Women at the Frontline of Transit

The International Transportation Learning Center (ITLC) was established in 2001 to develop training and career ladder systems for public transportation’s frontline workforce. Since then, we have had the honor and privilege of working with women on the frontline who lead the way in the industry, connecting the communities in which they live and work.

These women literally move our communities every day, ensuring that we reach our destinations—work, school, medical appointments, recreation, and more—even during the worst of the pandemic.  Every day, we were able to get to where we needed to be, because Gwen Gibson maintained the rail cars in Philadelphia, Tina Johnson worked her bus route in Cleveland, Dionna McCane mentored other bus operators in Indianapolis, and Krystal Black repaired elevators and escalators in New York City.

For these women and so many others, transit provides a pathway into lifelong careers with family-supporting wages, good benefits, and opportunities for advancement. Inez Evans started as a customer service call center representative, moved into increasingly responsible leadership positions across various agencies, and today is President and CEO of IndyGo (Indianapolis). Yvette Trujillo began her career as a bus operator in Denver; she became involved in her union, was elected local President, and is now International Executive Vice President of the Amalgamated Transit Union. 

As we celebrate them, we would be remiss if we did not acknowledge the work we need to do to ensure women can continue to enter and advance in our industry. ITLC operates the Transit Workforce Center (TWC), the Federal Transit Administration’s (FTA) first-ever technical assistance center dedicated to supporting all aspects of frontline workforce development. TWC’s newly-released Transit Workforce Data Dashboard clearly illustrates some of the industry’s key challenges related to gender equity. Nationally, women constitute almost 40 percent of transit and intercity bus drivers and almost 60 percent of transportation dispatchers. However, despite individual women’s achievements and varied industry initiatives, we still have a long way to go to achieve equity in mechanic positions, where women’s representation is in the single digits.

Through our work across the country, TWC has supported and learned from initiatives making a real difference for women. We need to guarantee transit careers actually work for women, so recognizing and meeting child care needs—and, often, eldercare needs—is critical. Strong, structured mentoring programs can also support recruitment and retention.  

As we reach out into our communities to recruit, early and broad career awareness is key.  Many of the most successful outreach programs have involved transit partnerships with education institutions, along with workforce development organizations and community-based stakeholders. Additional benefits accrue when working with partners with a track record of bringing women and other nontraditional populations into a technical workforce.

We need to keep in mind that among the most effective outreach programs are those directly involving the frontline workforce and, where applicable, the union. We need to ensure that women, such as those noted earlier, are the ones reaching out, showing their sisters, and their entire communities, the wonderful and diverse routes their lives can take. 

Xinge Wang is the Deputy Director of the International Transportation Learning Center and the newly established Transit Workforce Center. She is one of this country’s leading experts on workforce demand, training capacity, and future projections of workforce needs in the transportation industry, particularly public transportation.

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