January 19, 2009
A Perspective on Changing Times for Public Transit
By Gene Walker
APTA Bus Technical Maintenance Committee
Golden Gate Transit
San Francisco, CA
As we enter 2009, the public transit industry will face the usual gamut of local concerns. With the current economic recession, we will also face some new and unforeseen challenges.
Over the past year, the “Hot Topics” discussed at meetings of the APTA Bus Technical and Maintenance Committee have included the next generation of engines, alternative fuels, advancing electronic technologies, green technologies, environmental matters, and employee training, including the number one topic of concern regarding recruitment of new employees. The following is a snapshot of each of these topics and the concerns associated with them.
Next Generation of Engines/Alternative Fuels: The next generation (2010) of diesel engines and alternative fuels, including compressed natural gas, liquefied natural gas, hydrogen, and biodiesel blends, are on the horizon for new coach orders. Diesel engines will have Selective Catalytic Reduction exhaust after-treatments and Diesel Exhaust Fluid (aka Urea). With these will come a new set of challenges: associated infrastructure changes, increased maintenance, and required training.
Advancing Electronic Technologies. Technological advancements in communication devices, Global Positioning Satellite systems, Automatic Vehicle Location, Automated Passenger Counters, auto annunciators, electronics, lighting, and other on-board equipment will each present their own sets of challenges. Mechanics and technicians will need additional training to remain current on maintaining these technologies.
Green Technologies. Green technologies, along with continuing environmental concerns, will influence facilities and maintenance programs. While green technologies can offer reduced operating costs, they will likely further strain already tight budgets due to their initial cost. Environmental concerns will continue to require changes in the way bus maintenance is performed to embrace more environmentally friendly and acceptable best practices, all at a cost.
Changing Workforce. With reductions and/or loss of funding for transit, coupled with increased ridership and the retirement of a maturing “baby boomer” workforce, 2009 will be challenging for even the most experienced transit professionals. Not only will we lose staff resources, we may lose employees’ work ethics, skills, knowledge, and experience. We are also faced with the problem of attracting skilled, prospective candidates to a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week industry.
With the current recession, the entire service industry, including automotive and trucking, has suffered huge layoffs. While we might assume the recruitment pool would be plentiful, competition is elevated for the available workforce. Even with rising unemployment, transit will find challenging the recruitment of employees with so many anglers in the pool trying to hook the most qualified candidates.
I am reminded of the farmer that could not get his mule to work. After much thought, the farmer attached the mule’s favorite treat, a carrot, to the end of a pole, held it in front of the mule, and the mule chased it all day, dragging his burden behind him. Working Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. is hard to beat. However, transit agencies with 24/7 operations are not the “carrot” that many seek for employment. It might be good in a pinch, but as soon as the economy turns around, or after we have trained new employees, we lose a portion of our workforce to the service industry that is not 24/7. The trick today will be to identify what “carrot” would draw candidates to a 24/7 industry and keep them until they are ready to retire. Only then will we reach sustainability of our workforce.
Public transit professionals tend to be generous with information sharing because we do not compete directly with one another for market share. However, with today’s added challenge of sustaining a viable workforce, many transit professionals may hold their recruiting secrets close to the vest because we do compete for quality employees.
An additional dilemma for public transit is that journeyman-level bus mechanics are not plentiful. Transit mechanics and technicians require specialized training, and the pool of candidates is just not there. APTA is now addressing this critical need, as are localized efforts, but this void is by no means solved yet.
Here are a few suggestions that Golden Gate Transit has found successful to enhance quality recruitment:
* Do not rely solely only on the Human Resources department recruiters, but involve everyone possible in the organization in recruitment efforts.
* Ask your Marketing department for advertisement space on your coaches.
* Place recruitment banners on your facilities.
* Contact your local vocational colleges and the unions for candidates.
* Most importantly, make certain that your organization has the knowledgeable staff to achieve recruitment goals. If you do not have the necessary resources, or perhaps have no Human Resources department, then research outsourcing your recruitment services.
Continue sharing “lessons learned” and “best practices” with other transit professionals in your network. Transit professionals may not like to discuss their failures, which they may consider “tarnished” and lack the “shine” of successes. Nevertheless, sharing experiences from those failures will be an asset to others. Sharing what does not work can be as helpful as what does.
Training budgets and strategies must expand. Transit operators must become innovative in “sharing” training in their regions.
Research any training needs and be certain that the training provided is tailored appropriately. If you do not have the resources to conduct such a review, take advantage of available outsourcing services. When you schedule training classes, offer any openings to other regional transit agencies and ask them to do the same. This type of innovation thinking is a win-win for everyone.
Most individuals facing this gambit of issues would probably decide it was time for a career change, but transit professionals are a resilient group that never shies away from a good challenge. We recognize that recruitment and sustainability of our workforce is our biggest challenge not just in 2009, but also for years to come. Always remember that problem has been secretly growing for decades and there is no magic pill, so don’t give up.