Photo: Community Transit

Photo: Community Transit

The recruitment crisis being faced by the public transit industry, in all types of roles, is well documented. The baby boomer generation has swelled the ranks of transit professionals, and their eligibility for retirement is leaving agencies with a looming shortage of employees. Those experienced workers take hard-earned knowledge and skills with them. Moreover, we’re told that the young workforce of today, the millennials, are the least loyal generation to hit the job market, and the least interested in the benefits of public sector jobs. This is partly true; there are genuine recruitment challenges. What is less true is that the typical millennial is not interested in a career in transit.

Recruitment Crisis
There are two elements of the recruitment crisis. Recruitment is already difficult; and with the impending retirement of boomers, the public transit industry will need even more recruits. That said, this crisis isn’t new. The transit industry has faced a personnel shortage for decades and has even funded research to address the difficulty of recruiting workers. Should we despair? Probably not, the industry has been managing to survive nonetheless. And perhaps we can’t exactly blame the millennials for their reticence to consider a career in transit.

What Does a Millennial Think of Transit?
The academic research shows that millennials are more willing to leave jobs. Does that mean they’re less loyal, or does it mean they’re more willing to jump ship when doors close on them? As the most interconnected generation ever, millennials are probably well aware of other opportunities; they’ve hit the job market during its worst phase decades; and across the board wage inequality is rising (favoring the older, hindering the younger). Can you blame them?

Millennials love transit though. They are more likely than their older colleagues to live in urban environments, eschew auto ownership, and take public transit. And they are more idealistic, embracing organizational missions, visions and values. The mission of any transit agency should fit neatly into the millennial’s world view.
So if millennials are not turned off to transit, why is it so hard to recruit them? Is it because the transit industry does not offer them an attractive package?

Transit agencies should consider rotating promising staff between departments to fast track toward management.

In many ways the transit industry offers an attractive career path, but there is room for improvement. There are two main arenas of attraction: conventional appeal (those things that have always been an attraction to a career in public service) and new appeal (those things that are particularly attractive when targeting millennials).

Conventional Appeal
Training/professional development is a stalwart of the “sell” of most careers. But transit, of all U.S. industries, invests the least in training, and has done so for decades. Nevertheless, excellent initiatives are out there. Take the MAX Program, where transit agencies work together to share best practices, take their most-promising recruits on tours of each other’s organizations, and invest in shared training programs. Also, at smaller scale, Kentucky’s Transportation Cabinet has offered scholarships to civil engineering students at local universities for nearly 70 years. This isn’t new.

Career progression is another way to appeal to most prospective recruits. Transit agencies can be small or large, but either way, there is a hierarchy, and ascendance of it is based on merit. That’s not always clear to millennials though. Baby boomers had a quiet expectation that years of diligent service would be rewarded. Millennials need more clarity and transparency. They expect to be supported, coached, and mentored —which costs an employer nothing to facilitate apart from management time and engagement. Also, succession planning is patchy across the industry, yet it mitigates organizational risk, retains, and incentivizes staff too. Transit agencies should consider rotating promising staff between departments to fast track toward management, or even temporarily exchanging staff with peer agencies.

There’s no getting around the fact that base salaries in transit agencies are sometimes not competitive with private industry, and there’s little room for maneuver. Specialist recruiters say that for millennials, work-life balance trumps cash. Also, fringe benefits are money, in a different form. Public agencies generally offer better medical care, vacation and pension payments than in the private sector. And perhaps crucially, in many roles, as is well documented (and sometimes criticized), paid overtime.

New Appeal
Millennials tend to be idealistic, and therefore mission-driven. It is now common for corporations and even government agencies to have lofty mission statements. Perhaps owing to their decades of experience, baby boomers appreciate that words and actions can be very different. Millennials, however, expect organizations to live up to their stated values. Transit agencies must be aware that their leadership may be held to account by their staff. Transit agencies should create a narrative that sets out a line of sight between organizational goals what is expected of staff. Will the organization always act in accordance with its values? In a world where one embarrassing tweet from one well-connected disgruntled employee can wreak havoc, agencies need to tread carefully.

Millennials need more clarity and transparency. They expect to be supported, coached, and mentored…

If there is one concept with overwhelming appeal to millennials, it is technological innovation. Millennials are tech-savvy and see how technology can be used (or invented) to improve things that “have always been done that way.” Transit agencies based in California face a particular challenge in competing for staff against tech companies located in that state. One possible response is to double down and invest in innovation. Create a buzz. Set up a slick internal and/or external campaign for ideas. Mentor staff. Nurture the best ideas through developing a real business case that creates a compelling case for real investment. Let millennials see they can innovate on the job.

Flexibility is not a word commonly associated with transit employment but is appealing to the millennial. In a technical or operational role this can be hard, though sophisticated scheduling software, and receptive management can alleviate this to an extent. For the management or administrative staff this is easier to grant. There are internet connections everywhere; office work can be performed anywhere anytime, even with the most rudimentary of software. The benefits are vast, with surprising results, even boosting the progression of women into senior roles. The WTS reports that “…a healthy advancement of women to managerial positions…[is]… an outcome from the uptick in part-time, work from home, and mentoring programs.”

Break the Perception
As the above analysis indicates, there is room for improvement but there are already significant reasons why the transit industry is attractive to millennials. Therefore, in addition to making the improvements suggested above, negative perceptions need to be broken — both the perceptions of management that has been led to believe that millennials can’t be recruited and those of millennials, who have legitimate concerns about the transit industry. No matter how attractive a career in transit may be, or even how convincingly the case can be made, if millennials don’t hear about it all is for naught. Agencies must advertise on their own properties. Engage students at local colleges. Team with peer agencies to sponsor recruitment events. These efforts need not be extravagant — internally advertised vacancies remain the most effective source of applicants. Develop millennials, send them out as ambassadors to recruit more, and the result is a virtuous circle.

The imminent crisis in filling the ranks of public transit professionals can be averted. Conventional and new appeal can be combined to build a compelling case for millennials to join the transit industry.

Tom Goodyer is a principal consultant and Stephen Kuhr is an operations director with WSP USA.