Management & Operations

Strategies to Find and Nurture Transit Bus Technicians

Posted on April 1, 2005 by Steve Hirano, Editor

Working behind the scenes to keep a fleet of transit buses up and running is a challenging task, given the state of most transit budgets these days. Failure, however, is not an option. Service reductions are generally acceptable if they're linked to budget constraints, but not if they're the result of a shortage of properly operating equipment. That's why it's critical that transit systems stay in tune with workforce issues in the shop such as recruitment and retention of mechanics and training practices. Some of the challenges agencies face include finding good technicians to fill vacancies, staying on top of technological changes and maintaining an effective training system with a lean budget. This article describes how some transit systems are addressing those challenges.

Success with apprentices
At Miami-Dade Transit (MDT), a rapid expansion of the bus fleet has required expansion of the maintenance staff. The problem, however, has been filling the pipeline with promising candidates. To spark greater interest in a career in bus maintenance, Miami-Dade County officials approved a bus maintenance apprenticeship program in 2003. The program involves 850 hours of classroom training over a six- to eight-week period. The trainees do not receive a stipend during the classroom portion of the program. Those who successfully complete the training become eligible for hire as bus maintenance technician trainees with MDT. MDT spokeswoman Tarnell Carroll says 40 people completed the training program last year. Eighteen more are in training now, she adds. "We'd be in rough shape without the training program," says Sandy Amores, MDT's chief of bus maintenance. This program, along with a badly needed hike in bus technician salaries, has solved what was a chronic problem. "Back in the mid-'90s, we could not find anyone who wanted to become a mechanic," Amores says. The problem was that technicians who were interested in working at MDT preferred to work in the higher-paying rail division. "We had high turnover," Amores says. "The bus mechanics would stay for a year or two and then get jobs in the rail system." The pay increase on the bus side (starting pay for a mechanic is $18 per hour) has stemmed the bleeding, he says. Trainees who are accepted into the bus maintenance division enter a six-month on-the-job training program that includes theoretical and hands-on instruction in topic areas such as engines, transmissions and electrical systems. Starting pay for trainees is $16.86 per hour. Once they graduate to regular status, their pay is upgraded to $17.63 an hour.

 Promotion promoted
At Milwaukee County Transit System (MCTS), a staff of 250 mechanics takes care of 475 buses at four facilities. Mechanics are categorized as either A, B or C, with A being the highest grade. Bil Schaller, manager of administrative services in maintenance, says he has a problem finding good mechanics. Despite getting 200 to 300 applicants for an entry-level position to clean and fuel buses, he has a hard time finding suitable candidates. "Many of them have lifestyle problems," Schaller says, referring to those with backgrounds marred by drug or alcohol abuse or criminal convictions. "Although we can't violate anti-discrimination laws, we're very careful about who we hire." The reason that Schaller is so invested in the hiring process is that he wants to bring in people who want to climb the "career ladder." To that end, the agency conducts a voluntary technician training program that lasts nine months and covers five areas - electrical, heating/air conditioning, engines, transmissions and suspensions/brakes. After completing the instruction, which takes about 300 hours, mechanics take a written and practical test. If they pass the exams, they are then qualified to bid on vacancies for A-level mechanics. "We also offer $1,000 in tuition reimbursement each year for continued education," Schaller says. Mechanics who want to improve their knowledge base and rise to management levels are encouraged to seek additional education. "Moving up through the maintenance organization is becoming more and more the norm," he says.

Fewer good prospects
At Golden Gate Transit in the San Francisco area, 36 maintenance employees handle a fleet of 305 buses, of which 218 are active, in one main shop and two satellite facilities. Steven Miller, Golden Gate's maintenance trainer, says turnover has been light, and the shop has hired only journeymen in the past 15 or so years. But that doesn't mean that he's awash with great prospects when an opening does arise. "Finding people who are qualified and have the technical expertise is getting more and more difficult," he says. Adding to this problem is the increasing complexity of modern buses, which have computerized engines, transmissions, anti-lock brake systems and multiplexing. "Fifteen years ago it was easy enough to find guys who could rebuild engines, transmissions and brakes," Miller says. "But now we need people who know how to use test equipment and do computer diagnostics." Part of the reason for the lack of good prospects, Miller believes, is society's greater emphasis on white-collar careers. "A lot of younger people are being encouraged away from well-paid opportunities in the traditional blue-collar trades in favor of white-collar professions such as information technology, engineering and business administration," he says, adding that journeymen make $32.31 an hour. Golden Gate doesn't provide a lot of formal group training of its technicians, instead focusing on on-the-job training, aids such as job cards, cheat sheets and one-on-one coaching. This, in part, is due to a tight budget and downsizing. "In this environment, the advanced training that new technology requires has become increasingly difficult to accomplish," Miller says. "This has forced operations like ours to think very strategically about training in terms of opportunities and return on investment." This use of one-on-one training allows for the varying personalities and learning styles of the technicians. "What holds the attention of one person might not work for another person," Miller says. "That's why the more targeted and individualized the training is, the more effective it is." Miller cautions that increased training is not always the appropriate remedy for on-the-job problems. "Sometimes money is thrown away on misguided training efforts," he says. "Training in and of itself is not necessarily a good thing. Sometimes people will throw training dollars at a motivation problem. You have to be careful not to attribute all of your problems with maintenance to a lack of training."

Active recruitment is key
At Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), the bus maintenance department understands the difficulty in finding good mechanic prospects, so it doesn't sit back and wait for them to show up at the door. "We go on recruiting trips to trade schools throughout the western United States," says Rocky Rogers, assistant vice president of technical services. Sometimes the recruiter will bring along DART's "latest and greatest" equipment, such as an LNG bus, to put on display. "This allows us to show them the current technology," Rogers says. Many students at trade schools view buses as old technology and don't realize that they have high-tech chassis components, as well as ancillary equipment such as automatic vehicle location, global positioning systems and annunciator systems, he says. DART operates a fleet of 750 buses with support from 271 mechanics. It works out of four garages, including one for heavy-unit repair. Its Mechanic Training Program (MTP) is predicated on all technicians coming in with at least four years of hands-on experience or an associate's degree. Rogers says they start at 87.5% of the top wage. Within four years they can progress to the top mechanic wage, $20.94 an hour. The training department is staffed by three full-time people and one half-timer. It leads all new technicians through the four-year MTP, which focuses on preventive maintenance. They're also expected to obtain their CDL if they don't already have it. "Most everyone spends the majority of the first six months in classes or undergoing coaching," Rogers says. As much as 90% of the training is specific to DART equipment, which he says is relatively standardized with three manufacturers' products. Rogers says the training program is kept fresh by the arrival of new equipment, which requires an updating on any significant changes. It's also modified based on an annual needs assessment and interviews with supervisors and top management. "Everyone recognizes the need of the program," he says. "We feel that the payback is tremendous."

Salary boost helps
The Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (RTA) operates approximately 620 buses, maintaining them at four shops, including a main facility. James Lewis Jr., vehicle maintenance instructor, says turnover on the bus maintenance side has been almost non-existent over the past two years because of competitive wages and benefits. "This year, we have people retiring, so we'll have turnover," he says. Starting pay was increased to $15 per hour to help the department be competitive with auto dealerships and the RTA's operations division. "Our starting pay was on the low side," Lewis concedes. "They were getting paid on the same level as the operators." When it has needed to fill gaps, the agency has been able to find experienced technicians, mainly from auto dealerships. These mechanics, Lewis says, are relatively easy to train because they are already familiar with electronics and component computerization and only need to adjust to diesel engines and air brakes. Technician trainees are put through a 10- to 12-week training program, while experienced mechanics undergo a four-day orientation and then spend a week working with the preventive maintenance crew. After that, they're put on different shifts and work with an experienced mechanic. Normally, the training division has three people to deploy. Right now, it's operating with just one due to a retirement and an inter-department shift. Lewis emphasizes that not all of his time is spent on formal training. "We assist mechanics with technical problems and work other projects," he says. "We also do a lot of safety training."

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