February 16, 2009
Counteracting the Retirement ‘Brain Drain’
By MERYL NATCHEZ
The baby-boom generation is in its sixties, and the U.S. Department of Labor projects that the number of workers in the 55-and-older group will grow by 49.3 percent in the next eight years. What does this mean for transit?
For many agencies, it means that key operations, maintenance, and management talent will be walking off the floor and out the door in the next few years—and decades of detailed knowledge will leave with them. Most workers learn by doing, and details of how we work aren’t documented. In an economy in which everyone is trying to do more with less, the specter of massive retirement is particularly ominous.
In the past, the ability to capture and translate this knowledge was expensive and time-consuming. Today, advances in tools and technology have slashed development cycles and costs.
Applications such as Articulate, Adobe Connect, Flash, and a host of others allow experienced instructional designers to take existing information and quickly repurpose it into true interactive training materials, capturing key information and making it available to the organization even when the key people who possessed it move on.
One example concerns MTA New York City Transit’s elevators and escalators. NYC Transit is the largest agency in the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, with approximately 250 mechanics and electricians who focus on elevator and escalator repair. NYC Transit relies on experienced personnel and their specific expertise to keep these transit structures operational. However, many senior personnel are slated for retirement over the next few years.
Recognizing the value of senior personnel’s detailed knowledge of these complex and varied systems, NYC Transit instituted a pilot program last fall to develop the first segment of a formalized, on-the-job training program that captures and documents their expertise and develops a knowledge base for the future.
The initial program consists of video of senior personnel performing selected procedures, merged into a computer-based training curriculum that mechanics can use on hand-held devices in the field. A technician can have the benefit of specific, detailed, hands-on video with them at the repair site to walk them through the repair.
While this technology is not exactly Princess Leia in holographic format, the program does provide a way to bridge the gap when senior personnel are not (or will not be) available. On finalization of the pilot, NYC Transit plans to develop a training program that will cover a wide variety of elevator and escalator procedures. The agency also is expanding the program to include pumps and fans.
This is just one way in which technology can capture valuable knowledge to counteract retirement trends. The NYC Transit pilot program required less than two person-months of development effort and created templates that the agency will leverage for even greater reductions for the rollout.
With appropriate planning and cooperation, a transit agency can incorporate input from experienced subject matter experts at all levels, and the organization can benefit. This is true for management, operations, safety, leadership, customer service, and human resources, as well as mechanical and electrical training.
The use of electronic media for mandatory safety, orientation, and career-development is already wide-spread in the corporate world. A few examples include:
* Centers for Disease Control and Prevention public health information about anthrax and flu exposure delivered to cell phones;
* Corporate and cultural orientations delivered online in half-hour segments with knowledge assessments for each segment;
* Safety alerts and response via personal digital assistant; and
* Leadership seminars with teleconferencing presence from the highest level of the organization.
Each of these techniques can form part of a plan to ensure knowledge retention. But organizations need to start planning now, using that expertise to ensure that the organization can continue to move forward as older workers move on.