Long before the effects of COVID-19, the public transit industry saw a shortage of vehicle operators and maintainers. During the COVID era, that shortage became more acute — to the extent that many systems have curtailed service due to a lack of staff.
Early retirements and the “Great Resignation” have cost us institutional knowledge. Competition from other (and higher paying) industries has combined with the reduced Workforce Participation Rate to make jobs harder to fill. If we’re to fulfill our mission, we must not passively rely on “help wanted” ads and job fairs.
The continued employee shortage demonstrates that we can’t be hopeful optimists — we must get creative. History may have part of the answer.
Starting From Humble Beginnings
In the author’s specialty, service planning and scheduling, email newsletters carry many “help wanted” ads. One Florida system has been advertising for a transit scheduler for many months. Perhaps another side effect of COVID is an increasing reluctance to uproot family and home life — relocating to other cities.
The “move rate” seems lower. Combined with wages not competitive with other industries, key positions remain vacant. Remote work isn’t feasible when the job requires an occasional bus ride to observe reality and discuss issues face to face. Picture the bus operator trying to explain a problem via video chat — versus having the planner or scheduler ride along to see for themselves.
Those same email newsletters frequently announce newly appointed GMs/CEOs who started as bus operators. One APTA Hall of Fame member began his career as a schedule checker; another as a waterboy to track gangs on a streetcar system. The executive director/VP of finance at a well-respected mid-size system began her career as a bus operator.
Innumerable well respected transit professionals started as operators at college systems. UMASS, Kent State, Indiana University, and many more have introduced people to transit — people who went on to long careers as senior managers.
Further, recent research by the Texas A&M Transit Institute revealed that a barrier to recruiting bus operators is a lack of apparent upward mobility. A bus operator at WMATA has been in frequent contact with this author attempting to enroll in a scheduling course — her first email stated: “I’m interested in furthering my career with the company.”
The Opportunity for Upward Mobility
Let’s put those thoughts together to wonder if a return to our historical roots — “Up Through the Ranks” addresses both issues. Would providing an obvious path toward advancement aid our operator recruiting efforts, as suggested by the TTI work? Would grooming from within fill mid-level openings — those at which long-running national advertising has failed?
How would that work? Training costs money. Education is expensive, but so is lack of knowledge and long-term vacancies. Perhaps we can minimize costs by making it voluntary.
Thinking back to the WMATA operator harkens back to how railways in Great Britain provided upward mobility — for those who wanted it. Mechanics institutes offered technical training. Workers subscribed to membership and attended lectures and courses on their own time.
On the job training is fine, but may not suffice for further advancement. The author’s father, a machinist, once took a company-provided course in trigonometry so he could do his own layouts from blueprints —boosting his piecework pay.
Training From Within Your Organization
Beyond formal training available from the NTI, CTAA, state/regional transit associations, and from consultants, systems could develop short presentations or courses as an introduction to opportunities. Remember, every employee is an expert in their area — thus a potential teacher.
Attendance may start off slow, beginning with people already highly motivated. A variety of topics could develop a desire to learn more, building momentum. Some frontline personnel may gravitate toward supervision and dispatch, others toward scheduling, marketing, and finance.
Also, recognize these sessions provide opportunities for cross training of administrative staff. When the Finance Department attends a course in transit scheduling — they better understand how details impact costs.
Here are some session ideas — perhaps taking only two or three hours each:
- How is our system organized, what’s our history?
- Who are the managers, what does management do, what does the board do?
- How does the money work? Capital vs. Operating, budgeting, sources of local funds.
- Federal Requirements — Grants, NTD, etc.
- Semi-deep dive into bus systems — what’s under the bus. (Here, think about dispatchers whose only training has them tell operators with a flat tire to recycle the computer. Shouldn’t everyone have some basic knowledge?)
- Introduction to the marketing and communications department.
- Introduction to bus route design and scheduling.
- How is the operator runcut developed, financial, and non-financial considerations.
- In partnership with labor, how does management and labor function. (For example, funding determines how big the pie is, negotiations are slicing that pie).
Perhaps we want to think beyond transit itself. Local schools, community colleges, etc., may have instructors available. Perhaps available for family members, not just employees. Could this morph into community outreach, perhaps even generating more job candidates? The starting point below could be expanded by soliciting course suggestions from employees:
- English as a second language.
- GED Preparation.
- Foreign languages — predominant languages in your area.
- Business writing.
- Household budgeting.
- Computer Basics (word processing, spreadsheets).
Is there a role for the unions? Absolutely. Remember, filling frontline vacancies doesn’t just sustain public service, it increases dues income.
Beyond that, if management and labor works together in partnership (as it should), both parties benefit when counterparts have real knowledge. Issues may be resolved more quickly and fairly when both parties understand frontline operations — “street smart” instead of just “book smart.” Watch a few episodes of Undercover Boss to reveal the organizational cost of ignorance.
If we consider a national approach, is there logic in one or more of the national unions to have a significant role in developing a training approach — to better the lives of union members?
Another approach could come from the practice of other industries. “Shadowing” an employee for a day does two things. First, it has a team-building component — an appreciation for what other departments do. Second, it can create a thought that the “shadower” may be interested in moving when there is a job opening — removing the mystery and fear that he/she may not be up to a new task.