This post was written by Catherina Gioino
The dire fiscal situation facing U.S. transit agencies has recently made headlines. But most agencies are also facing a less visible crisis. Staff shortages and poor employee retention rates are putting additional pressure on already-struggling systems. As TransitCenter’s “People First” report chronicled, agencies have vacancies in administrative, capital, and planning roles in addition to frontline positions. These vacancies have delayed long-term capital and infrastructure projects, hindering much-needed service improvements. “People First” advances ideas for attracting and retaining the talent needed to run great transit service.
Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) is one the few transit agencies that have made significant progress in recruitment and human resource practices. The agency’s Vice President and Chief Human Resource Officer, Rosa Medina-Cristobal, has transformed the human resources department at DART into a more comprehensive function, leading to impressive hiring and retention results. As other agencies continue to struggle with staff shortages, they should take a cue from DART on how to tackle this issue.
Many recent changes to Human Resources at DART emerged from challenges surfacing during the COVID crisis. Like so many transit agencies, DART introduced service cuts as ridership dropped dramatically during height of the pandemic. DART coupled these cuts with a hiring freeze and voluntary retirement packages, which resulted in 500 vacancies, mostly in operations. “On the administrative side, it put a big burden on us because some departments were working on skeleton crews,” said Medina-Cristobal. “People were experiencing Covid fatigue during that time because they were working 12, 13-hour days and doing their job and other people’s jobs because we weren’t filling those positions.”
With ridership numbers down, the DART board ultimately extended the hiring freeze for over 18 months. “Our board was very hesitant to backfill any of those positions,” Medina-Cristobal explained. Even when the hiring freeze was lifted in 2021, the competitive job market limited the efficacy of the HR team’s marketing efforts, especially for CDL drivers and other operational positions.
To compound the challenges, DART’s board voted in 2021 to implement a new bus redesign plan requiring at least 100 more operators – personnel Medina-Cristobal and her team sorely lacked.
“We’ve got all these positions to backfill, plus now, all these operator positions,” said Medina-Cristobal. “So with the labor market conditions really tight at that time, we’re competing with everybody else for labor…We also had these retention issues. We experienced like 15, 16% attrition because people were not sticking around.”
Medina-Cristobal and her struggling team experienced a breakthrough when Nadine Lee joined as DART’s President and Chief Executive Officer in July 2021. After going on a listening tour with DART employees, Lee determined that backfilling vacant positions should become the agency’s top priority. “When the new CEO came on board, the first thing she did was talk to employees,” said Medina-Cristobal. “She was like, ‘How are y’all doing?’ And they said, ‘We’re tired. We need these positions filled because we can’t keep operating this way. It’s not sustainable.’”
Lee also made the important decision to move Medina-Cristobal’s position directly underneath hers – eliminating a buffer between corporate strategies and hiring practices. “There used to be a layer between me and Nadine,” Medina-Cristobal said of Lee. “Nadine felt in order for HR to have that autonomy to make those decisions, we needed to have more direct communication with the CEO.” This move granted the HR team access to more resources, budget, and, more importantly, authority.
Lee, whom Medina-Cristobal said “has always been very supportive of HR,” enabled her and the HR team to plan for long-term goals in hiring and retention, thanks in part to the organizational chart shift. “Having that authority, and that support really made a huge difference,” Medina-Cristobal said, explaining that before the shift, she and her team were essentially fighting to keep up with the high numbers of attrition, whereas after, HR was able to devise a comprehensive plan with longterm hiring solutions. “I think when she did that, it’s when we really took off, and the agency partners, they knew that I had the support of the CEO to make these changes and everybody then came to the table and said the CEO has blessed these changes.”
Medina-Cristobal and her team could see that the bus redesign plan was rolling out too quickly. But in order to change the tempo, they needed to help the DART board to understand what was actually going on with human resources and what the barriers were to hiring more people. She and her team went before the board each month, outlining the hiring and separation numbers, pinpointing key strategies, and outlining the steps they would take to lessen the level of attrition. “I put the data in front of them, and they totally understood and were supportive. It’s like light bulbs went off in the room and I had several board members say, ‘I get it now; how can we help?’”
With Lee’s and the board’s blessing, Medina-Cristobal and her team transformed several hiring processes. “We came up with this kind of comprehensive recruiting strategy,” shortening the recruitment process to avoid a negative view of bureaucracy in the public sector. DART hosted hiring events where applicants could apply and be vetted and interviewed directly onsite. “If they met all the minimum qualifications and we’d like them, we’d give them a contingent offer letter and send them for a physical and drug screen that day. That worked wonders on the operation side.” The new onsite hiring events saw upwards of 200 people applying for available positions a day, which helped fill most of DART’s operator roles.
By eliminating redundancies and streamlining hiring practices, DART cut the duration of its hiring approval process in half, from 145 days to only 70.
DART also created a frontline supervisor training program after finding a disconnect between frontline workers and their managers. According to the DART FY22 Business Plan, the agency increased its salaries and wages budget by $30.4 million, an 11.5% increase from the previous year, and created development programs to encourage workers to see upward movement in the agency. The increase is directly due to an extensive compensation study initiated in 2021 by the HR team and funded by sales tax revenues that increased post-COVID.
News of DART’s progress has made its way to transit agencies across the country, said Medina-Cristobal, who advises her fellow HR peers to keep pushing when it seems nothing is working. She also says taking a holistic view of what makes a job attractive is important. “I always tell people that you need to take a comprehensive approach to hiring… They always tell me they offered a larger base salary or more benefits, and I would say, ‘Okay, but what else?’ It needs to be a comprehensive approach.”
For HR professionals, Medina-Cristobal also stresses the importance of paying attention to retention as much as hiring – the hard work of recruitment will be a zero net gain if the same number of people leave. “That’s why if you don’t put as much effort into your workforce development as you do into your recruiting, then you’re losing the battle. It has to be equal, otherwise, you’re not going to be successful.”
DART is currently 91% staffed, and achieving 100% is Medina-Cristobal’s primary goal in 2024. She says the agency is fully staffed in its operations and maintenance positions, and she’s now working to fill in the remaining positions and build out DART’s workforce development programs. “I think DART is a great place to work. And I would love to keep developing our workforce so that in the future if we ever come across anything like a pandemic…our employees know that they’re safe and secure here and that there are lots of opportunities for them to continue to grow at DART.”