench strength. The age gap that was discussed earlier in this article is the primary reason for this. If we do not have people who are ready to assume positions, we need to provide them with resources to do so in a quick timeframe. This is where all the training initiatives come into play.

We also need to understand that the future generations of workers will come with different expectations about work. The task for the industry leaders will be to help their staffs grow in terms of knowledge, experience, and career. The latter will be the most difficult. In transit, this may mean moving from one property to another. If it means retaining talent in the industry rather than losing it, we must be ready to support mobility within the industry and between transit agencies. This may even mean movement between the public and private sectors.

Developing our transit workforce may seem like a foreboding task. However, if we do not have the people, we do not have the ability to deliver our product. Transit is ultimately a people business. Serving customers, people, is our primary business. Having people to do this is the key.

Paul Larrousse serves as Director of the National Transit Institute in the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. 

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