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Workforce Development: Who Will Run Transit Tomorrow?

Posted on November 19, 2013 by Nicole Schlosser, Senior Editor

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OCTA’s Leadership Development Academy gives employees, including Connie Raya (seated), opportunities to hone their leadership skills and move into management positions.
OCTA’s Leadership Development Academy gives employees, including Connie Raya (seated), opportunities to hone their leadership skills and move into management positions.


(This story contains extra material at the end that is not included in the print version. You can also check out sidebars on women leaders in transit and millennials in APTA's Early Career Program that are a part of the print version.)

Public transportation will be in demand well into the future, but who will be around to run it?

The transit industry is not exempt from the onslaught of retiring baby boomers. So, what is being done today to ensure a robust, innovative transportation workforce for tomorrow?

The industry is preparing by training mid-level workers to fill vacant leadership positions as well as trying to attract creative young minds to the profession and keep them involved for the long haul.

Today’s workforce is divided unevenly among three age group categories, Darrell Johnson, CEO, for Calif.-based Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), says. Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are coming to the end of their careers, holding 30 years to 40 years of valuable experience, and are thinking about retirement. Then, there’s Generation X, those born between 1965 to 1980, who are hitting the peaks of their careers and reaching more senior levels in their organizations. Finally, some members of the millennial group, born in the early 1980s through the early 2000s, have recently joined the ranks.

A one-for-one replacement can’t happen naturally because the baby boomer group is so disproportionately large compared to the Generation X and Millennial groups.

Transit is hardly the only industry with this problem, says Joel Volinski, director, National Center for Transit Research, University of Florida (CUTR/USF).

“Every industry is saying the same thing. Baby boomers are retiring. People are going to be leaving,” he says. “We’re going to lose 50 percent of our workforce in the next five to 10 years. How do we find the talent? How do we keep them here? The good thing for the transit industry is it has actually done a better job than a lot of the others.”

Attract, retain and advance
At the beginning of 2013, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Innovative Transit Workforce Development Program awarded a share of $7 million to 12 states to help local public transit agencies, institutions of higher education, nonprofit organizations and Native American tribes train a future generation of transit professionals, with emphasis on promoting training opportunities in emerging technologies and encouraging young people to pursue careers in public transportation.

Meanwhile, organizations, such as the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS), the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and the South West Transit Association (SWTA), as well as transit agencies, are helping address the problem with efforts to attract more women and young people and utilize veterans’ leadership skills.

There is more opportunity than ever to reach out and drum up interest in the industry with millennials looking first to alternative transportation before cars. Volinski points out people in this age group are much more in tune with public transportation than possibly any previous generation. He speculates that could be attributed to them being “loaded down with student debt and [not being able to] afford a car, or because it’s their world that’s being polluted to death and they don’t want to see it continue.”

Kristen Joyner, executive director, SWTA, says she sees bright, energetic young transit professionals who want to move into higher positions, and that key actions for the industry to take will be succession planning; training; opening doors for those already in the field; and targeting people still attending middle schools, high schools and colleges with creative recruitment ideas.

Marcia Ferranto, president/CEO, WTS International, says the solution, particularly concerning women in transportation is threefold: attracting, retaining, and advancing into CEO positions or corporate boards.  

“Why is the industry not keeping its professionals? Why are women stepping away? That’s a big puzzle, one that, fortunately, a lot of companies, both private and public, are willing to talk about,” she adds. “They’re willing to engage in the research, because [they] are investing tons of dollars in training these folks out of college and getting them to mid-level careers, and they certainly don’t want to see their investments leave.”

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