The Present and the Future of Women Leading Transportation
July 6, 2022|Jonathan Hammond
Women’s Transportation Seminar (WTS) International, headquartered in Washington, D.C., was founded in 1977. The 8,000+ member organization and its 65 state and regional chapters advocate for the advancement of women’s careers in all aspects of transportation, including public agencies, private organizations, and research and academia. Recently, WTS has entered a new organizational phase, with recent elections of the association’s first Black chair, Jannet Walker-Ford of WSP; and a clarified focus on workforce development, ED&I initiatives, and continued support of diverse groups of mobility professionals while simultaneously paving the way for future leaders through scholarship and educational opportunities for students.
One of the association’s new leadership additions is Monica Tibbits-Nutt, Executive Director of the 128 Business Council, who will serve on both the WTS International and WTS Foundation Board of Directors for the 2022-2024 terms. Another longtime member and founder of the WTS Delaware chapter is Veronica Vanterpool, Deputy Administrator for the Federal Transit Administration. Monica and Veronica enthusiastically discussed their education, career experiences, federal policymaking, and the road ahead for women in transit and transportation. Answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Can you each briefly describe your entry point into the transportation industry – did you study transportation, technical, or engineering related topics in school?
Monica: I have an undergraduate degree in Political Science and Sociology, and a master’s degree from The Ohio State University School of Architecture in City & Regional Planning. I was initially a housing planner but got hooked on transportation when I moved to Boston.
Veronica: My interest in transportation grew out of my passion for the environment, which was influenced by growing up in the Bronx, where park space per capita was very low. I double majored in environmental science and policy and political science, and then earned an MS in environmental policy. I also worked as an off-campus bus driver and trainer during college, which exposed me to the mobility needs in suburban and rural communities. The bus service was a lifeline for students and community members who relied on the bus to get to/from school and work.
The intersection of my environmental background with transportation began when I joined a transportation advocacy nonprofit (eventually becoming the executive director) and started working on NYC’s congestion-pricing campaign. As an advocate, I came to better understand the symbiotic relationship between environmental and transportation decisions. That was the beginning of my 15 years—and counting—in this industry.
Did you have specific sponsors or mentors that encouraged you in the earliest days of your career?
Monica: My first boss and mentor was Paul Regan, the former MBTA Advisory Board Executive Director. He taught me about all forms of transportation within the Commonwealth; explained the complexities required to advance transit in the many communities served by the MBTA; and helped chart much of my career by providing important initial connections.
Veronica: I entered the transportation sector during a time when pioneering women held some of the highest levels of leadership in the New York–New Jersey region. Women were at the helm of state and city DOTs, transit agencies and turnpike authorities, and they held state cabinet and legislative roles. I developed relationships with all of those women that I still maintain today. Three women in particular afforded me key opportunities: Kate Slevin (Executive Vice President, Regional Plan Association), Polly Trottenberg (United State Deputy Secretary of Transportation) and Nuria Fernandez (Administration, FTA). Each of these women is responsible for a pivotal moment in my career development and professional growth.
If you were to give advice to a student interested in transportation, specifically management or policy development, what would be their very first step to launching their career?
Monica: I believe students need to work in the industry for several years before pursuing a leadership position. They must acquaint themselves with the existing inner workings and existing policies relevant to the areas they intend to eventually lead—and get to know all the amazing operators and employees, whose work is sometimes harder to see clearly from those leadership positions.
Veronica: According to the Mineta Transportation Institute at San Jose University, women represent only 15 percent of the transportation workforce. When you drill down to some of the trades, that percentage drops significantly. For instance, only 1 percent of bus and rail technicians are women. To increase our representation in these specialized fields, I recommend emerging women leaders in transportation consider studying project management, engineering, or technology. Many of my colleagues have also entered and succeeded in this industry with planning, legal, communications and public-policy degrees.
I encourage those interested in this work to seek pre-apprenticeship programs that cultivate hands-on skills in transportation. The FTA’s new Transit Workforce Center, a national technical assistance center, is introducing and strengthening registered apprenticeships and building national workforce-development partnerships.
I also suggest keeping up with current trends in the transportation industry by reading transportation news; joining conferences, workshops and forums; and becoming members of transportation-focused associations such as WTS International. Seek leadership positions in these associations, as those opportunities will prepare you to lead others in the future.
What is your biggest hurdle in personnel management? How are you attracting, retaining, and elevating talent at both of your organizations in an equitable manner?
Monica: The hardest part of building an organization is finding the right people for the right roles. To succeed in retention and elevation, it is essential to promote within the organization. Use the talent you already have while giving more opportunities to marginalized groups within that talent pool. When you need to attract new talent, work with your existing workforce to make these roles more attractive and focus on building an organization that is genuinely welcoming to diverse ideas and people.
Veronica: FTA’s talented and dedicated team works hard to support a robust public transportation network that connects communities and protects the environment. Thanks to the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL), which authorized $108 billion for public transportation over 5 years—a 60 percent increase in funding—FTA has more resources, including the ability to hire additional personnel. Our biggest hurdle is the hiring process, which can take several months. We are currently exploring ways to streamline and expedite the process to bring on new employees much more quickly and to expand contracting work to ensure essential roles and responsibilities are being filled.
Additionally, we are undergoing an internal organizational analysis to better understand the needs of and gaps in our workforce. This analysis will help us create new jobs across the FTA while also providing training and professional-development opportunities to existing staff to expand in-house skills. Further, in-depth surveys with staff help shape our growth as an organization. FTA is one of the most diverse operating administrations within the DOT. Fifty-three percent of our workforce is women, 35 percent is black, 10 percent is Asian, 6 percent is Hispanic, 12 percent of our workforce has a self-reported disability and 10 percent of our employees are veterans. Both FTA Administrator Fernandez and I are Latina, and our collaboration marks the first time two women of color are simultaneously in these roles at the agency. Despite this diversity, FTA continually strives to be an inclusive workplace that reflects the country’s diversity across many metrics. Our team presents monthly programming and events that celebrate the rich cultures, history and experiences of our employees. For Pride Month, FTA hosted an excellent panel with a special assistant to President Biden and a U.S. District Judge.
What is the most creative thing you do in your hiring processes to secure the right people for the right jobs?
Monica: I don’t just go to the same universities and colleges to attract new talent. I go to technical schools and community colleges, and I am willing to recruit from outside those currently working in the field. Recently, I have been working on reaching out to specialized high schools to get more young people into the field from an earlier point in their career plans.
Veronica: FTA continues to think about creative strategies to revamp our hiring processes, and we know there are lessons to be learned from other agencies and companies. As we try to broaden our reach to new demographic groups, we are testing digital and visual strategies. We recently produced a recruitment video that was posted on social media and USA Jobs; this video includes testimonials from some of my colleagues about why FTA is a great place to work and also highlights the diversity at FTA.
As FTA completes its organizational assessment, we will have a better understanding of our employment needs so that we can better tailor our hiring processes to secure the right people for the right jobs. As we continue to develop our hiring process, we continually strive to be an employer of choice by offering best-in-class benefits, including competitive salaries, pensions, retirement matches, training, advancement opportunities and flexible work arrangements. We are still a work in progress!
How can organizations like WTS International partner with the federal government, other public agencies, and private companies to promote the hiring and advancement of women?
Monica: Organizations like WTS can continue to create and support an internal professional network that engages women at each step of their careers. These connections are invaluable when trying to work with agencies. Also vital is elevating and promoting certain positions, so more women are aware of hiring at different agencies. And lastly, create training opportunities for those just entering the field.
Veronica: Several FTA staff participated in WTS International’s Annual Conference in Seattle in May 2022—some for the first time—and were all impressed with the workshops, discussion topics and opportunities for networking and relationship-building. Forums that offer topic areas specific to women in the industry, such as those hosted by WTS International, provide invaluable professional growth and development. We need more of these partnerships. Organizations that help recruit young women into careers in transportation need more support and visibility. FTA’s Transit Workforce Center is hoping to connect organizations like WTS International with public transit agencies to help diversify the transit workforce and recruit more women.
WTS International should continue to provide scholarship, networking, and leadership opportunities for women in transportation, and continue to amplify apprenticeship programs focused on women and partnerships with schools and mentoring opportunities through Transportation YOU. Lastly, WTS can discuss the kinds of benefits that have become popular among high-quality candidates, including competitive salaries, ample or unlimited leave, low-cost medical insurance, retirement matches, flexible schedules, and remote-work arrangements.
How will Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) funding effect women transportation professionals; especially in workforce development?
Veronica: The BIL provides additional funding for workforce development and technical assistance—at least $61 million over the next 5 years—plus increased flexibility for FTA grantees to use formula funds for training activities. Given that women comprise only 15 percent of the transit industry, the industry must target opportunities to recruit and train more women in transportation—especially in the trades, where women are underrepresented. In FTA’s recent notice of funding opportunity for the Low- and No-Emission Bus Program, FTA included a new requirement that transit agencies must examine the impact of the transition on the applicant’s current workforce by identifying skill gaps, training needs and retraining needs for their existing workers to operate and maintain zero-emission vehicles and related infrastructure and avoid displacement of the existing workforce. FTA’s Transit Workforce Center will provide support to transit agencies working on these plans.
The industry often references NYC Rudin’s research on the “Pink Tax” aspects of transportation – that it costs women more in time, personal safety, and money in order to move efficiently. Can you talk a little bit about innovative solutions you’ve noted or implemented for increased safety and accessibility, either in your organization or in your own community?
Monica: We worked with stakeholder groups reflecting the makeup of our riders to understand the experiences of their members and constituents. This data is essential in the planning of station and vehicle design. Improving lighting and increasing the number of women-focused facilities helped increase stations’ safety and accessibility at a relatively low cost. When new vehicles are in the design phase, we also tested the layouts with multiple groups to understand how the structure of a train or bus can negatively impact safety and accessibility.
Veronica: Operator assault and security events on transit systems increased approximately 17 percent per year between 2010 and 2020, and women and minorities are disproportionately targeted. FTA reminds recipients of its Urbanized Area Formula Grants Program where funds may be used for a variety of safety projects, such as increasing lighting and camera surveillance on or around transit or installing emergency telephone lines. These are measures that transit users, especially women, rely on to increase their perception of safety. Additionally, a new grant program created under BIL, the All-Station Accessibility Program, allocates $1.75 billion to transit systems to improve accessibility. These funds can be used to add escalators or elevators and other improvements to enhance access for all users, but particularly those with disabilities or who are caretakers for children.
How does data collection and usage effect project prioritization, and how can data be utilized more effectively for equity?
Monica: Metrics are necessary to understand the underlying issues, and baselines help establish key performance indicators (KPIs) to set targets for success. Data allows for the prioritization of projects based on anticipated goals. Transparency about what a project aims to address and transparency regarding how success will be measured enable agencies to identify deficiencies and improve equity across the system.
Veronica: FTA’s National Transit Database (NTD) records the financial, operating and asset condition of transit systems, which not only provides FTA with information but also generates public information and statistics. It contains a wealth of information, including agency funding sources, inventories of vehicles and maintenance facilities, safety event reports, transit service measures and data on transit employees.
FTA requires the approximately 3,000 transit providers that receive funding from the Urbanized Area Formula Program or the Rural Formula Program to submit data to the NTD. FTA uses this data to apportion funding to urbanized and rural areas, help governments and other decision-makers complete multi-year comparisons and trend analyses and support local, regional and state planning efforts. By analyzing NTD data, FTA is able to prioritize projects and make more equitable decisions.
What transit technologies being developed are you most excited about?
Monica: I am very excited about the location-based software currently being developed. These technologies can give us the best data about how people move from their origin to their destination. Data of this type allows planners to better plan projects to improve transportation options for residents and workers.
Veronica: Safety is our north star at FTA. Since 2015, FTA has awarded $40 million for 27 projects through our safety research programs. We are investing in new technologies, such as autonomous driving systems, that save lives on the tracks and reduce collisions in transit vehicles that lead to injuries and fatalities.
Because of smart investments FTA made in low- and no-emission bus research nearly 15 years ago, there are solid findings and data to support the value of investing in zero-emission transit fleets. The BIL allocates more than $5 billion dollars to help hundreds of transit systems make the transition to cleaner, greener vehicles. The BIL also includes close to $9 million a year in additional funding for innovative transit research. We call this research “future-proofing.” By supplying seed money, we provide the room for transit agencies to experiment with limited risk to inform the body of research that serves as the foundation for future innovation.
Besides the ongoing effects of the COVID-19 pandemic, what do you feel is the biggest challenge in transportation today?
Monica: The biggest challenge for our industry is, without a doubt, funding. The IIJA/BIL aims to address some of these needs, but consistent sources of revenue and funding—sources that are equally accessible to service-providers of all sizes and across rider types—need to be created for the long-term improvement of transportation options.
Veronica: The biggest challenge facing the transportation industry today is the shortage of qualified labor. The transportation workforce is aging at an alarming rate. Employees at transit agencies have a significantly higher median age than employees in all other transportation sectors, with a full 42 percent of transit-industry employees eligible to retire either now or in the next 10 years. Additionally, the industry is not currently attracting enough new recruits at a fast enough pace to replace retiring employees. People are forgoing careers in the transit industry for a number of reasons, including lack of growth opportunities for entry-level applicants, public health concerns and concerns regarding safety and the hazards of certain occupations. FTA’s launch of the Transit Workforce Center shows our continued investment in tackling this challenge.
If you had a crystal ball, what do you think 128 Business and FTA’s main priorities will be this time next year? What about in three years?
Monica: I believe next year will focus on rebuilding the systems needed to address current and future needs. Three years from now, I think a significant focus on all-electric transit services will be at the forefront of every agency’s fleet planning.
Veronica: We have one priority that will always remain: to improve America’s communities through public transportation. Thanks to the BIL, we now have more resources to build equitable and sustainable transit systems while creating well-paying jobs in communities across the country. Our next priority is getting this funding to the communities that want and need it so they can continue to provide mobility options and combat climate change across the country.
Affordable housing, supported by innovative models of transit-oriented development (TOD) and increased transit access, is also at the top of our priority list. Thankfully, the BIL increased TOD-related funding by 38% over the next 5 years. FTA is giving special consideration to applications that address these areas. The BIL also expanded support for metropolitan and statewide planning programs by approximately 35% over the next 5 years, and FTA wants to ensure that funding goes to plans that include transit as a way to build better communities.
Monica Tibbits-Nutt is the Executive Director of the 128 Business Council.
Veronica Vanterpool is the Deputy Administrator for the Federal Transit Administration.
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