Management & Operations

Ridership gains, retirements point to gap in staffing nation’s public transit systems

Posted on November 10, 2009 by Kenneth Mall

Earlier this year, two nationwide news stories - both having huge ramifications for public transit operators - were published within weeks of each other.

One report announced that U.S. public transit ridership reached its highest level in 52 years - 10.7 billion trips in 2008 - even as gasoline pump prices began to decline.

The other story was less positive. Discussion is re-emerging in Washington - even in these difficult economic times - about increasing the current 18.4-cent per gallon federal gasoline tax by as much as 10 cents per gallon. The gasoline tax funds improvements to the nation's highways, bridges and other transportation infrastructure, but provides very little funding for mass transit, which, under a gas tax increase, would face yet higher ridership demand.

Valuable employee loss

If that isn't enough to send rumbles across public transit systems, there is another developing issue as well. According to studies conducted by the Transportation Research Board (TRB) of the National Academies of Science, the public transit industry is going to experience a great number of valuable employees leaving the workforce due to retirement.

This is not only due to the "baby boomer" generational shift, but also because many public transit agencies were first formed in the 1970s. Those first employees have come to the conclusion of their 30- to 35-year careers.

As a result, there will be a need to fill these positions with younger, qualified replacements. However, most people are completely unaware of the many possible career opportunities in the public transit industry, from operators and mechanical support to logistical and administrative positions.

These are well-paying jobs in a segment of the transportation industry expected to grow in the near- and mid-term future as more cities and regions build, improve and expand existing networks to meet increased ridership demand. In addition, the new administration has expressed interest and support for economic stimulus funding for public transit.

There is new interest and growing support for public transportation, spurred by higher fuel prices, the increased cost of car ownership (18 cents for every household dollar spent) and climbing traffic congestion in many regions around the country. The environmental benefits of public transportation include reduced fuel consumption by 4.2 billion gallons of gasoline a year, reduced carbon emissions by 37 million metric tons per year, and improved air quality. Careers in the public transportation field can truly be classified as "green jobs," which contribute to a healthier environment.

Funding for recruitment

In addition, Congress has been working to address the transit experience/knowledge gap with the introduction of the Transportation Job Corps Act of 2008 (HR 7053), which provides funding for recruitment and retention of workers. The bill is expected to be re-introduced later this year, and demonstrates serious national interest in this issue.

Public transit agencies as well need to address the issue of attracting, hiring, and training and development of new and younger employees with skills assessment, customized job training and analyzing organizational knowledge to meet their workforce needs in the years to come. Successful best practices have been developed and achieved in regions such as San Mateo County, Calif., and with transit agencies and their affiliated unions across the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania under the auspices of the non-profit Keystone Development Partnership.

Projects under these partnerships are dedicated to addressing major skill gaps caused by the introduction of new technology into buses and trains and the rapidly changing demographics as the result of an aging and soon-to-retire skilled workforce.

And now, with public transit ridership dramatically increasing, and the potential of increased fuel taxes, maintaining efficient, reliable transit systems with an energized, educated workforce will be more challenging than ever.


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