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Preparing for the Changing of the Guard

Jun 13, 2019
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Facing today’s transit workforce challenges is a tall order. “Baby Boomer” retirements, a changing mobility landscape, and new technologies are all raising questions about how public transit can develop the quality workforce it needs to run tomorrow’s systems. The industry requires a broader range of skills to adapt to a rapidly transforming environment as well as to appeal to younger workers increasingly drawn to competing fields. Crucially, it also needs highly qualified workers who can direct and oversee a transit workforce to the exacting standards to which the industry is held up.

Transit workers face many health and safety concerns on the job while, in turn, striving to ensure the safety, efficiency, and reliability of public transit service. It takes deep knowledge and experience to ensure optimal workforce performance, along with the initiative to proactively leverage technology solutions that can automate certain processes and catch potentially disastrous errors. “Managing a transit workforce is complex,” writes Simon Minelli, Trapeze Industry Solutions Manager, SPA and OPS,  in Metro magazine. “Even when comparing it to other similar industries, the complexities are unique.”

To complicate matters further, some aspects of transit workforce management are more cumbersome than they seem. Employee management, bidding, and pay are three such areas where special considerations require an intensely focused approach.

Filling an absence, for example, as part of employee management, is not simply a matter of availability but also the strict enforcement of work rules. In the bidding process, seniority comes into play; ignoring so invites a costly rollback. And it may take a seasoned payroll professional to best sort out the multiple types of pay rules existing within transit.

“Tracking operator performance, absenteeism, ensuring operators are adhering to rest and work rules, and have valid license and qualifications to perform their work assignment can all impact the safety of the workforce as well as the public at large. Ensuring that the operators are on time and available to work when needed, enables service to go out and for the public to expect reliable service — all complex stuff,” says Simon.

The need for transit-specific workforce data

To ensure the industry has the skills and competencies it needs for the mobility solutions of the future, a strategic workforce planning roadmap is needed. Such guidance can greatly inform individual stakeholder efforts to future-proof the industry.

The absence of transit-specific workforce projections, however, is complicating the government’s strategic workforce planning.

According to a recent Senate committee report by the US Government Accountability Office (GAO), the latest information available, from 2015 Department of Transportation (DOT) data, included services such as school buses and taxis, specifically excluded from the statutory definition of transit.  The report recommends working with stakeholders first to determine what additional information is needed for the Federal Transit Administration (FTA) to comprehensively evaluate the costs and benefits of developing future transit workforce data.

However, many stakeholders are meeting their workforce challenges head on with several initiatives focused on career enhancement, courseware development, internships, managerial training, research, and technology education, the report stated.

More professional development

The Transportation Learning Center, for instance, organized three industry consortiums - for Rail Car, Signals, and Elevator/Escalator Technicians- to develop standardized national training courseware. The Signals Training Consortium has developed 25 new courses that cover the inspection, maintenance, and troubleshooting of transit and rail commuter transit signaling equipment. The National Rail Car Consortium, meanwhile, will have developed 35 courses by the end of 2019.

The Eno Center for Transportation also provided managerial training for mid- and senior-level transit executives, including classes, lectures, job shadowing and informal mentoring. The center runs professional development programs focused on cultivating creative and forward-looking transit leadership.

Attracting new blood and technology education

To encourage young people to choose careers in public transit, the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials developed a transportation internship program for post-secondary and vocational students to be placed in architectural and engineering firms as well as state and local government agencies. In 2018, the program placed 29 interns nationwide in various organizations.

In technology education, Jacksonville Transportation Authority (JTA) officials told GAO the agency had established a “Workforce of the Future” working group to prepare for technology training as JTA transitions to autonomous vehicle technology. The agency is planning an “innovation corridor” that will include driverless cars along its Skyway automated monorail train and will include “smart-city” technologies such as connected signals, pedestrian sensors, and smart parking.

Trapeze’s annual ThinkTransit technology conference, meanwhile, provides transit professionals with hands-on, practical upskilling on the latest transit technologies and is considered by many participants to be an excellent learning platform to enhance their career development.

These initiatives reflect major concerns within the industry as it prepares for the impending retirement of much of its experienced transportation workforce while needing to expand its skill sets for future public transit systems.

On a workaday level, transit agencies can improve their workforce management practices to help retain their transit talent and create a dynamic, forward-looking industry highly appealing to new workforce entrants.

Simon advises agencies to invest in technology solutions that can help manage these challenges significantly. “Having a modern workforce management software can proactively limit errors, allowing your staff to make the proper procedures easy and the wrong procedures difficult,” he says.  

How to better navigate transit workforce management’s tricky territories? Read here.

Joyce Fernandez is a contract Content Marketing Writer for Trapeze Group. She has written content for B2B and B2C companies in the financial services, technology, and design fields in Canada, UK and Asia. She studied journalism under the Erasmus Mundus Journalism Master program, at Aarhus University (Denmark) and City, University of London (UK), and Digital Experience Innovation at the University of Waterloo.
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