Rapid advances in technology, skill shortages and maintenance job vacancies are challenges that face the transit industry regardless of region. To address these issues, several Pennsylvania agencies have come together in an unprecedented partnership effort.
Initially involving only Philadelphia’s Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA) and its principal union, the Transport Workers Union (TWU) Local 234, the Keystone Transit Career Ladder Partnership emerged in December 2001. By July 2002, the program expanded statewide to include other major cities, like Pittsburgh, as well as smaller outlying communities. But its expansion and even creation were not without roadblocks.
In any industry, labor and management relations historically stand on fragile ground. Transit is no different. In Philadelphia, for example, a 40-day strike in 1998 shattered nearly all goodwill between SEPTA and TWU. However, with updates in maintenance skills and career advancement opportunities sorely lacking, whatever suspicions and mistrust that existed between the two then have been set aside.
“Labor and management have to agree on how to spend the money in their area,” said Dr. Robert G. Garraty, statewide project coordinator for the Keystone partnership. “Where you have really bad relationships, sometimes that makes it more difficult. The transit industry is very heavily unionized.”
In its first year (through June 2002), Keystone received a $718,000 federal grant, disbursed to the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry through the U.S. Department of Labor. When the program broadened, it received more than $1.2 million. Eventually, with more agencies involved, this budget was allocated according to a transit property’s workforce percentage. For example, because 59% of the state’s transit workers were employed by SEPTA, it received 59% of the funds.
Keystone’s first-year goal was to train 107 workers in Philadelphia. Instead, 134 went through the program. Its second-year goal was to train 300 Philadelphia employees and 75 statewide. The final tallies were 785 and 125, respectively. Additionally, statistics prior to the training reported that 53% of SEPTA’s bus mechanic trainees passed the practical exam. As of now, about 84% are passing the exam, many garnering promotions.
According to Garraty, the partnership essentially is to “help people move up the ladder.” Labor unions were seeing an increase in contract work, which occurred due to what management officials saw as a lack of skills within their own staff. As a result, extensive skill-gap analysis research and surveys were conducted to determine which types of support training were needed most.
Bus mechanic training was the focus during Keystone’s early days. Courses covered electricity, electronics, air conditioning, preventive maintenance and brakes. Rail, underground, elevator/escalator, millwrights and electricians training have since been added.
Instruction is provided free and is taught by agency training instructors and specialized outside vendors. An added incentive is that Keystone also reimburses employers 50% of their employees’ salaries while they attend courses.
The Keystone partnership is part of a national effort originally crafted by the nonprofit, Silver Spring, Md.-based Community Transportation Development Center. The center, which receives federal money, has developed similar career ladder partnerships in New York, San Francisco, Miami and, most recently, Houston.