The Public Transit Industry Workforce – Challenges and Changes a Decade Later

Ken Mall ·

Recently, I met with representatives from several transit agencies across the country about their workforce challenges. Like most industries, technology is rapidly advancing and jobs are available for workers with the right skills. The challenge is finding people with these skills; or finding and training them.

According to the industry representatives I talked with, issues finding and training qualified workers are common, and are becoming ever more challenging as job vacancies continue to pile up. Through these conversations, several common issues emerged which included:

  • Doing better job marketing the great career opportunities in the industry
  • Communicating better with academic partners on how they can help prepare people for careers in the industry
  • Engaging youth and showing them the potential career paths
  • Figuring out how to pay for it

It has been nearly a decade since Dr. Beverly Scott, APTA’s Chair from 2008-2009, identified workforce development as one of the public transit industry’s critical priorities. Dr. Scott led the formation of APTA’s Blue Ribbon Panel on Workforce Development with the objective to identify the issues, determine a strategy, and develop a five-year work plan with recommendations and implementation steps.

The panel included representatives from the public and private sectors of the industry, key stakeholders and partners including labor, academia, and the next generation of leaders in APTA. The panel also included technical resources comprised of Federal partners and organizations tasked with delivering workforce development and training programs. The work of the panel was comprehensive and included recommendations in several categories including: Legislation, Imaging and Branding, Higher Education, Youth Outreach and Awareness, Partnership and Collaborations, and Return on Investment.

Since the Blue Ribbon panel published their report, several organizations including APTA, the National Transit Institute at Rutgers, the Eno Foundation, the Transportation Learning Center, and the Transit Cooperative Research Program, to name a few, have developed and implemented programs designed to assist transit agencies in developing and training their workers.

Also, since the Blue Ribbon panel’s report, the country has gone through a significant recession resulting in the layoffs of thousands of workers in the construction, manufacturing, and airlines industries. These layoffs provided intermediate relief to the public transit industry. Many transit agencies hired laid off airplane mechanics, training them to be railcar, and sometimes transit bus mechanics. Other agencies were able to fill vacancies utilizing skilled workers from the manufacturing and construction industries. At the same time, many current workers in the transit industry chose to delay retirement until the economy recovered.

The recession provided a “band aid” for the transit industry, delaying the need to replace workers. Now, the band aid is no longer able to hold!

Where does the industry go from here? Perhaps the Blue Ribbon panel report is a good starting point. Those I recently talked with are discussing the same concerns that were raised a decade ago and were also unfamiliar with the Blue Ribbon panel. They were very surprised to learn that the industry had been working on solutions. Here’s what the transit industry should do next:

  • Identify key players and define their roles
  • Catalog what has been done and then share it
  • Define the true workforce needs
  • Differentiate between local and national needs
  • Outline solutions and identify partners
  • Implement, measure outcomes, and publish results

There are a lot of experts working on solutions; APTA, NTI, Eno, TLC, and TCRP seem to be the primary players. Others that should be included at the table include large OEM bus and rail car manufacturers and technology providers, as well as the labor unions. Defining everybody’s role is key, including who does what, and more importantly, who is responsible for what. All of this information needs to be determined up front so there is no confusion later. Most critical, there must be a clear, permanent leader of the effort – this is too important to be just a task on somebody’s to-do list.

Over the past ten years, millions of dollars have been spent on workforce development solutions and resources. Sadly, these solutions are not widely known. The industry needs to find a way to share solutions and resources across the industry, at a level within transit agencies so they can utilize and leverage their knowledge.

Workforce issues must be clearly defined, focusing on the root cause, not just the symptoms. Creating a solution for the symptoms will mask the true issues and only provide short-term relief. Creating a solution for the root cause will lead to sustainability.

After the workforce needs have been listed, a determination of which needs are local and which are national in scope needs to be defined. Local needs include engaging local schools, career and technical educators, and colleges to enable direct paths to employment in the industry. National needs include marketing and branding the transit industry as having abundant career opportunities.

Developing workforce solutions can be done at both the national and local levels. Industry partners can help local transit agencies by developing tools and strategies to assist agencies in working with academia and other workforce partners. National solutions should always have input from the local level, while focusing on the national message. Another key is determining what transit agencies should do themselves, and what they can rely on local partners for, including local high schools, community colleges, technical schools and others.

Finally, measuring results is key to continuous improvement. To be effective, common baseline metrics should be created across the board that can be reported regularly. Transit agencies regularly report fleet management statistics into the national transit database. Workforce metrics could be used similarly.

The funding for workforce solutions was purposely left off the list above, however paying for solutions is of critical importance. Historically, the public transit industry has developed solutions and then sought out the funding for those solutions, resulting in many great ideas being shelved. How solutions are paid for should be discussed at every step of the process. By searching for partnerships and creative ways to fund projects and focusing on sustainability, the industry can successfully develop custom solutions that have a chance to be funded.

Perhaps APTA’s most important role in developing workforce solutions for the industry is facilitating the sharing of resources and best practices across the industry, instead of funding the development of solutions. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. Almost every workforce solution the public transit industry needs, has already been done, either by somebody within the industry or for other industries.

About the author:

Mr. Mall has more than 25 years of leadership experience working with top-tier companies, labor organizations and government agencies identifying the skill needs of their workforce, and developing and implementing solutions to meet those needs. Educational Data Systems, Inc. is a Dearborn, Michigan based workforce development and management consulting firm with offices in nine states.