OCTA’s Leadership Development Academy gives employees, including Connie Raya (seated), opportunities to hone their leadership skills and move into management positions.

OCTA’s Leadership Development Academy gives employees, including Connie Raya (seated), opportunities to hone their leadership skills and move into management positions.

(This story contains extra material at the end that is not included in the print version. You can also check out sidebars on women leaders in transit and millennials in APTA's Early Career Program that are a part of the print version.)

Public transportation will be in demand well into the future, but who will be around to run it?

The transit industry is not exempt from the onslaught of retiring baby boomers. So, what is being done today to ensure a robust, innovative transportation workforce for tomorrow?

The industry is preparing by training mid-level workers to fill vacant leadership positions as well as trying to attract creative young minds to the profession and keep them involved for the long haul.

Today’s workforce is divided unevenly among three age group categories, Darrell Johnson, CEO, for Calif.-based Orange County Transportation Authority (OCTA), says. Baby boomers, born between 1946 and 1964, are coming to the end of their careers, holding 30 years to 40 years of valuable experience, and are thinking about retirement. Then, there’s Generation X, those born between 1965 to 1980, who are hitting the peaks of their careers and reaching more senior levels in their organizations. Finally, some members of the millennial group, born in the early 1980s through the early 2000s, have recently joined the ranks.

A one-for-one replacement can’t happen naturally because the baby boomer group is so disproportionately large compared to the Generation X and Millennial groups.

Transit is hardly the only industry with this problem, says Joel Volinski, director, National Center for Transit Research, University of Florida (CUTR/USF).

“Every industry is saying the same thing. Baby boomers are retiring. People are going to be leaving,” he says. “We’re going to lose 50 percent of our workforce in the next five to 10 years. How do we find the talent? How do we keep them here? The good thing for the transit industry is it has actually done a better job than a lot of the others.”

Attract, retain and advance
At the beginning of 2013, the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) Innovative Transit Workforce Development Program awarded a share of $7 million to 12 states to help local public transit agencies, institutions of higher education, nonprofit organizations and Native American tribes train a future generation of transit professionals, with emphasis on promoting training opportunities in emerging technologies and encouraging young people to pursue careers in public transportation.

Meanwhile, organizations, such as the Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS), the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) and the South West Transit Association (SWTA), as well as transit agencies, are helping address the problem with efforts to attract more women and young people and utilize veterans’ leadership skills.

There is more opportunity than ever to reach out and drum up interest in the industry with millennials looking first to alternative transportation before cars. Volinski points out people in this age group are much more in tune with public transportation than possibly any previous generation. He speculates that could be attributed to them being “loaded down with student debt and [not being able to] afford a car, or because it’s their world that’s being polluted to death and they don’t want to see it continue.”

Kristen Joyner, executive director, SWTA, says she sees bright, energetic young transit professionals who want to move into higher positions, and that key actions for the industry to take will be succession planning; training; opening doors for those already in the field; and targeting people still attending middle schools, high schools and colleges with creative recruitment ideas.

Marcia Ferranto, president/CEO, WTS International, says the solution, particularly concerning women in transportation is threefold: attracting, retaining, and advancing into CEO positions or corporate boards.  

“Why is the industry not keeping its professionals? Why are women stepping away? That’s a big puzzle, one that, fortunately, a lot of companies, both private and public, are willing to talk about,” she adds. “They’re willing to engage in the research, because [they] are investing tons of dollars in training these folks out of college and getting them to mid-level careers, and they certainly don’t want to see their investments leave.” [PAGEBREAK]

APTA’s Early Career Program provides mentorship to young transit professionals over the course of one year. Participants (the first class is shown here) are assigned two mentors at the senior level — one local and one out of state.

APTA’s Early Career Program provides mentorship to young transit professionals over the course of one year. Participants (the first class is shown here) are assigned two mentors at the senior level — one local and one out of state.

WTS’ 49 chapters across the U.S. have mentoring programs and a leadership program it hosts on the international level that women from around the country apply to attend once a year. The organization’s plan is to grow over the next three years to serve more women.

Meanwhile, APTA’s Early Career Program provides mentorship to young transit professionals over the course of one year. Participants are assigned two mentors at the senior level — one local and one out of state — to meet with once a month and discuss an assigned topic, as well as any questions or concerns they have.

Over the last year and a half, APTA created a task force for the Early Career Program, conducting internal research on the skill gaps seen both in the private and public sectors. Researchers saw a need for improving retention. Another finding showed that mid-career individuals, typically in their mid-thirties, need a mentoring program.

As 2012-2013 APTA Chair, Flora Castillo focused on the Early Career Program because it helps employees who have worked in the public transportation industry between three and seven years, a critical segment for the industry to retain.

“The program shows them that there are great careers in the industry if they stay,” she says.

The Early Career Program debuted in June 2013 at APTA’s Rail Conference, which was held in Philadelphia.

APTA selected an inaugural class of 24 program participants from across the country. CEOs of the participants’ respective agencies and from the private sector were invited to submit nominations for individuals to participate.

Program participants spent three-and-a-half days in workshops and received briefings from CEOs. However, mentoring is the hallmark of the program, with one objective being to recruit women leaders to serve as mentors.

As someone who did not have mentors throughout her own early career, Castillo is a big advocate.

“We need to ensure the young generation is connected to those of us [who] have years of experience and can help reduce some barriers through our lessons learned,” she says.

Part of the design of the program was to focus on including women and minorities. More than 50% of the program applicants were women, and 50% of the current class is comprised of women.

The industry needs more women on corporate boards, in operations and traditional transportation roles such as engineering and planning, Castillo adds.

“They can better craft and design our systems to better serve a larger number of our riders,” she says. “Over 50 percent of our ridership at the national level is women. Planning plays a key role in addressing their needs.”

Conversely, Castillo believes, over the years, job prospects have gotten better for women and minorities in transportation. She submits herself as an example, as the first Latina chair of APTA.

“The industry is open to all comers. Am I happy where we are? Absolutely not. We always can do better,” she says. “It’s incumbent upon [the] association [and] our members to ensure that [at every] opportunity we create pathways for individuals to ascend to leadership roles.”

Caroline Laurin, an APTA Early Career Program participant and manager, media relations, at Washington Metropolitan Area Transportation Authority (Metro), points out the industry is still male-dominated, but says that doesn’t hinder opportunities for women.

“I noticed there have been more than a couple of times when I look around in a meeting and realize I am one of a handful of women in the room. One of the challenges is just not to be daunted by that,” she says. “Metro is very receptive to having women in the room and values our opinions. It’s best to take the bull by the horns and not let ourselves be intimidated. This is a great industry, one that women can really thrive in.” [PAGEBREAK]

SWTA started its Veterans in Public Transportation program in 2011. It reaches out to veterans and military personnel at  job fairs and military offices.

SWTA started its Veterans in Public Transportation program in 2011. It reaches out to veterans and military personnel at  job fairs and military offices.

Promoting women
In addition to Laurin, other sources have echoed the fact that an obstacle in public transportation for women is it has been, like many industries, a man’s field.

Ferranto agrees. As she travels the country and talks with women, as well as different corporations and universities, she says the sense she gets is that the reason more women don’t advance to the top levels in transportation is they are coming into a world with cultural values  created by men.

“There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s just the way it was,” she adds.
For example, she says, the industry values people who are the first ones at work and the last ones to leave.

While that may be possible for some, many women are still tasked with more child care and household duties, making the long hours at the office unrealistic for them.

“We value that total commitment to run faster and harder,” she explains. “Our culture is saying to employees that longer, harder work is more valued than working smarter. They don’t say this out loud. It’s just what ends up happening.”

WTS is finding through its membership that many women, instead of staying in the industry, advancing through the ranks and taking on this issue, are starting their own consulting firms, practices and small businesses.

“When they think about their careers and [don’t] see women at the top, in CEO or COO positions, that is also playing a role in their decision,” Ferranto adds.

She recalls a roundtable of major corporations organized by Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood that discussed how to get more women in CEO positions or on corporate boards. The group said women need more profit and loss responsibility.

“However, when people from different companies were asked, ‘How about your CEO in place now? Does that man have profit and loss responsibility?’ Half of them did not,” Ferranto says. “But, they were all saying that women are not CEOs because they don’t have [that] experience. There’s a perception that women don’t have the right training. I’m not so sure that’s the case.”

Many of the representatives at that table said they have a hard time finding qualified women to fit the needs of their executive level management. However, Ferranto points out, there are only five women leading state departments of transportation across the U.S.

“You can’t tell me that only five women are qualified to lead state DOTs. You can’t find them? Really? What is going on? It’s cultural,” Ferranto says. “We need to build awareness that things need to change. And guess what? It’s not the women that we need to build the awareness with. It’s the men.”

She notes WTS is not a women’s organization, but an association whose mission is to advance women. About 15% of WTS membership is men and the organization is working to get that number up to 25%.

“We manage all of our programs to be inclusive of men because women cannot advance themselves by themselves,” Ferranto adds.

While the industry has to address the needs of women in the industry to help them attain success, it also needs to build more awareness with girls that transportation is a viable career choice. WTS is doing that with its Transportation YOU program, geared toward girls ages 13 to 18. Not only does the program expose girls to different careers in transportation, it provides them with a mentor that they can look up to.

To ensure the organization is doing everything it can to advance women in transportation, WTS plans to research and establish a baseline of where women are now in transportation to develop a measureable success matrix. The organization also created a leadership program for executives and women who are seeking CEO and corporate board positions and hired a full-time staff member to concentrate on establishing student chapters at major universities. Participating schools include the University of Florida, Gainesville; Georgia Institute of Technology; University of Utah; University of Texas at Arlington; University of Florida and Virginia Tech University.[PAGEBREAK]

Richard Lobato, manager of safety, Denver RTD, and project team manager for the first graduating class of the agency’s  Leadership Development Academy, presents a group project.

Richard Lobato, manager of safety, Denver RTD, and project team manager for the first graduating class of the agency’s  Leadership Development Academy, presents a group project.

Agencies train leaders
Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD) and OCTA are two agencies proactively responding to the impending vacancies caused by a wave of retiring employees with comprehensive programs to get mid-level and early-career employees prepared to fill the gaps.

RTD’s CEO Phil Washington realized that valuable knowledge at the agency would be lost. He formed a plan to get employees ready to be future leaders of the agency by preparing them with knowledge and leadership skills through mentorship programs, Scott Reed, assistant GM, communications, RTD, says.

Washington had each member of the senior leadership identify a position that would soon be vacant due to a retirement or employee moving on to another job within or outside RTD. Then, they developed an internal training program to give employees the knowledge and skills they would need to be able to perform those jobs so they could compete for them once they became available.

In developing the program, Washington also took into consideration the large percentage of employees, such as Reed, who are within five to 10 years of retirement age.

“He thinks it’s extremely important to — as he calls it — ‘grow our own’ and be sure we have the skill sets and levels of expertise with direct experience to fill those positions,” Reed says. “[Washington] believes that the teams we have in place at RTD are the best sources of talent to serve future generations.”

The Strategic Leadership Development program is composed of five segments. The segments employees complete vary, depending on their level of expertise and where they are in their careers.

The series of segments includes Executive Leadership, which includes the Multi-Agency Exchange (MAX) program; Senior-Level Knowledge Exchange and Train to Lead; Mid-level leadership, which includes a Leadership Academy; Employee Development which enhances skills; and Transit Industry Fundamentals for entry into the industry.

Reed says the idea of the MAX program is to work with different transit agencies on an information exchange. Currently, RTD staff members visit two agencies on a rotating and discipline-by-discipline basis. Employees from primarily the operations, finance, maintenance supervision, and bus and rail operations departments learn the other agency’s best practices firsthand by observing their work process on a day-to-day basis and work on a specific area of expertise and try to come up with a joint solution to a problem or issue prevalent in one or both of the agencies or in the transit industry.

The year-long program also provides extensive training in leadership skills and getting along with peers.

Approximately 10 to 12 employees are chosen from each agency to participate in the MAX program. Two classes have completed each program over the last two years.  

“It’s a good opportunity for a collaboration and knowledge exchange,” Reed says. “We like to learn from their successes as we hope they will learn from ours.”

The RTD program initially worked with Dallas Area Rapid Transit and the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and is adding the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority.

Lisa Trujillo, acting public relations manager, RTD, went through the agency’s Leadership Academy and will soon join the MAX program. She has worked at RTD for almost 17 years in various positions and was in the first graduating class of the academy. Trujillo was looking for additional training for future managerial and leadership positions, and the program helped her get to the next level in her career, she says. She was able to hone her leadership skills by working on a project with other participants. They ended up producing a safety reporting program adopted by RTD.

The success rate of the program so far is high, with about 18 of 24 participants having moved on to managerial or higher-level positions at RTD, Trujillo says.

Reed, who has been with RTD for 22 years and was mentored in the program, now serves as a mentor. He learned about other areas of RTD, such as bus and facilities maintenance, and how the department managers provide leadership in their areas.

“It has been a real eye-opener for me to learn about the challenges they face,” Reed says. “They have presented to me information and processes that I have employed in my management style and the communications department. It’s definitely a two-way street.”

He adds that he hears from other members of the senior leadership team who are mentors that they are learning at least as much as the people they mentor.[PAGEBREAK]Middle manager development
Meanwhile, early this year, OCTA launched its Management Development Academy, to help middle managers develop the same skill sets as those in its already established Leadership Development Academy, a one-year program focusing on the higher-end positions in the organization at the director and senior management levels.

Approximately 450 of OCTA’s nearly 1,500 employees hold administrative, management, non-mechanic and non-coach operator positions. OCTA selected about a dozen people through a competitive process to participate in the Management Development Academy.

The program selects a senior planner, senior engineer, communications specialist and operations manager and prepares them to be managers by giving them the tools they need to learn to “manage the function,” as opposed to “doing the function,” Johnson explains.

Participants complete one module each month over the course of the year with a focus on cross-training activities, such as board relations, capital program delivery, adversity in the workplace, diversity in the workplace and conflict resolution.

OCTA’s manager of training development took its executive team and spent part of its weekly staff meetings developing the program.
In developing the program, OCTA reviewed its organizational chart about four levels down to identify gaps — the CEO, executive, senior managerial and managerial — and went through a process that identified “succession depth” for each position. Each position was rated on a scale of one through four. If, for example, the chief financial officer were to leave, a Level 1 rating would mean the agency had somebody ready to step in. Level 2 is if somebody would be ready within 12 months. Level 3 would take 12 months to 24 months, and Level 4 would be greater than 24 months. A Level 5 means going external.

“When you do that exercise, you realize pretty quickly where you have gaps in your transit succession plan, how you’re developing people and where they’re going to fit into those opportunities,” Johnson says.
In the Leadership Development Academy, Johnson discusses what he calls “the criteria for saying yes,” or, how to determine their criteria for accepting a promotion.

Johnson also wants to ensure employees have the opportunity to see the big picture.

“Often in the transportation industry, and probably others as well, we get functionally stove piped into divisions or departments,” he says. “Cross-functional opportunities, rotational assignments and job shadowing are really important for people to become leaders.”

Even with 13 years of management under her belt, Gracie Davis, Access section supervisor, OCTA, who began the Management Development Academy in May and completed four modules so far, says the program has been rewarding.

“I have staff members that I have to motivate and encourage daily,” Davis says. “My program has a gamut of different personalities, diagnoses and disabilities, so to keep individuals upbeat and moving forward is, to say the least, challenging.”

Davis applied for the program because she wanted to learn more about motivation and encouragement as well as gain a stepping stone to move up a management level.

Homework includes a self-assessment, a take-home work assignment after each module and required reading of online articles.

The program has given Davis tools to help motivate her staff and give some effective listening, problem solving and creativity tools she has used to streamline a certification application down to one page.

Connie Raya, base manager, Santa Ana maintenance base, Orange County Transportation Authority, participated in the Leadership Development Academy. The program offers several sessions; a 360 leadership review; evaluation and feedback from supervisors, peers and subordinates; and participants complete a personal assessment.

“I’ve been in transit for almost 20 years,” Raya says. “There might be opportunities in other areas [that] I wouldn’t necessarily look at in the past, but with the skills I have in management, I can go into any division in a leadership role just knowing a little about it, taking the skills that I learned and work on developing those that I already have.”

Veterans bring leadership
SWTA started its Veterans in Public Transportation program in 2011, prompted by an effort on the part of the Obama Administration to increase outreach to the veteran population, both to active duty members getting ready to leave service and those who had already left service, Joyner says.

Joyner also had a passion for creating the program because she comes from a long line of veterans. Her dad was a Marine Corps drill sergeant in World War II and the Korean War. Her mother was a member of the Navy, and her husband and all of her brothers-in-law are veterans.

SWTA’s Walt Diangson, trainer, has helped develop the education aspect of the program. He and Joyner go to job fairs and work with military offices that provide introductions to different fields of service outside of the military and make them aware of education benefits under the GI bill for those still in active duty service before they get out of the military. Traditionally, public transportation has not been connected to out-processing programs, so SWTA makes contacting these offices a priority.

SWTA demonstrates to career counselors that transportation has a lot to offer anyone coming in from the military, pointing out that job prospects in public transportation extend beyond drivers and mechanics.

“While those are very important, we also talk about planning, management, communications and IT positions that might be open,” Joyner says.

Additionally, SWTA’s Build a Bridge course for military personnel helps transition veterans into transit management, covering topics from finance to motivating employees, and changes they will find in the transit world.
One challenge in trying to connect with someone who is currently on active duty is they may not get out of the military for six to nine months.

The process can even take up to two years.

“You can’t go with the idea that you’re going to hire somebody,” she says. “Most of the time, it’s getting the person pre-trained.”

Another hiring challenge is the seniority process, particularly in the driver and maintenance areas. There are many men and women who are getting out of the military with leadership qualities and the aptitude to run a transit agency, but they don’t have direct transit experience, Joyner says. It can be difficult for them to think about moving into public transportation where the only starter job may be a Saturday driver or mechanic and it takes several years to move up in seniority.

“The industry needs to look for leaders first, because we can teach transit,” she says.

SWTA is also encouraging agencies, starting with El Paso, Texas-based Sun Metro, to provide early transit experience by getting special permission for military employees to be Saturday drivers so they don’t have to start at entry level when they are out of the military.

A new federal regulation will push all federal contractors to hire veterans at an 8% level as of March 2014. However, nearly 50% of San Antonio’s VIA Metropolitan Transit workforce are already former veterans. Abilene, Texas’ CityLink also has a high percentage of former military in its workforce.

“Citing those kinds of numbers against the 8% national expectation really shows what public transportation not only is capable of but what they can aspire to,” Joyner says.


Graduate research opportunities
A brand-new scholarship program at the National Center for Transit Research’s Center for Urban Transportation Research (CUTR) at the University of South Florida is helping graduates to begin their careers in public transportation, particularly those interested in research, awarding Graduate Research Assistance scholarships to two students this fall.

The program pays for attending professional transportation conferences and most of the costs of tuition; provides opportunities to conduct paid research mentored by faculty with extensive experience in public transit; and arranges internship opportunities at local transit agencies. Applicants who complete the program receive a Master’s degree in Civil Engineering and are well prepared to enter the world of public transit, CUTR’s Volinski says.

The students are working on white paper subjects, completing a budget and are assigned to assist faculty with research projects with the Florida Department of Transportation. They were also invited to attend the Florida Public Transportation Association’s annual meeting in late October and will attend the Transportation Research Board Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., In January, they may have opportunities for internships with local transit authorities.

Fifteen of CUTR’s 45 research faculty members have worked in public transit agencies, some as directors of transit agencies or planning, operation, maintenance and marketing directors, providing an ideal mentoring environment.

“It’s a nice opportunity to get exposure to a field that most people don’t know about until stumbling into it almost by accident,” Volinski says. “We just don’t want it to continue to be accidental.”

Volinski anticipates bringing in one more student at the start of the winter semester, and adding two more for next year’s fall semester.

Kyle Taniguchi, transportation engineer, VHB Inc., last year’s NCTR Student of the Year, can attest to the research opportunities that CUTR has to offer.

After completing his undergrad work on a Civil Engineering degree at Oregon State University, he discovered a passion for non-motorized modes of transportation: walking, biking public transportation.

He looked for a graduate program that focused on transportation and had a niche in research and coursework and chose the University of South Florida because of the National Center for Transit Research, which he describes as “a really diverse array of graduate transportation course work.”

There, as part of earning his Master’s degree in Civil Engineering, he took advantage of research opportunities such as looking at ridership and efficiency of light rail systems, and a special research assignment in Washington, D.C., weighing the pros and cons of con-structing a streetcar system. His Master’s thesis used data to analyze how people get to work when they use public transit.

Based on his research and in talking with other Millennials, Taniguchi thinks there is a public transit renaissance happening now and that owning and maintaining a vehicle is becoming less viable, especially “if gas prices keep rising and we’re moving toward tolling and not being able to widen roadways. We’re going to have to reconsider what the new normal is.”

Transportation’s advantage
One distinct advantage the transportation industry has for attracting and retaining workers over other indus-tries is its wide variety of career options.

“What I find most fascinating about transit is that it doesn’t matter what your interests are,” Laurin says. “There is something for you. That is unique, because there are so few industries out there that have that vast a scope.”

APTA is working on getting out the message that public transportation offers great careers for individuals from across all sectors, Castillo says.

“If you are passionate about numbers, love to draw, create, there is a place for you in public transportation. You can be an engineer, an architect. If you like math and science, you can come into this industry and apply your skills in well-paying, highly rewarding careers. If you like to talk to people, have a creative side, you can be a chief marketing officer in any transit agency in the country.”

Ferranto adds that transportation professionals need to build awareness with young people that their skills are transferable.

“Just because you haven’t graduated with an engineering degree doesn’t mean there aren’t hundreds of jobs available for you in transportation.”

About the author
Nicole Schlosser

Nicole Schlosser

Former Executive Editor

Nicole was an editor and writer for School Bus Fleet. She previously worked as an editor and writer for Metro Magazine, School Bus Fleet's sister publication.

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