Engaging Frontline Employees in Adopting New Transit Technologies Next Steps for Engaging Frontline Employees in Adopting New Transit Technologies

  • Date: April 13, 2023

The suggested next steps are broken down into five categories according to earlier sections of the Guidebook. In section 2.3 of Chapter 2 “ways to engage employees,” three primary ways to engage employees were mentioned: (1) establishing a shared vision and purpose, (2) investing in individual employees, and (3) tailoring engagement strategies to both current employees and potential new recruits. Chapters 3 and 4 went into depth on the topics of (4) training and (5) apprenticeships, both key methods for ensuring frontline employees have the skills needed to interact with new transit technologies—foundational to their engagement. Below, next steps are proposed within these five categories.

In order to apply the information from Chapters 1-4 to the specific situation of an individual transit agency, professionals can use the proposed next steps as a guide to help identify areas where more work is needed or even as a checklist. The next steps, as a set, could also be used for collaborative purposes, helping to guide internal discussions at an agency. They are meant to be used in combination and can be applied to support strategic planning efforts for engaging frontline employees in adopting new transit technologies.

5.1 Establish a shared vision and purpose

5.1.1 Ensure that transit agency management understands the implications and benefits of new technologies under consideration.

Too often a new technology is pursued without decision-makers having a detailed understanding of what a specific technology will, or should, accomplish. While core technology outcomes mentioned in section 2.3 include a higher level of operational efficiency, improvements in customer service, and a reduction in environmental impact, other outcomes may be important to an agency depending on their specific goals.

In addition, a transit agency may lack a strategic approach to technology overall (i.e., a process for considering all the current and future technology types and how they should connect). Considering each piece of technology as if it is an island is a dangerous prospect and can cause headaches down the road. The technology used by transit agencies is often networked by nature, connecting between different activities, users, and purposes to serve joint requirements. N-CATT resources including A Framework for Making Successful Technology Decisions, as well as the Guidebook on New Software Adoption for Small Transit Agencies, could help transit professionals navigate related technology decision-making processes.

Management may also lack key information about the commitment level required to successfully deploy a new technology. For example, in speaking with a representative of IndyGo it is clear how challenging it is to set up new BEB operations (e.g., charging stations, fleet strategy based on mileage range, training mechanics, etc.). If management is not solidly grounded on all of these topics, then the following next steps lack a base to be built upon. If required, management should pause planning efforts in order to conduct research or work with a technology consultant/specialist in order to gain this information.

5.1.2 Involve frontline employees in technology-related decisions that will impact their day-to-day work.

With employees, discuss the potential outcomes of technologies under consideration as well as how the technologies could impact their day-to-day work. Sometimes it may seem like going down a certain technology path has a life of its own, and management may be ready to move forward. But pausing to consider how to best involve employees can pay off later. Enabling them to provide input into the decision-making process will help them mentally prepare for the coming changes, and this will help the agency’s transition process to go more smoothly.

N-CATT staff shared an anecdote of a transit agency in the US that was moving forward with ZEB technologies. The bus operators had not been involved in either the strategic direction of ZEB or the selection of the particular buses. As it turns out, the selected buses required bus operators to be a certain minimum height in order to reach the pedals; those who did not meet the minimum height found this out the hard way. Could situations such as this be avoided? They can if, for example, there is a core group of frontline employees involved in selecting the buses. They could attend a trade show or go to a show room and try the vehicles out for themselves; after all, they are the ones who will be operating them all day. It makes sense to include them, not only so they are more engaged in the process, but also so the agency can avoid lackluster decisions that result in committing the agency to a technology solution that does not work for the primary users of the technology. As buses have more and more technology-related components, it becomes increasingly important that bus operators test all of the components prior to procurement becoming final.

5.1.3 Leverage discussions with frontline staff to establish a shared purpose for new technologies, based on anticipated outcomes.

One of the purposes of the technology could be, for example, to make the job tasks of the technology user easier. As mentioned with the ZEB example for workers who did not meet the minimum height requirement in next step 5.1.2, not only is the work not necessarily easier for a specific group of people, but there is clearly a fundamental barrier to use for this group. Aside from basic functionality, the more high-value outcomes (such as a higher level of operational efficiency, improvements in customer service, and a reduction in environmental impact) identified with employees, the clearer the technology’s purpose will be to the entire agency. As an additional step, a shared vision can be created with staff that builds upon the anticipated outcomes of several different types of technology—considering how they’ll work together to support the agency’s operations. The vision can tie together the high-value outcomes, how the technology supports and improves the day-to-day work of the employees, and how the technology fits into the agency’s broader mission.

5.1.4 Be clear, unified, and precise when communicating about new technologies moving forward.

When members of management all have different ideas about a technology’s benefits, they may have counterproductive communication practices in place without even realizing it. Through the steps above, management would have had the time and focus to identify the main points to communicate. As a final step, it is productive for management to agree—together—on how the technology will be presented and communicated, even segmented by specific groups such as various frontline staff groups, the board, and passengers.

5.2 Invest in individual employees

5.2.1 Consider all the potential ways that the transit agency could invest in individual employees.

Section 2.3 mentioned a number of example ways to invest in employees such as establishing a mentorship program, putting activities in place to help employees customize their career paths through lateral and vertical moves, and providing agency-sponsored training. These, and more, could be under consideration.

5.2.2 Discuss options with employees and gain their input.

As early as possible, it is best to hear from employees. If management is open to it, employees can even be involved in the earliest step to generate a list of potential ways to invest in employees, possibly through a group brainstorming session.

5.2.3 Evaluate and compare the different ways to invest in employees.

Comparing the different ways to invest in employees can be based on factors such as anticipated level of impact, degree of employee interest, financial implications, and cost/benefit, to name a few. From there, a short list of high priority items could be drafted.

5.2.4 Pinpoint what it would take to make some of the top items a reality.

The high priority items could be detailed in terms of the activities that would need to be undertaken to make them a reality. The amounts and types of required resources, including financial resources, should also be detailed. Putting these items together could lead to the creation of a road map.

5.3 Tailor engagement strategies to both current employees and potential new recruits

5.3.1 Use the table in section 2.3.3 to find out from current employees what interests them most on the topics of job stability, career potential, job options, and impactful work.

It is a good idea to have a neutral third party, such as a someone who works in the community engagement field or even someone who conducts focus groups, to elicit this information from employees. For example, during these discussions, it may come up that offering an impressive benefits package, competitive pay, and a schedule for raises, among other financial and economic incentives, helps support financial stability for transit agency employees. When employees can support themselves and their families, they are in a better position to stay engaged in their work. Another common topic might be related to employees wanting paths forward within an organization (both vertically and laterally)—this enables the staff to see themselves working at the agency in the future. There should be clear ways to gain promotions, even possibilities to move into management someday.

5.3.2 Consider the results of these discussions and outline ways to implement the measures that are most important to the current employees.

Ensuring that employees have ways to be heard and understood by management allows for dialogue that is valuable for both sides. Whenever possible, management should demonstrate that feedback and information gained from employees has been acted upon in a concrete way. For instance, following a survey or an open discussion, management should respond with a list of items that it will include in its future activities as a clear response.

5.3.3 Create a targeted pathway into the agency for potential new recruits that meets the needs of groups 1, 2, 3, and 4.

For the groups including those who are new to the transit industry and just leaving high school/trade school/community college (group 1), new to the transit industry with some/significant work experience in another industry, but without skills that are highly valuable to the transit industry (group 2), new to the transit industry with some/significant work experience in another industry with skills that are highly valuable to the transit industry (group 3), and previously working in the transit industry for another agency (group 4), a targeted pathway should be developed that helps each of these groups successfully become new employees. The general pathway proposed in section 2.3.3 with three levels is an example of a pathway that builds in the needs of all three groups. Level 1 with its apprenticeship programs is targeted mainly at group 1 but also as an entry point for group 2. Level 2, involving training to address skill gaps, is aimed at group 3 as an entry point, while for level 3, on-the-job training and mentorship would be completed by all groups (enabling group 4 in particular to have an entry point).

5.3.4 Develop targeted messaging for each potential new recruit group in order to communicate directly to them.

For example, in order to reach group 1, it may be necessary to establish relationships with local high schools to connect with potential new recruits during their senior year while they are considering various educational and career paths. For groups 2 and 3, perhaps there is another industry that a transit agency is trying to recruit from in particular, which may help narrow down ways to market to them. Group 4 may be the most difficult to reach, since they already work at another transit agency. Industry communications targeted at frontline workers may present some opportunities. For all groups, some attention should be given to how to best reach out to them.

5.4 Train frontline employees on new transit technologies

5.4.1 Ensure that the transit agency has educational infrastructure in place so its workers can gain skills in new transit technology.

Jobs in transit have technology integrated into the daily work of transit employees; it is not possible to fully remove technology as a stand-alone workforce element. Therefore, if a transit agency pursues a path with the goal of improving the skills of frontline employees with new transit technologies, that path would initially depend on the quality of the existing situation present at the agency for improving the skills of frontline employees in general. If it is of higher quality, the agency would focus on activities to integrate technology-specific content into the training program—the transition would be more straightforward. If it is of lower quality, or nonexistent, then the training program would need to be established in the first place, or measures adopted to improve the quality—a process requiring planning and implementation work to put a solid working system in place. During the planning process, the agency should ensure that transit technologies are kept front and center, even though the training program’s scope may be much broader than that.

5.4.2 Consider, evaluate, and select training activity options.

Getting feedback from employees as early in the process as possible is key to understanding what they would find most useful for their training and career trajectory. As mentioned in Chapter 3, there are four primary methods for training frontline staff: training through the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), periodic training for existing staff, on-the-job training/mentorship programs, and apprenticeships. An agency may identify others to consider. As mentioned in next step 5.4.1, the quality of the existing educational situation present at the agency would need to be assessed to decide if the activities could be additions to the existing training program or, due to significant gaps in the educational infrastructure, a new training program needs to be put in place. After an agency analyzes its short-, medium-, and long-term workforce development needs, as well as the challenges facing it now and likely to happen in the future, it would be in a position to begin evaluating—and ultimately selecting—various training options.

5.4.3 Develop a detailed plan and research ways to implement the selected options.

Once options have been selected, a set of activities with timeframes can be developed into a strategic or project management plan. There are many activities that may be needed to support the effort such as leading stakeholder coordination, sourcing funding, and identifying external resources.

5.4.4 Support and develop training solutions that work for small transit agencies, including regional training and apprenticeship programs.

In Building an Apprenticeship and Training System for Maintenance Occupations in the American Transit Industry, it is stated that “Smaller transit agencies often do not have sufficient scale of maintenance operations to provide training internally. The formation of regional partnerships provides employees at smaller agencies access to training facilities and instruction. Regional institutions also foster and support training that is more likely to be sustained. Such regional arrangements are less likely to depend on the interest of one or two progressive leaders. Further, regional partnerships are both efficient and effective. Expensive training facilities do not have to be unnecessarily duplicated. Joining forces also gives transit agencies greater leverage in dealing with community colleges to offer relevant courses or to use curricula related to transit maintenance. It also makes it more likely that minimum class size requirements will be met. For all of these reasons, the regional approach is simply more efficient through economies of scale in training.”

FTA Report No. 0182, Transit Vehicle Innovation Deployment Centers (TVIDC) Advisory Panel Overview and Conclusions, published in 2021, mentions that “Over the past five years, several early ZEB adopters have established regional training efforts in anticipation of industry demand for ZEB workforce development. FTA funding as part of the NFCBP (National Fuel Cell Bus Program) supported efforts at two transit agencies, SunLine and SARTA (Stark Area Regional Transit Authority), which created ZEB Centers of Excellence (CoEs). The CoEs serve as development engines for innovative training serving transit managers, operators, and maintenance staff. Additionally, AC Transit has established a reputation for its in-house ZEB training program, which it provides to other operators on request. LA Metro is launching a similar initiative for a regional ZEB training and resources hub in the Los Angeles region. Other agencies have demonstrated interest in standing up local or regional programs of their own.” The report goes on to explain that although these are certainly positive developments, “these workforce development efforts lack coordination and consistent supporting resources. Federal funding for transit workforce development (49 USC Sec 5314, Technical Assistance and Workforce Development) is divided among all transit modes. Though the FTA Low or No Emission Vehicle Program allows some awarded funding to pay for relevant ZEB operations and maintenance training, this is not a dedicated stream.”

5.4.5 Take part in efforts to establish a comprehensive approach to transit workforce training on federal and state levels, with a special focus on new transit technologies.

There is a great deal of similarity in the skill sets required for common transit industry occupations at transit agencies across the US. Whether in Boise, Idaho or Poughkeepsie, New York, a mechanic works on similar vehicle types and requires similar skill sets in order to be successful in the role. Therefore, instead of continuing down a path that requires individual transit agencies to solve their own educational problems separately, transit agencies may be better supported if they advocated for a more comprehensive approach to transit workforce development on the federal level—an approach from which all transit agencies could benefit.

As a part of setting up apprenticeship programs, for example, a national, flexible system could be created. This could involve identifying a set of community colleges (with virtual or in-person classes) across the US that any transit agency could work with as an educational partner, general curricula to follow that builds in current best practices, a train-the-trainer program to help experienced staff members become apprenticeship professors locally on-site, and funding. The funding could help support, for example, wages/salaries for new apprenticeship instructors, wages/salaries for apprentices, and wages/salaries for administrative and management positions to oversee new programs. This process should include the national-level involvement of organized labor as well, to help scale up the lessons learned through their involvement in various programs across the US to date.

As an example of a promising development, the 2019 GAO report Transit Workforce Development mentioned that “The Transportation Learning Center organized three industry consortiums to develop national standards-based courseware—Rail Car, Signals, and Elevator/Escalator Technicians… For example, under the Signals Training Consortium, 25 new courses have been developed covering the inspection, maintenance, and troubleshooting of transit and commuter rail signaling equipment. The curriculum is planned to include both classroom and on-the-job training.”

In the FTA Report No. 0182 from 2021, Transit Vehicle Innovation Deployment Centers (TVIDC) Advisory Panel Overview and Conclusions, a national solution for ZEB training is called for specifically. The following is stated, “FTA should establish a dedicated program to directly support ZEB workforce development. This program should take advantage of the investment FTA has made to date on the ZEB Centers of Excellence (CoEs) as part of the National Fuel Cell Bus Program… Expand NTI’s programming to incorporate ZEB train­ing and workforce certification. FTA should consider directing the National Transit Institute (NTI) to incorporate ZEB technologies into its workforce development programming, with the aim of building a national ZEB workforce certification program.”

As explained in the 2019 GAO report, Transit Workforce Development, the US transit industry currently lacks a comprehensive transit workforce strategy in general, of which training is only a part. Without a solid, comprehensive training framework already in place, it is challenging to address technology needs specifically. The GAO made three recommendations to FTA in the report, one of which is to “develop a comprehensive transit workforce strategy.” GAO states that DOT concurred with this recommendation. If this recommendation is carried out, the process of ensuring frontline employees have the skills they need to be successful with new transit technologies could benefit; these technology-specific strategies could become part of a broader and more comprehensive effort.

California Transit Works, a consortium of transit industry partners, is a promising state-wide example in California. On its website, its mission is stated, “We educate, advocate, and advise transit agencies and unions in building worker centered training partnerships, as a key strategy in meeting industry demand for qualified workers to provide reliable and effective clean energy transit services for our communities.”

5.5 Establish apprenticeships for new transit technologies

5.5.1 Get input from frontline employees on apprenticeship programs.

In Equity from the Frontline, Deb Moy, a workforce development expert, explains that organizations interested in apprenticeship “need an approach that is about asking questions of the workers. There is no checklist or template. Everything needs to start from the workers. All of our (TAPCA) programs started because workers pointed out what was needed. They have the power to say ‘This is our work. This is what it means to be a professional.’ Most recently, the overhead line folks said to train track workers to move into the job because they already know about working on the track.”

5.5.2 Seek out technical assistance and peer networking with professionals who are experienced with setting up new apprenticeship programs.

As mentioned in section 4.1, the Transit Workforce Center (TWC) was recently established with the aim of providing technical assistance to transit agencies who would like to set up apprenticeship programs for the maintenance and operations of public transit. In addition, an initiative called the American Transit Training and Apprenticeship Innovators Network (ATTAIN) was also recently established that will connect those interested in setting up an apprenticeship program with other professionals who have experience and can help advise.

5.5.3 Leverage existing curricula in an effort to not “reinvent the wheel.”

Since many occupations in the transit industry are similar across multiple agencies (e.g., mechanics and bus operators), it is important to keep in mind that agencies new to apprenticeship may want to ask other agencies if it is possible to use their curriculum as a draft to begin developing their effort. Perhaps as a part of ATTAIN or other technical assistance, forming these kinds of connections is possible. The Competency-Based Occupational Framework for Registered Apprenticeships provided by the Urban Institute for the transit industry (i.e., Transit Bus Technician and Transit Coach Operator) may be a good resource for some transit agencies to leverage. ZEB-related technologies are referenced in the Transit Bus Technician framework, though this is not the primary focus.

5.5.4 Support efforts to establish national, centralized approaches to transit apprenticeships, with a special focus on new transit technologies.

An American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) press release from 2015 mentions partnering with the ITLC in relation to work they would carry out with a grant, “The International Transportation Learning Center was awarded a $5 million grant for the National Public Transportation Partnership for Apprenticeship project. The funds will support the implementation of new registered apprenticeships for Signals Maintainers and Transit Coach Operators, as well as for the expansion of existing programs. A total of 1,297 frontline workers in the public transportation/electro-mechanical industry in metropolitan areas of the US will be trained. Private sector partners include Wider Opportunities for Women and Amalgamated Transit Union.” It appears that the grant referred to is an American Apprenticeship Initiative grant; the project is described on the ITLC’s website. An online search for the phrase “National Public Transportation Partnership for Apprenticeship,” at the time of this Guidebook’s publication, brings up references to the grant—not a final product under the same title. It appears that this funded project may have transitioned into ITLC’s National Training Standards effort and the related Transit Training Network.

In Building an Apprenticeship and Training System for Maintenance Occupations in the American Transit Industry, published in 2009, a “National Joint Steering Committee for Transit Apprenticeship” is referenced. “In conjunction with this work, the industry has formed a National Joint Steering Committee for Transit Apprenticeship to coordinate the development of national apprenticeship standards in the industry. With equal representation from labor and management, the members of this ten-person committee come from some of the most successful joint apprenticeship programs in North America: AC Transit, Chicago Transit, Sacramento Regional Transit and San Diego Transit and Trolley in California, SEPTA, TriMet, Utah Transit, Washington Metro in the District of Columbia, as well as Calgary Transit in Alberta, Canada. This work is supported by national leaders in labor, management, the non-profit sector, and the US Department of Labor.”

The report goes further to explain that “In spring 2007, the first meeting of this group was held in Nashville, Tennessee in conjunction with the American Public Transportation Association’s National Bus and Paratransit Conference. During the meeting, members discussed the benefits of a federally registered national system of apprenticeship for transit maintenance and briefly surveyed the difficulties involved in moving towards standardization in such a heterogeneous industry. Following this meeting, committee members began collaborating on a draft version of a national apprenticeship standards document. Members of the committee agreed that the central goal of this collaboration should be to create a national system of standards that is: (1) mutually beneficial to labor, management, and the industry as a whole; (2) capable of embracing diverse practices in the industry; and (3) oriented towards encouraging continued improvements in training. The group plans to meet two to three times a year until it can resolve these issues.” An online search for the phrase “National Joint Steering Committee for Transit Apprenticeship,” at the time of this Guidebook’s publication, primarily brings up the 2009 report (along with an ITLC report from the same timeframe) with no links to current updates for 2022.

5.5.5 Advocate for a reciprocal registration/certification system for transit industry apprenticeships across the US.

As more and more apprenticeship programs are developed in the transit industry, consideration should be given to transit industry workers who would like to have job flexibility across states and transit agencies. Currently, it can be difficult to plot such moves, since apprenticeship certificates are generally not accepted at agencies that were not a part of the program. Frontline employees who have earned apprenticeship certificates should also be able to build a more mobile career; currently, that is limited. This next step relates to next step 5.5.4; the two could be combined into a connected effort.

5.5.6 Avoid problems documented from past failed apprenticeship programs.

In Building an Apprenticeship and Training System for Maintenance Occupations in the American Transit Industry, it is stated that “Transit apprenticeships must also address the problem of sustainability. While there are several long-standing and well-established apprenticeship programs in the industry, many have been short-lived. The exact reasons for such failures are varied and often have as much to do with external factors as with the quality of the program. In many cases, failure can be traced back to a shortfall in funding or a breakdown in the labor-management relationship at the local level… One standard already emerging in the transit industry is that labor and management must each help build — and then respect — a “wall of separation” between training or apprenticeship programs and the broader context of labor-management relations. A national framework spelling out expectations for the industry as a whole, developed through labor-management consensus, should help move local practice over time in a more stable, practicable direction.”