Ridership and workforce development were among the topics discussed in METRO's interview with HDR's Laura Grams.  -  Photo: HDR

Ridership and workforce development were among the topics discussed in METRO's interview with HDR's Laura Grams.

Photo: HDR

Laura Grams, Transit Planning Practice Leader at HDR, discussed the importance of equity, small businesses, and more with METRO.

Equity, Small Businesses, and Workforce Development

Dig into this Q&A to learn more about how transit agencies are viewing transportation equity and providing opportunities for small businesses.

METRO: How are consultants helping transit agencies, if at all, with the idea of transit equity and inclusion?

Grams: The transit industry has always served communities that have historically been disenfranchised. And in some regards, it has become a leader in transportation equity.

For many years, we took the analytical approach to projects in the areas of Title VI and Environmental Justice to demonstrate we were achieving equity in underserved communities.

Today, the focus on equity and inclusion recognizes that while data is helpful, it is not the goal. What is important is engaging underserved communities early and throughout the process to ensure they have a seat at the table and that the outcomes of the work we do is meeting their needs.

Transit as an industry is well prepared to engage these communities because they have been our customers and second, we have always been far reaching in public engagement. 

METRO: Has transit’s focus on diversity and inclusion increased their desire to use DBE, WBEs, and MBEs for projects?

Grams: Some agencies have had higher DBE requirements for years, but now we are seeing others who are really taking notice. Some agencies are increasing their requirements on contracts.

Others are asking for DBEs to act as the prime consultant on projects and large companies to go behind them as big subs. New Orleans RTA, for example, has been like that for quite some time now.

The major industry challenge, however, is matching the supply of DBEs with the demand. Many DBEs are graduating out of programs because of personal wealth, gross revenue, or the firm’s growth. Others are being acquired. Or, they simply don’t have the capacity to take on additional work because there’s already so much demand for their services. 

Meeting these increasing DBE goals will require persuading more firms to enter DBE programs. It may mean making it easier for companies to qualify. And, it may require some new thinking. The recent agreement between SEPTA in Philadelphia and CTA in Chicago is a good example. They signed a reciprocity agreement so that firms, which have been approved as a DBE by one entity, are automatically accepted by the other.

That's the sort of innovative approach that we're going to need to meet these DBE goals.

An important consideration as these goals increase is finding the right, significant roles for these firms. I work with a lot of smaller firms on projects, and I get told all the time, ‘I pick HDR over anybody else every time because HDR is going to give me a meaningful role. It's not to check the box. I'm going to learn something, and my staff is going to be engaged.’

In our work, we often make these smaller firms task leads and make a point of giving them key opportunities to be in front of the client. That helps them expand their networks, recruit new staff, and grow their businesses. It’s a win-win situation, as it provides great opportunities for these firms, gives us great partners who love working with HDR, and helps agencies see that their DBE goals are being met in meaningful ways. 

METRO: How are large consultants helping increase the pool of DBEs and providing new opportunities for small businesses? 

Grams: HDR has worked across the U.S. to promote the use of historically underutilized businesses. We have created mentor-protege programs in cities across the U.S. In Los Angeles, for example, our program matches DBEs with a mentor in our firm, we help them grow their business, and then we help them pay it forward with another DBE. 

We often put on ‘meet the prime’ events, particularly ahead of a large project. These events allow us to have conversations with smaller firms that may not be registered DBEs or SBEs and we can talk with them about how to take that step. If needed, we even help fill out the paperwork to become certified.

We’ve been hired by cities and transit agencies to provide workshops for small businesses that are not certified. In these certification workshops, businesses spend an entire day with us and with the city or the agency.

The first part of that day is spent on why it's advantageous to become a certified small business. And then the afternoon consists of walking them through the paperwork and signing up. By the time they leave, they can become a certified small business.

We have also helped the firms we’ve worked with as they expand into new markets and open new offices. For example, when a firm from Houston that we worked with wanted to open an office in Denver, we provided initial office space. As the firm’s new branch grew, we were a teaming partner with them on a project in Denver and over time, that branch has grown from one person to 10. 

METRO: What steps has HDR taken to increase its own workforce development? 

Grams: Internally, we invest heavily in our staff through strong mentor-protege programs. For example, when we onboard new people, we find them a mentor or mentors right away to make them successful.

As soon as they start, we identify multiple people who will call regularly, check in, and make sure everything's going well. Because it’s important to us that every employee gets integrated quickly and has the ability to be successful. 

We offer online training on critical career skills, so that anybody can take it and bolster their career. And no matter the career level, we encourage our staff to find others who can help them in their career journey.

As a supervisor, I always encourage all of my staff to go find mentors inside and even outside their particular realm of responsibility. One of my mentors, for example, is on our legal team, and I enjoy engaging with her and sharing different perspectives. 

The other thing that our group of leaders have done here in Texas is create training specific to progressing at HDR. We pick five or six staff each year, give them a mentor, take them to client meetings, explain our key project pursuit strategy, discuss client interactions, and teach all the things needed to be a successful project manager or a senior leader in the company. We just graduated our first class and started the next.

METRO: What will some keys be to transit being able to bring back ridership post-pandemic?

Grams: What we saw in recent years is that the agencies that were successful during the pandemic were those with routes that connected people with essential services. These agencies were already providing great service to hospitals, education, grocery stores, etc. As we seek to bring back ridership, I think one of the major solutions is restructuring schedules and routes to make sure that there's frequent service to hit those major essential destinations and schedules that accommodate hours of operation.

I think the other thing is rethinking the network in general. We don't have peak periods anymore. We don't have people that are working 8 to 5, Monday through Friday. We have people with the flexibility to work seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

Many former commuters have still not returned to the office and may not. And even among those who have returned to the office, it may be working 9 to 4 or other, shorter hours, because they can pick up the rest of their work week at home after hours.

So instead of peak period service, we need more frequent service on high ridership routes all day long. We’ve already assisted agencies with this work of rethinking routes and networks and are currently working with others. We’ve seen a lot of RFPs lately for route restructuring.

I think it's going to take a little bit of time, but the world is still returning to normalcy, and I think the public as a whole will get comfortable again with public transit. Looking ahead, I do see ridership trending upward. Our industry provides critical services to millions of riders every day, and we will continue to be an integral part of the communities we serve.