Virtually every transit agency in America is experiencing a shortage of bus technicians as skilled baby boomers retire in growing numbers and those capable and willing to take their place are increasingly becoming scarce. While the retiring of baby boomers is an issue for every industry, it is particularly critical for transit because the median age of transit workers is higher than that of the workforce, generally — according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the median age of bus service and urban transit workers is 50.8, compared to national median worker age of 42.2.
The outlook for recruiting new bus technicians is bleak for several reasons:
- Unlike the technicians retiring today, many younger workers did not grow up in a culture where they worked on their own cars and became interested in things mechanical.
- And while many younger workers have solid backgrounds in computers and electronics, which lends itself to diagnosing and repairing today’s transit buses, they are not so interested in the other maintenance work these buses still require.
- Of those interested in seeking careers in vehicle maintenance, a significant deterrent to attracting them to the transit industry is they are unaware of opportunities in transit.
- At the same time, other transportation sectors, facing the same technician shortages, are far more aggressive and innovative in attracting new hires.
Aware a career in transit affords employees stable employment with competitive benefits and the opportunity for internal advancement, the Transportation Learning Center is engaged in a national program to expand registered apprenticeships in transit. One such program involves bus maintenance apprenticeship; others include rail and elevator and escalator transit occupations. Despite these efforts, however, attracting technicians to bus maintenance, in general, is difficult because the many career paths offered by transit are rarely presented to young candidates.
Furthermore, there are many preconceived notions that exist about the industry and the type of work it entails, which need to be overcome:
- There is a real need to right the incorrect assumptions about work in transit for the simple reason there is an acute shortage of candidates for open positions in transit, particularly in maintenance.
- Lacking a national effort to help recruit bus technicians to transit, agencies are left to their own devices to make the case that working on transit buses, especially today, is a job that incorporates cutting-edge technologies: buses have sophisticated on-board computer systems, electrical components, and the prevalence of battery-electric propulsion is increasing.
- It is also one of the few truly sustainable industries: working for transit means working for an industry that, unlike the auto industry, is providing a form of transportation that is lower in greenhouse gas emissions.
- And, the satisfaction of mastering a craft and working with one’s intellect to diagnose problems, and then using your hands to successfully correct those problems, cannot be overemphasized, especially to career seekers with natural electro-mechanical proclivities.
Tackling the problem
One often overlooked way to recruit bus technicians is to broadcast the many career success stories that exist at agencies throughout the industry. One example is the Capital District Transportation Authority (CDTA) in Albany, N.Y., where employees offer resounding evidence of the value that pursuing a career in transit can have. The maintenance managers featured in this article all started out as entry-level frontline workers. The experience and institutional knowledge gained along the way has helped offer a well-rounded view of the agency as employees make their way up the career ladder. The result is of mutual value to both the agency and its employees.
Lance Zarcone started as a bus cleaner more than 23 years ago, responsible for fueling, sweeping floors, cleaning the interior of buses, and doing bus changes on the road. He was promoted to a mechanic’s helper, moved up to first class mechanic, and was then promoted to the inspection crew. In 2008, he was promoted into management as assistant superintendent. Recently, Zarcone has taken over as director of maintenance and operations at CDTA. Today, he is now responsible for everything CDTA operates, including more than 500 employees. Arguably he has advanced up more career rungs than any other active CDTA employee.
His perspective is he has moved on from fixing things to helping the workforce in general. “CDTA has been great to me and has afforded great opportunities,” says Zarcone. “I never saw myself as someone who could be anything more than being a mechanic but when there are opportunities presented, you realize you can take them.”
Zarcone understands how every level of CDTA works because he has been there himself. He realizes the benefits of his 23 years of experience and enjoys sharing his knowledge with other CDTA employees. Mostly though, he enjoys talking about the CDTA career ladder and the opportunities that are available with hard work and dedication.
Steve Wacksman, who is a superintendent at CDTA, has a similar story. In 1994, he started as a service technician/cleaner and worked his way up the maintenance career ladder, becoming a technician, foreman, maintenance trainer, manager of training, assistant superintendent, and then a superintendent.
Wacksman, like much of the op-level CDTA management, is a testament to the benefit of staying with an organization, especially a transit agency: you can become a leader. For CDTA, the benefits are getting leaders that can directly relate to the people they manage and know and respect the organizational goals and mission.
One of the overarching messages from Wacksman is that an occupation in bus maintenance has been satisfying on many levels. At every position, employees are responsible for ensuring CDTA customers get to work, medical appointments, the grocery store, and recreation. You have the satisfaction of connecting your community and seeing it get better as a result.
Wacksman admits before working at CDTA, he didn’t know much about transit or the career he was embarking on. Although he was fortunate enough to find his way to the industry, many people may miss these opportunities, even though agencies are struggling to fill vacancies. People interested in maintenance work often gravitate toward the auto industry, because of its visibility and the amount of investment it receives. In the long run, however, transit invests in its employees and, as a result, provides better opportunities.
When asked to sum up his advice to someone considering a career in maintenance, Wacksman says, “Give transit a chance. You must be a believer. Everything I have is due to CDTA. They provide you with opportunities to promote within, training, and encouragement.”
Richard Nasso Jr. has worked at CDTA for 26 years. He started his career as a bus cleaner, moving from the construction industry. When he switched jobs to start at CDTA, he accepted a cut in pay compared to his previous job, but once he became a mechanic, his salary went up. He knew the best way to become financially stable and start a family was to build a career at CDTA.
Committing to a career in transit can be difficult, and there are lots of ups and downs in the beginning. At first, maintenance workers often work nights and holidays because schedules are set based on seniority. Nasso leads an orientation for new employees and tells them what to expect. He doesn’t sugarcoat the image. “I tell them it’s going to be tough, but to look to the future… I started in the same place,” he explains. “I started at the bottom and worked to where I am today. Not everyone can see that far ahead, but I want them to see there are great options within the company. For someone who puts their all in, there is a lot of room to move ahead at CDTA.”
Today, Nasso is assistant superintendent of maintenance, and has held that position for almost six years. From his perspective, experience working as a cleaner has made him much more tuned in to the day-to-day work. When people come in at a top-level position without prior transit experience, there is no real understanding of what it’s like for entry-level staff; but for Nasso, there’s nothing that he can ask an employee to do that he hasn’t done himself.
Dave William and Terry Walco are also members of the management team who began their careers at the agency in entry-level positions and worked their way up the ranks thanks to the many opportunities made available to them at CDTA. So too did Steve Moquin, who started off in bus maintenance to become the president/business agent of the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU), representing CDTA’s frontline workforce.
The career path taken by these managers at CDTA serves as an effective recruitment tool to attract young workers to a career in transit bus maintenance, a career they may have otherwise overlooked. All three have management level jobs and receive good salaries and benefits as a result.
- When it comes to filling maintenance jobs in transit, agencies need to be innovative in how they tout the benefits of a transit career.
- Highlighting the career path successes within your own agency is certainly one example of attracting younger workers to an essential service industry that offers such great career potential.
John Schiavone is Program Director and Karitsa Holdzkom is Project Associate at the Transportation Learning Center.