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Understaffed and underfunded, public transit is struggling to keep up with demand. A new report suggests that investing in human resources could be the solution.
Stranded riders in Las Vegas or Pittsburgh might not be thinking about how bus drivers are hired by their local transit agencies. But service problems—like not enough drivers for late-night shifts—often can be traced back to an agency’s human resources department.
That’s why personnel practices at many transit agencies need to be overhauled to help them attract and retain workers and, ultimately, improve service for their customers, according to a new report from TransitCenter, a New York-based nonprofit advocacy group.
“Whereas transit jobs were once highly sought after, they are now failing to attract and retain the talent needed to solve big 21st century problems,” the group warned. “At many agencies, the number of retirements and resignations are outpacing the number of new people they can bring in the door. To compound the problem, agencies are also anticipating another big wave of retirements within the next seven years.”
Many public sector agencies confront similar problems to transit agencies, especially when it comes to hiring rules and processes, and even high-stress environments, said Laurel Paget-Seekins, a consultant and the author of the TransitCenter report.
“But that pile up is particularly acute in transit: You have the daily operation needs, the fact that you’re dealing with years and years of deferred maintenance and failing infrastructure, and then the daily interaction with the public,” she said in an interview.
“The other side of the coin is that you have amazing people working in transit [who] are glad to be in transit because you can have such a big impact,” Paget-Seekins said. “You are at the intersection of so many core issues, like climate and racial justice…. This is how transit agencies really need to be recruiting people.”
There are many steps agencies can take to fine tune the hiring process, but sometimes the problem is more basic.
“For transit agencies, and other large public sector agencies, the biggest obstacle to overcome is changing the perception of HR as a support service, and a place to look for cost savings, to a strategic partner that requires ongoing investment,” Paget-Seekins wrote in the report. “Many leaders claim that people are their most important resources, but to make this true in practice HR must be considered a core operating department. HR departments must also be adequately staffed and empowered to do more than backfill positions and administer benefits.”
When human resources departments are understaffed, they focus on completing paperwork to hire people and oversee benefits. But the departments need to be able to do more strategic work and data analysis in order to tackle big problems, such as reducing a shortage of bus drivers or recruiting people with tech skills to get real-time information about arrival times to the public.
Two years ago, when Nadine Lee became the new president and CEO of DART, the transit agency that serves Dallas, she immediately elevated the role of the HR department. The agency faced the task of filling 500 vacant positions in a tight labor market. To make the openings more attractive, DART officials changed titles and descriptions in job postings. They added staff for recruiting, and hired contractors to handle administrative tasks. These improvements reduced the average time to fill jobs from 145 days to 70 days.
“Along with changes in compensation, hiring incentives and national marketing, DART was able to hire enough operators and mechanics to implement their new bus network in January 2022,” the TransitCenter report noted.
The report offers several other recommendations on how to improve HR functions, beyond investing in the HR department itself:
Better recruitment. The problem of attracting new workers starts with how transit agencies describe the jobs they’re looking to fill and the benefits that they offer to their employees. “Overly sterile or ‘government-speak’ job descriptions and postings can discourage people from applying. Job postings and titles need to give people a clear description of what the job does,” Paget-Seekins wrote.
Agencies could consider an approach like the one used by Oakland, she said. The California city writes its job postings with easy-to-follow descriptions. They include sections such as “What you will typically be responsible for,” “A few reasons you might love this job,” and “A few challenges you might face in this job.”
Transit agencies should also make sure they use terms in their job descriptions that are similar to the ones that private sector employers use, especially in areas like information technology where there is considerable overlap with outside companies.
Drug testing, background checks and medical screening can turn off candidates before they apply or disqualify otherwise qualified workers. That’s why transit agencies should make clear what kinds of screening are required and what would disqualify them. That’s especially important in places where marijuana is legal but may not be allowed by transit agencies.
Another potential barrier is that transit agencies don’t make clear how their benefits compare with those offered by private companies.
“Most younger job seekers likely don’t know how to compare health insurance benefits or retirement plans. Descriptions should include real-life examples of the benefits, rather than relying on overly technical language. For example, they should outline how their health care and parental leave policies can defray the cost of having a baby or the kinds of lives their generous retirement packages enable people to live,” the report explained.
“Agencies should also do a better job of advertising the public service loan forgiveness that can come with 10 years of employment in the public sector and appeal to the desire among younger workers to find jobs that align with their values and concerns about climate change and racial injustice,” it added.
Along the same lines, the postings should list an actual salary, not internal bands or steps that could confuse applicants.
Keeping good employees around. Every year, twice as many transit industry workers leave during their first two years than those who retire. Early career departures have only increased in recent years. Staunching the flow of outgoing talent could go a long way to relieve the workforce shortages that have dogged transit agencies.
One approach that could help is to spend more money on training. The Federal Transit Administration recommends that agencies spend at least 3% of their payroll costs on training. The average among transit agencies is 0.5%.
What’s more, existing training programs can be dramatically uneven. “Agencies have training programs for entry-level jobs like bus operators or other new employees; sometimes leadership training is available for executives. But often there are fewer training opportunities for existing employees,” Paget-Seekins wrote.
Agencies should not only offer more opportunities for mid-career workers, but make sure that there is enough staff to cover their absences while they’re taking advantage of those opportunities, the report said. They should facilitate mentorships that can help less experienced workers learn the technical skills they need to perform better.
Another often overlooked problem is giving employees clear information about how they can advance within the agency, other than simply “waiting for someone to retire.” That includes listing the skills an employee needs for a promotion, as well as the opportunities to develop those skills. And agencies should make sure that workers can move from operations into management and administrative roles, the report said.
Sometimes, there can be financial incentives for qualified employees to avoid promotions. “This is another reason to conduct comprehensive salary studies and to fully staff agencies to reduce overtime. These barriers need to be removed so that talented employees do not face a financial penalty for taking on leadership roles,” the TransitCenter report warned.
Improving workplace culture. Transit agencies often function at all hours of the day, and aging equipment leads to frequent service disruptions and other problems. All of this plays out in front of the public, subjecting workers to fierce scrutiny. It’s a recipe for stress, burnout and toxic workplace cultures.
“TransitCenter received reports of yelling and intimidation, pressure not to raise concerns, being ignored by supervisors when asking for help, and punitive discipline for frontline workers for missing work or breaking rules,” Paget-Seekins wrote.
“Transit agencies place a lot of emphasis on physical safety, but psychological safety needs to be just as much a part of creating and maintaining ‘safety culture’ at transit agencies. Transit agencies are hierarchical organizations, and if there isn’t psychological safety, there is risk of abuse of power and retaliation. Explicit leadership is required to create a culture where retaliation is not tolerated,” she added.
Paget-Seekins said better training for managers is a good place for agencies to start. But if the employee-manager relationship breaks down, there have to be channels for workers to have their concerns heard. That can be difficult if the agencies are more worried about their liability than about creating a healthy workplace.
“Just as transportation justice organizers have pushed transportation agencies to be accountable for their inequitable decisions impacting the public, agencies must also apply an accountability framework to inequitable agency practices impacting employees,” Paget-Seekins wrote.
But another way to improve workplace conditions is to make sure departments are adequately staffed, she said in an interview.
“We’ve basically taken all the slack out of the system. Then it’s overtaxed when you have a crisis like a train breaking down or COVID or homelessness.” she said. “There need to be enough people working in an organization that if someone leaves or takes a vacation or goes to training, you’re not all of a sudden unstaffed. There needs to be someone who can fill their shifts. That has to do with hiring people, but it also has to do with scheduling.”
Officials should keep those staffing levels in mind as they roll out new initiatives such as new capital plans, safety improvement initiatives or other promises to the public, she added. “Do we actually have the human resources to do all the things that we promised and that we have to do to run a safe, reliable agency?”
Daniel C. Vock is a senior reporter for Route Fifty based in Washington, D.C.