The Centrality of Human Resources to Transit's Success - TransitCenter

Photo credit: Streetsblog MASS

January 24, 2023
The Centrality of Human Resources to Transit’s Success
A four-part series on the challenges facing the transit industry’s central office workforce. Read parts one, two, and three
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 ongoing difficulties with Human Resources departments at their agencies. 

Interviewees relayed that the important work of HR departments is hindered by an overall lack of capacity. There are simply not enough people working in HR to address the current workforce shortage and prevent future ones. Additionally, governance structures and success metrics for HR departments aren’t always in alignment with the needs of the agency. Interviewees cited the need for HR departments to implement better recruiting and hiring practices, help with retention and career pathways for current employees, and to facilitate a culture of accountability within agencies. 

At many agencies, current recruiting and hiring practices repel external candidates. The recent hires and department hiring managers we spoke with relayed that hiring takes too long, and there isn’t enough clear communication with candidates throughout the process. This causes agencies to unintentionally lose external (and often underrepresented) candidates. Long and confusing hiring processes can benefit internal candidates, which doesn’t add to the overall capacity of the organization. 

Agency practices around compensation and salary negotiation also caused them to lose out on qualified candidates. We heard from hiring managers that some agencies only hire outside candidates at the minimum of the hiring range, and others give low offers and drag out the negotiation process. This limits hiring from younger candidates, who interviewees told us often are not motivated by the retirement benefits offered in the public sector, and place an emphasis on salary as they start their careers. 

Job descriptions and minimum requirements also screen out qualified candidates. Our interviewees shared that there is often too much focus on years of experience or specific degrees instead of required skills that can be gained through multiple pathways. Reliance on software for screening applications can require that candidates know what keywords to use in their applications.  

As agencies modernize their processes and introduce new technology, they need employees with new skills. Roles and titles need to change to match the work needed and the labor market. One hiring manager shared that they found success by doing their own recruiting and rewriting of job descriptions to have reasonable minimum requirements, more interesting descriptions of the job, a more exciting title, and a competitive salary. An interviewee provided an example of how they worked to create technology jobs with titles and responsibilities that match roles in the private sector to help prospective applicants see how their skills will translate to the public sector. 

But it isn’t possible in most agencies for the hiring manager to do all of these things. Another interviewee talked about how dependent they were on HR and their fear that if they pushed to change requirements their positions would be sidelined. 

Agencies working with the relevant unions and civil service commissions have to update and streamline their hiring processes. These updates include rewriting job descriptions to match the competencies needed, switching to skills-based requirements instead of minimum years and degrees, and adjusting salary and benefit packages to be competitive. 

At the same time, existing employees need to be given opportunities to grow in the organization. Interviewees shared mixed reviews of their agency’s professional development and career pathways. More than a few people joked that it felt like the only way to get a promotion was to wait for someone to retire. Others shared that their agency needed to do a better job training employees on the skills needed to get promotions and identifying transferable skills between different positions. 

Equitable skills-based pathways and merit promotions can prevent the default of promotion by seniority. Multiple people told us that management by seniority alone creates a culture of complacency and many talented employees leave before successfully climbing the ranks. One solution is creating job rotations where employees learn multiple parts of the organization and develop management skills.   

Yet another key role for HR departments should be to train and support managers to create a culture of accountability. Several interviewees shared that one of their biggest challenges was a lack of accountability for people who don’t get their work done, or who exhibit problematic behavior. 

People need to be accountable for their behavior at work. Agencies have required Equal Employment Opportunity (EEO) complaint processes, but many interviewees told us the complaint processes didn’t work. One problem is the lack of a clear process for complaints about behavior that falls outside the discrimination covered by EEO. Interviewees discussed fear of retaliation for both filing complaints and having the complaint system used against them if they try to hold employees accountable for getting their work done. EEO complaints are handled through a lens of liability and compliance for the organization and not addressed in a way that changes the culture that creates the problems. Multiple interviewees shared that when harassment and toxic workplace behavior wasn’t addressed it undermined agency leadership and caused talented employees to leave. 

Both agency leadership and unions have to lead efforts to strengthen the culture of accountability. Fair processes need to hold individuals accountable and support employees raising issues, and agencies need to take proactive action. Leadership needs to be more transparent about complaint data and other indicators of workplace culture, and acknowledge when harm has occurred, remedy it, and work to prevent it. 

Improving hiring processes and creating professional development and career pathway programs takes considerable work by HR teams. They need new resources, tools, data, and metrics to monitor their progress. Shifting from a culture of liability to a culture of accountability will take a long-term commitment to changing processes, trainings, and support systems. 

Transit agency leadership must emphasize and invest in their human capital as well as their physical infrastructure. They will have to more appropriately staff their HR departments, and reframe the mandate for the HR functions of their organization from gate-keeping to facilitating change and proactive problem-solving. Our regions need transit to keep moving; agencies need satisfied, talented, and accountable workforces to provide the service. Creative and empowered HR professionals are critical to the future of transit.

This is the last post in our four-part series on the challenges facing the transit industry’s central office workforce. But fear not – we will be expanding on these issues in a full report later in the year. If you work or have worked at a transit agency and would like to be interviewed for this project, please reach out to us at [email protected]!

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.

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