Much needed bus priority upgrades across New York City have been recently held up in part by a lack of staff capacity at NYCDOT. Credit: Welcome2theBronx
A four-part series on the challenges facing the transit industry’s central office workforce.
By Laurel Paget-Seekins
There are not enough people working at transit agencies to provide the service our communities need. This problem existed before the pandemic, but it has evolved into a crisis.
A 2015 Federal Government report on future transportation workforce needs identified a looming shortage. In 2014, over 65% of transit workers were 45 or older. The report projected annual job openings in transportation to be 68% higher than the number of students completing related education programs.
On top of this, pandemic-related job churn hit the public sector particularly hard. The public sector quit rate reached a 20-year high in October of 2021. The American Public Transportation Association surveyed transit agencies in 2022; 92% reported difficulty with hiring, and 64% reported difficulty with retention.
Much of the reporting has highlighted vacancies in critical frontline roles, like bus and rail operators, dispatchers, and mechanics and maintenance workers. In July 2022, TransitCenter released a report that outlined causes behind and solutions to the national bus operator shortfall. However, transit agencies are also struggling to maintain fully staffed administrative, planning, engineering, and capital planning departments. In a November 2022 report, the Maryland Transit Administration reported vacancy rates over 10% in support departments like accounting, HR, engineering, IT, procurement and training.
Shortages in these roles can have a direct impact on customer experience, and can slow-down improvement projects like new customer information or capital improvements. For example, New York City DOT is behind on bus lane mileage mandated by the City’s Streets Master Plan, and a primary reason is staff shortages of planners and construction crews.
In order to better understand the state of the entire transit workforce, TransitCenter has been conducting interviews with current and former transit employees about the challenges of hiring, retention, and working in transit right now. The interviewees ranged in experience from 18 months at a transit agency to 24 years, from entry level roles to senior management, from small agencies to New York’s MTA’s 60,000-person operation. They have roles in operations, planning, data analytics, IT and customer technology, and communications. They included people recently hired at a transit agency, managers with experience hiring, and people who recently left an agency job for the private sector, a different agency, or retired.
Our interviews supported the data that there are vacancies and difficulty hiring for many types of positions. Every hiring manager mentioned that their agency’s HR department was understaffed or lacked capacity. Interviewees in senior roles at large agencies shared that the predicted wave of retirements had been discussed internally for years, but agencies didn’t do enough to prepare.
Several interviewees shared that the current problem has been exacerbated by past hiring freezes, in particular the Great Recession. Many positions in transit agencies are filled by internal candidates working their way up the career ladder. As a cohort retires, the next wave of experienced managers is ready to take their place. But there is a missing cohort of people with 12-14 years of experience to take senior positions as people move up or retire.
The pandemic changed the labor market and the attractiveness of transit jobs. One interviewee told us that he had been hiring for over 10 years and hiring had never been as hard as the last two years. Inability to compete on compensation was a common experience. Some interviewees also reported that limited or no remote work policies at their agencies made it a challenge to recruit for office-based positions.
Our interviewees reported that public service is most appealing when an organization has a clear vision, is offering exciting and interesting work, and is seen as important in the historical moment. But the stresses of the pandemic and ongoing workforce shortages have left transit agency employees feeling frustrated and pessimistic, questioning whether their efforts were making a difference. As one interviewee put it, “if we can’t even deliver the service, what are we doing?” Another talked about the need to redefine transit’s role in their city, given the ridership declines initiated by the durable shift to remote work.
People shared their feelings of exhaustion over the past few years. Once an agency is understaffed it is hard to recover. Morale suffers as people are stretched thin doing multiple jobs, which leads to more resignations. Hiring managers can’t always find the time to work with HR to backfill roles.
The Black Lives Matter protests in the summer of 2020 shone a light on internal workplace inequities, but interviewees at several agencies shared mixed results on the work to change agency culture.
Over the next few weeks, we are going to share insights from our interviews on three key themes:
- Mental health and well-being for the transit workforce. The pandemic added additional stress to an industry that operates around the clock. What can agencies do to avoid burning out employees?
- Attraction of public service and the challenge of making change in complex government agencies. People have to feel like they’re making an impact in order to compensate for lower salaries and workplace challenges. How can agencies create an environment where employees can make a difference with surmountable challenges in reasonable timeframes?
- Critical role of human resource practices and policies for hiring, career pathways, and retention. Beyond compensation and benefits, hiring can take too long, minimum requirements can screen out qualified candidates, and internal policies and procedures can cause people to leave. What can agencies do to hire, support, and retain their employees?
The good news is that everyone we interviewed cares deeply and believes in the mission of transit. Agencies can’t compete with the private sector on compensation for many roles, but fortunately, a great number of people remain attracted to public service. Interviewees who had left agencies talked about their amazing (former) colleagues, and their desire to go back to the public sector. Hiring managers shared their success strategies for making public sector jobs more attractive. People who had switched agencies were happy to find that the broken culture they had experienced in one place wasn’t true of all departments or agencies.
The problems facing transit agencies are complex and multi-faceted, but there are viable solutions including culture change, process and policy changes, and the infusion of additional resources. We are excited to explore the challenges and potential solutions throughout this four-part series.
Laurel Paget-Seekins works in the intersection of data, community, and policy to increase transit equity and quality. She uses her experience as a community organizer, researcher, and an agency employee to strategically champion and implement change. Laurel spent six years at the MBTA/ MassDOT working on fare and service policy, new fare programs, data analytics, performance metrics and tools, and new service pilots. Laurel is currently working with TransitCenter to identify and advance workforce policy changes in transit.