Training and Apprenticeships to Address Transit Workforce Gaps

It is well known that public transit in the United States faces a workforce skills crisis. A lot of attention—properly—goes to training for skilled craft positions, like bus mechanics. At the Transportation Learning Center, we focus on the need for training in those occupations, particularly as new technology such as Battery Electric Buses requires a ramp-up of electric and electronic skills training. Bus operators also do skilled work, and there are a lot more of them.

Let’s look at how training and apprenticeship can address a critical need for all agencies.

Transit agencies across the country are fighting a losing battle to keep bus operations at current capacity as it gets harder to fill operator positions. The perfect storm of low unemployment, high turnover rates, and negative perceptions of the job work together to make hiring and keeping qualified workers an uphill battle. And there will be 200,000 additional operator positions by 2022. To meet this need, transit agencies have to change tactics.

Registered apprenticeships combine on-the-job training (OJT) with related classroom instruction. The coach operator apprenticeship focuses on the day-to-day issues that operators face and on improving the people-skills needed for interaction with riders to produce more successful coach operators with reduced turnover and improved safety. Coach operators have the highest turnover rate of transit industry occupations and inconsistent or insufficient training has led to lower standards of driving, safety, and customer service while contributing to increased stress and low worker morale. Registered apprenticeships offer agencies an excellent opportunity to reduce the turnover rate and increase customer satisfaction.

Traditionally, bus driver training has focused on the safe operation of the vehicle, with less attention paid to enhancing and valuing drivers’ day-to-day relationships with passengers. Yet, it is these interactions and issues which, more often than not, elevate a driver’s stress, lead to related health problems, and undermine their commitment to the job.  The best way to address these gaps in training is through union-led and jointly-sponsored mentorship and apprenticeship programs.

In a coach operator apprenticeship, mentoring focuses on critical “street survival skills” and dealing with the daily stresses involving passengers, traffic, and the occasional disruptions both on and off the bus. These skills are key to reducing the rising attrition rate among new hires. And it works!

In San Jose, as well as in Minneapolis/St. Paul, mentors have become sounding boards for new hires as they become familiar with the rigors of the new job. The mentors are there to listen and help the new drivers learn the coping skills essential to ensuring quality service. The San Jose program was so effective that, in the first class, almost 100 percent of new drivers were still working eighteen months after their start dates. Customer service complaints were down, nonattendance was cut, and job satisfaction rose.

To get there, agencies have to commit to working with their union and together, creating a joint program. There are several steps needed to achieve registered apprenticeship status. Like all Department of Labor (DOL) sponsored apprenticeships, the program is designed with flexibility, allowing agencies to benefit from the national guidelines but tailoring them to address individual agency needs and resources. First, top labor and management representatives from the agency must commit to the program. A joint apprenticeship committee (JAC) is formed with equal representation of labor and management to develop local standards that determine how the apprentice program is structured (i.e., apprentice and mentor selection process, work hours, wage progression, etc.) and the training program’s content (i.e., work process schedule, OJT, and classroom coordination, etc.). The final step is to formally register with DOL and launch the program.

Coach operator apprentices are paired with mentors from a pool of experienced volunteer operators who work with their mentees on the job to develop the less tangible “soft skills” necessary for the mentee to succeed. Mentors provide moral support and practical, professional advice so that coach operators can feel confident and prepared for the job. Upon completion of the training, which consists of 2,000 hours of OJT and approximately 200 hours of related classroom instruction and safety training, apprentices receive nationally recognized certificates of completion.

Apprenticeship does come with a cost to transit agencies, but evidence shows that the investment pays off. The DOL estimates that for every dollar spent on apprenticeship, employers see a return of $1.47. The benefits don’t end there. Operator positions become more attractive when there is a level of professional recognition provided by registered apprenticeship. Agencies can also attract more veterans because the same GI Bill benefits that veterans receive when they enroll in college apply to apprenticeships as well. On a broader level, the relationship between labor and management often improves significantly when the common goal of better training through apprenticeship is introduced.

Headshot of Jack Clark
With over 20 years’ experience in government workforce development systems and sector development work, Jack brings deep expertise in the areas of worker training and career ladders.  A Ford Foundation/Kennedy School of Government Award for Innovations in State and Local Government winner, prior to joining the Center, Jack served as Deputy Director in the Mayor’s Office of Jobs and Community Services in Boston, MA.

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