Management & Operations

Changing of the guard

Posted on May 11, 2007 by Frank Di Giacomo, Publisher

The oldest baby boomers turned 60 last year. And the younger boomers aren’t far behind. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, there are 78.2 million boomers in the U.S., comprising about one-quarter of the population. Approximately 3 million of them turned 60 last year, equivalent to 330 per hour.

That means a significant number of leaders in the transit industry are heading toward retirement.

How will the boomers’ headlong rush into their 60s impact the transit industry? It could have a ground-shaking effect. These 60-something movers and shakers will be taking their experience and expertise with them into the next stage of their lives — and leaving behind a void of talent at the highest management levels.

As Editor Steve Hirano illustrates in his article beginning on pg. 28 ["Leadership Gap Threatens Future of Transit Industry," May 2007], many general managers at transit systems across the country agree that the next five to 10 years will be critical for the industry in regard to leadership development. Are we prepared?
As ridership on buses and trains continues to grow, the industry needs to capitalize on these gains and push for even higher levels of ridership and service. The success of this push will hinge on the ability of management teams to inspire, excite and innovate. This challenge will not be easily met.

As we lose our top transit managers in the coming years, we will struggle to maintain the competence and efficiency of our organizations — unless we start to attract and develop people to fill the breach.

Many of these future leaders already are working in the transit industry. They could be bus operators, dispatchers, maintenance managers or route supervisors. We need to recognize the people in the organization who have aptitude for leadership and develop their skills and talents. This can be achieved through leadership development and mentoring programs. Ask any transit general manager how he or she was able to climb the ladder to reach the top post and I’m sure you’ll hear a story about a particular supervisor who provided mentoring and encouragement.

Transit systems need to support programs that will shepherd promising individuals into positions of increasing responsibility and provide in-house training and educational opportunities that will leverage this objective. Making transit a career choice
The industry also needs to look at how it will attract new people into its fold. Public transportation is generally not viewed as a desirable career destination by most college students or graduates. We need to find ways to change that perception. Those of us associated with this industry know how fulfilling and challenging it can be, but we haven’t made a strong effort to get the word out.

APTA has made some progress in this regard. The association offers assistance to promising college students studying public transportation. Through its Transit Hall of Fame Scholarships, sponsored by the American Public Transportation Foundation, APTA awards a minimum of seven scholarships each year — a small number, yes, but still a worthy effort.

With the growing emphasis on sustainability, the time is right to start spreading the message that public transportation is a vibrant, leading-edge career that it is going to make a critical difference in the preservation of the environment.

The loss of our best and brightest transit leaders, both on the public side and the supplier side, could have an adverse impact on systems around the country. Or it could be an opportunity to infuse the transit industry with new ideas, enthusiasm and energy.

Let’s start now to ensure that the transition is healthy and robust.

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