The state of the transit workforce is precarious, and we have little information to forecast future trends. Public transit properties were formed in a narrow window of time, generally the mid-1960s through early 1980s. Once these agencies opened their doors, the retirement clock started for all employees at the same moment. This led to a massive exodus 30 to 35 years later as original employees retired en masse. This retirement wave is largely behind us, but the industry has been struggling ever since to fill positions with qualified people at every level.
In previous decades, the strategy to replace workers was to hire already-qualified people away from other agencies. This shortcut worked for a while in an industry that was experiencing limited growth and low rates of career change. The downside was that in-house training, school-to-work programs, and apprenticeships shrank in prominence across the industry. As experienced workers retired, the pool of people to hire away has dried up. In recent years, it has become clear that talent needs to be developed rather than poached.
Nowhere is the retirement trend more pronounced than at the very top. The average tenure of CEOs leading top-20 bus properties is only 3.6 years. Half of those CEOs have been on the job for less than two years, while only two CEOs (San Diego Metropolitan Transit System’s Paul Jablonski and Minneapolis Metro’s Brian Lamb) have been at their post for more than a decade.
Instead of looking to hire experienced executives, boards are choosing to promote from within or even hire from outside the industry. Fifteen CEOs have never led a public transit property before; many rose through the ranks of their agency. Only two CEOs — WMATA’s Paul Wiedefeld and LA Metro’s Philip Washington — have previously led other top-20 properties.
It is much, much harder to tally retirement and job tenure farther down the organizational chart. This underscores a larger issue in transit workforce development: we have poor information on our own workforce and few platforms to research the problem. The National Transit Database is a good resource on ridership, service quality, and efficiency. However, NTD tells us next to nothing about the transit agencies that operate service. Other data sources like American Public Transportation Association (APTA), the Bureau of Labor Statistics, or the Transportation Learning Center are not comprehensive or focus on only a segment of workers.
Without more complete data, it is difficult to do national research on transit people readiness. A regular, systematic study of transit properties in the U.S. is crucial to understanding the workforce challenges we face — both today and in the future. Creating the data platform and conducting associated research should be a priority for the industry.
“Success in this business requires knowledge, integrity, and the ability to support measured risk.”
Fill The Gaps
If we are unable to fill these gaps in data and research, it will be impossible to craft national policies, programs, and grants to address systemic workforce problems. To date, efforts to remedy transit’s people-readiness issues are patchwork and highly local. Many local workforce efforts have been very successful; examples include the Regional Transit District of Denver’s Workforce Initiative Now for frontline workers and Orange County Transportation Authority’s succession planning program for senior managers.
National, state, and regional workforce programs are scarce. Congress has given the Federal Transit Administration a dwindling amount of money for workforce programs and grants. These funds have been targeted to support local programs, but the amount ($9 million in 2017) is far too small to make an impact nationwide. A handful of nonprofits like the Eno Center for Transportation, APTA, and the Transportation Learning Center have stepped in to fund national programs. However, demand for seats dramatically outstrips supply. The ability to travel and take time away also hampers participation.
Transit properties spend $44 billion dollars per year, supporting the direct employment of 425,000 people. This is a substantial number of people and resources that deserves to be monitored, studied and properly supported. Armed with this information, the industry can predict and avoid the next workforce crisis.
Alexander Bond is Director of Eno’s Center for Transportation Leadership.