By Laurel Paget-Seekins
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. A key theme we heard from our interviewees was the importance of feeling like they were making an impact, and how frequently agency policies and structures get in the way of their efforts.
Many people are drawn to work at transit agencies because they want to make a difference and improve their communities. Several hiring managers shared with us that in order to attract talented candidates, often to jobs that might not have a competitive salary, they needed a good pitch addressing why this job at this agency. People want to hear what impact their work will have and why it is meaningful or exciting.
The pitch is harder right now as agencies struggle to recover from the pandemic, but there is lots of interesting and vital work happening at transit agencies. In addition to daily operations, agencies are in the midst of upgrading their physical infrastructure, switching to electric vehicles, and rethinking their service plans. Many are in the middle of digitizing and modernizing all of their back-end systems and business processes. And technology is creating new ways to communicate with riders and for people to pay fares, and new sources of data to be safely stored and analyzed for insights into improvements.
These roles have the potential for great impact, but this work can be challenging because it involves making changes in complex government organizations. Once someone is in the door, there is only so long they’ll stay if they constantly face roadblocks that make it difficult to do their job. Nearly every one of our interviewees who had left a transit job cited problems getting things done as a contributing factor to their departure. One former employee told us they left right before a major procurement because they couldn’t face going through the long, arduous process again.
We asked our interviewees about what made their jobs difficult or impeded changes. They mentioned three internal themes: support services, leadership support, and resources.
Functions like human resources, procurement, and IT are key support services for the rest of the organization, but are perennial sources of frustration. Human resources and procurement employees are tasked with ensuring compliance with rules and regulations that can come from multiple sources. From the perspective of internal clients – agency employees – these departments can be seen as gate-keepers saying no to new ideas, rather than helping them do their jobs more efficiently.
Support services can be complicated by the governance structure of a transit agency. Multiple interviewees explained that their agency is embedded in a city or county government or Metropolitan Planning Organization, and relies on procurement or HR departments that don’t directly report to the transit leadership. These departments aren’t always using success metrics that align to the needs of the internal clients. For example, efficient hiring isn’t prioritized if HR staff is told that their main responsibility is passing an audit without consideration for how many people they have hired or the time it took to hire them. One interviewee stressed that agency leadership often doesn’t experience the problems directly and don’t put enough energy into solving them.
An improvement to working with support services that multiple interviewees cited is to have documentation of the processes so it is clear whether the source is a federal or state law/regulation, agency policy, collective bargaining agreements or civil service rules, or department or individual practice. Instead of gate-keepers these roles need to be facilitators, especially for constantly evolving areas like technology procurement.
As agencies modernize systems and implement new technology, they need staff with additional skills or capacities. This can mean training existing employees on new software and hiring new positions. These organizational changes require departments to change how they work, often without knowing what is possible with the new technology. One interviewee shared how they hired people with different skill sets and embedded them in departments as a way to increase capacity and help departments realize what skills they were missing. With sufficient resources and scalable theories of change, agencies can be successful at building capacity.
Transit agencies are complex. There is no way for anyone to understand all of the details of the work that goes on every day, and at the same time all of the pieces are interconnected. Decisions in one department can have ripple effects and cause unintended consequences for other departments. Implementing change often requires intra-agency, and in some regions inter-agency, efforts.
Regardless of whether change efforts are driven from the top-down or bottom-up, interviewees told us that agency leadership needs to promote collaboration and break down silos. If there isn’t transparent decision-making and individuals are disempowered in their roles, their only source of power might be enforcing rules or protecting their turf instead of finding ways to collaborate. We heard several examples of major initiatives jeopardized due to lack of internal collaboration and leadership support to address it.
Multiple people mentioned that leadership of their agency needed to be less risk averse. Several interviewees shared that when they were successful at making change within their agency, their work was celebrated, but they got no support along the way. One former employee gave an example of how they worked really hard to push for changes to how the agency does public engagement. They faced an unnecessary amount of resistance, but were successful with support from peers. And now their project is considered a model for the agency.
Creating collaborative environments and transparent decision-making requires leaders to give up unilateral power. Similar to collaborative public engagement processes, employees and departments need to have opportunities to participate in major decisions impacting their work at multiple points and hear how their feedback will be used.
Employees also need to be able to access resources to implement new programs, policies, and infrastructure. One interviewee shared that their agency was able to pilot a number of new programs during the pandemic, but they were given no new resources or staff in order to make them permanent. The expectation that existing staff, already stretched thin, could take on more work created resistance to change and increased attrition.
Discussions over sustainable transit funding need to include more than replacing fare revenue lost during the pandemic. Transit agencies need resources, at least in the short-term, to modernize and improve internal operations. These investments should pay-off by improving service for riders and working conditions.
For public service to be fulfilling, people need to be able to have an impact with surmountable challenges in reasonable timeframes. As one interviewee put it, “the appeal of transit is you can see the real and immediate results, if you can’t deliver that, why stay?” To implement the changes transit needs, agency and political leaders have to resource modernization efforts, build collaborative processes, and address bureaucratic bottlenecks, especially in support services.
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.