Engaging Frontline Employees in Adopting New Transit Technologies Training Frontline Employees on New Transit Technologies

  • Date: April 13, 2023

3.1 Opening

In Building an Apprenticeship and Training System for Maintenance Occupations in the American Transit Industry, the following is explained, “Changing technologies are driving the need for advanced training, especially applications of information technology and intelligent transportation systems to transit – including advanced electronic communications for bus and train operations and automated processes for fare collection, passenger counts, vehicle location, and next-stop announcements. Digital electronics, computers and microprocessor-based systems are increasingly found in all aspects of transit… At the same time, dramatic demographic challenges are hitting the industry. Transit is facing a huge wave of retirements, which will bring significant losses of experienced mechanics.”

A primary employee engagement method transit agency management can use in order to retain current employees and attract new employees—and ultimately have more emotionally involved and committed staff—is through training activities of various types. For new transit technologies such as ZEBs, training is foundational to staff having even a basic understanding of the technology including how to incorporate it into their daily work and how to stay safe around it. In section 2.2, the strengths of the transit industry were explained as falling into four categories: job stability, career potential, job options, and impactful work. Training, as an engagement method, is directly or indirectly related to all four of these strengths.

  • Job stability – Training can feed into the total employment package offered to new employees and can expand over time for existing employees. Agency-funded training bolsters the plans that staff may have for internal promotions and other advancement opportunities; training is necessary, in particular, when new transit technologies are involved.
  • Career potential – Providing significant training opportunities such as apprenticeship programs on the topic of new transit technologies to staff can help them move from thinking of their role as a “job” to thinking of it as a career, at the same time providing them with a skill base from which they can better navigate their careers.
  • Job options – Agency-funded training for new transit technologies can help employees gain high-value skills enabling them to have a more flexible career, a reason why a worker may be attracted to working in the transit industry.
  • Impactful work – Providing agency-funded training that not only covers technical topics but also builds in concepts related to how impactful an employee’s work is can help ensure this important messaging—critical to employee engagement—is instilled in employees, reminding them how meaningful their work is and how much their contribution matters.

In section 2.3 “ways to engage employees,” three primary ways to engage employees were mentioned: establishing a shared vision and purpose, investing in individual employees, and tailoring engagement strategies to both current employees and potential new recruits. Training has a significant role to play in each.

  • In order to support “establishing a shared vision and purpose” (section 2.3.1), agency-funded training can provide an opportunity to make sure employees are familiar with core outcomes of new transit technologies such as a higher level of operational efficiency, improvements in customer service, and a reduction in environmental impact.
  • Training, as an employee engagement method, often plays an important role in “investing in individual employees” (section 2.3.2). As mentioned in that section, although there are many ways to invest in employees, training in particular is one of the most impactful ways.
  • As mentioned under “tailoring engagement strategies to both current employees and potential new recruits” (section 2.3.3), training can be used as a strategy for two points of view—the point of view of a current staff member as well as the point of view of a potential new recruit to the agency.
  • For the former, training can help expand their current role and future career path at the transit agency to incorporate new transit technologies, while for the latter, training is often their entry point to the transit agency—perhaps even the transit industry at large. As aforementioned, transit agencies should establish clear pathways into the agency for potential new recruits from Level 1 with its apprenticeship programs to Level 2 involving training for skill gaps and culminating in Level 3 with on-the-job training and mentorship—each level built around the four potential new recruit groups, matching their needs with the pathway.

While agency-funded training is commonly leveraged in order to ensure frontline employees gain the skills and knowledge they need fulfill the requirements of their current roles, training can be leveraged to accomplish much more than that for management and frontline employee relationships. Transit agencies, by positioning new transit technologies as a highly desired area of expertise at their agency through training, enable staff to achieve two ends with one move as training participants—a competitive advantage that is useful at the transit agency in the present as well as benefits to their career path in the future. Employees are aware that this advantage (i.e., advanced knowledge of new transit technologies) can help them compete in the marketplace as professionals seeking greater job satisfaction, financial stability, and career progression. They would likely be more engaged with employers that help bolster their long-term career prospects, as opposed to employers that appear to be looking out only for the transit agency’s interests.

Employee engagement is about more than making sure employees are emotionally invested in and committed to the transit agency they work for; it is also about making sure employees are engaged with their work in the transit industry and their careers more broadly. In this way, engagement works on a level that is internal—personal to the employee—but also external, supporting their relationship with their employer as well as their experiences with and perceptions of the transit industry more broadly. Knowing that they have a significant competitive advantage in their career due to their knowledge of and experience with new transit technologies helps their internal engagement; they know they are building a solid career in a growing area of knowledge. Transit technologies will change over the years as new technologies replace old ones, but the need to know about them and understand them deeply will only intensify over the years. Many frontline employees are well aware that their competency in this area will give them a significant advantage in their careers in the future, and the employers that support them on this path through agency-funded training are more likely to gain greater levels of commitment from them.

Based on the interviews mentioned in sections 1.3 and 1.4, four primary methods for training frontline staff were identified: (1) training through the original equipment manufacturer (OEM), (2) periodic training for existing staff, (3) on-the-job training and mentorship programs, and (4) apprenticeships. These methods are not mutually exclusive and may be combined for a particular training effort. The experience of IndyGo in Indianapolis, Indiana is referenced in detail in this chapter to give the reader context while providing an example to help illustrate the points being made.

3.2 Getting started with BEBs at IndyGo

IndyGo is one of the largest transit agencies in the Midwest using battery electric buses (BEB). In 2015, IndyGo began the process of incorporating BEBs into its fleet, receiving two Transit Investments for Greenhouse Gas and Energy Reduction (TIGGER) grants from the FTA that year to assist the effort. IndyGo purchased 21 40-foot buses, all of which were originally diesel-powered buses that were refurbished to become BEBs. Based on a 310-kwh battery, these vehicles have approximately 80 miles of range, meaning they can travel 80 miles without needing a full charge—although the agency had expected the vehicles to have closer to 130 miles of range. Due to this realization that the actual range was far lower than the anticipated range, it became clear to IndyGo that these vehicles would only be suited to specific purposes. Currently they are used for rush hour and peak times, purposes that allow for the vehicles to be returned quickly and recharged after shorter periods of use, in order to boost the number of available vehicles in the fleet. It took the agency approximately one year to know enough about the vehicles to begin actively using them in its fleet.

In 2018, IndyGo purchased 31 60-foot BEBs from BYD Co. Ltd., an original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of electric buses. These vehicles have 140-200 miles of range, depending on the weather, from a 640-kwh battery. In September 2019, IndyGo began using these BEBs on the 13-mile long “red” bus rapid transit (BRT) line, one of the first uses of BEBs on BRT routes in the US.

Currently, IndyGo is preparing to order 28 more BEBs from BYD, based on the original contract between IndyGo and BYD that allows for purchasing up to 75 buses in total over time at an agreed-upon price. IndyGo plans to allocate these buses to its “purple” BRT line.

Regarding getting its frontline workers ready for this transition, an IndyGo representative explained that ensuring the mechanics were prepared to repair the vehicles was the one of the greatest employee-related challenges. By 2016, the agency had approximately three mechanics on staff to support BEBs. These mechanics, who were already on staff at IndyGo prior to beginning their work with BEBs, had previously worked on fully diesel-powered buses as well as hybrid buses at IndyGo—their experience with hybrid buses provided them with a knowledge base for BEBs. During 2015-16, they were trained by the OEM to handle the maintenance needed on the BEB vehicles that the OEM had delivered to IndyGo. From there, IndyGo opened up approximately ten new mechanic positions; the staff who ended up filling those positions did not have prior BEB experience but were trained through a combination of efforts on the parts of both the OEM and mechanics at IndyGo with BEB skills.

IndyGo has faced additional notable challenges with BEBs due to how cold the local climate is in Indianapolis, Indiana. A representative from IndyGo explained that weather extremes in winter can lead to a 30 percent reduction in mileage range (i.e., the number of miles a vehicle can travel without being charged again). One of the specific reasons for this challenge is connected to the heating systems on the vehicles that keep the passengers and operators warm; they are reported to be the primary reason for draining the battery more quickly. IndyGo’s next round of BEBs, already ordered, will include diesel-powered heaters in the BEBs in order to reduce pressure on the electric battery and keep the maximum mileage range intact. In addition, they are putting in place other measures to boost the mileage range such as installing the infrastructure necessary for bus drivers to charge the buses while on break.

It is not only cold climates that face challenges with BEBs. In Transforming Transit, Realizing Opportunity: How battery-electric buses can benefit the environment, the economy, and public transit,[1] a report published by Jobs to Move America in 2019,[2] the following is mentioned, “With its combination of flat and hilly terrain, and demanding climatic conditions (coastal air that can corrode bus components and roadway temperatures that can reach 120 degrees), Los Angeles presents an array of challenges for bus performance. By driving the pilot project buses on some of their toughest routes, Metro staff learned a range of lessons about the capabilities of the pilot BEBs.”

3.3 Training through the original equipment manufacturer

Due to the fact that ZEB technologies are newer, rapidly-evolving technologies, the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) often knows the technology the best and, therefore, is often well positioned to communicate how it works to others. This means that OEMs may offer training as a part of the total package, in combination with the equipment, or that training may be purchased by a transit agency along with an equipment order.

Considerations to take into account related to this training approach are explained in FTA Report No. 0182, Transit Vehicle Innovation Deployment Centers (TVIDC) Advisory Panel Overview and Conclusions, published in 2021, “The continued deployment of ZEBs requires a workforce of transit operators, technicians, engineers, and planners who are trained in the sourcing, deployment, and management of vehicles and supporting infrastructure with considerably different operational characteristics from diesel and CNG (compressed natural gas) buses. Transit agencies currently rely on OEMs to provide high-level training for the operation and maintenance of the vehicles they sell. Whereas this training and technical support are critical to successful deployments, they are not designed to provide ongoing training after the initial introductory period, especially as new employees onboard. Moreover, this training lacks standardization across the industry, with varying approaches from OEM to OEM and no certification mechanism.”

As mentioned in section 3.2, IndyGo included training in its initial contract with an OEM in 2015. This enabled the agency to train the first three mechanics in BEB-related skills during 2015-16; these three mechanics, along with the OEM, assisted in training an additional ten mechanics on staff at IndyGo in BEB-related skills in subsequent years.

As noted by an IndyGo representative, all staff members who interact with the BEBs will need safety training. Vehicle mechanics who work with BEB technologies in the transit industry, often called “high voltage” technicians, have a great deal to learn such as about the specifics of BEB suspension systems and BEB computer-based diagnostics. Bus operators of BEBs require a lesser amount of BEB-focused training when compared with mechanics; an IndyGo representative noted that it is possible to incorporate BEB-related training topics into general bus operator training programs, for example. One of the main skills BEB operators need to learn involves braking. The technology behind BEBs involves the batteries recharging while the vehicle is in motion and during the braking process (called “regenerative braking”). It is important that operators brake early and slowly in order to allow the batteries to recharge. A BEB is at risk of a reduction in mileage range when an operator brakes suddenly, something that is not necessarily a problem for diesel-powered buses.

Initially in 2015-16, the OEM trained a set of bus operators at IndyGo on BEB-related skills. Once the agency had that knowledge base on staff, they then moved into planning and implementing “train the trainer” programs, enabling drivers more experienced in operating BEBs to train those with less experience. A representative of IndyGo mentioned that “train the trainer” programs can be very beneficial for training drivers on BEB technologies.

In the Transforming Transit, Realizing Opportunity report from 2019, the reader is cautioned against an overreliance on the OEM for BEB training purposes, “Maintenance workers at agencies that have started to use BEBs described challenges associated with BEB technology that maintenance staff are still in the early stages of learning. As of the writing of this report, most BEBs currently in use are still under warranty, therefore many agencies likely rely on OEMs for the lion’s share of maintenance service and technical assistance. Robust information does not yet exist on the degree to which adequate trainings are available to teach agency maintenance staff about servicing BEBs, however conversations with maintenance staff have made clear that transit maintenance workers have strong concerns that they will not receive the training that they need to take care of BEB fleets. Maintenance workers also worry that as BEB technology matures, the lower maintenance needs of BEBs will eventually put them out of their jobs.” A quote from Michael Terry, President and CEO of IndyGo, is provided in the report, explaining that transit agencies “shouldn’t be under the illusion that a manufacturer’s warranty is going to provide full, deep, rigorous protection.” Terry stressed the importance of having highly-skilled staff at the transit agency who know how to diagnose BEB problems and can track the fleet’s performance.

3.4 Periodic training for existing staff

Transit agency employees are often trained periodically on a variety of topics to ensure that their skills and knowledge are kept up-to-date. In some cases, agencies have incorporated training on new technologies within their own structure of periodic training. Although these training events may not be led by the OEM, the curriculum may be based on content provided by the OEM at other BEB training events. The curriculum may be also be based on the internal learning process of a transit agency, with lessons learned extracted from the “research and development” process that agencies themselves often undertake when they commit to becoming early adopters of new technology.

IndyGo’s training process, deployed during the early stages of getting set up with BEBs, is typical. The training provided by the OEM was relied upon in the earliest stage to achieve two objectives: training the first set of staff members who would work with the new technology and leveraging the OEM training content and guidance for future training events for additional staff. Once IndyGo had a base of content and guidance, they could combine that with the agency’s experience and develop their own customized training materials in the later stages. Such training materials (i.e., curricula) can then be used for various efforts such as train-the-trainer programs, mentorship programs, and as a part of periodic training for staff (which may be broader in scope than ZEB technology topics). Gradually, an agency can establish their own curricula in order to support all their staff members internally—through targeted and diverse educational activities—as they learn more about ZEB technologies.

3.5 On-the-job training and mentorship programs

On-the-job training and mentorship programs and are often used to connect skills-based learning with experiential learning, both key processes in gaining and applying new knowledge. While on-the-job training may involve a staff member riding along with a bus operator during their first few rides in a ZEB, for example, mentorship would typically be an ongoing process with periodic check-ins between mentor and mentee. Mentorship programs help add in a social aspect to transit roles, which is especially important for roles that can be isolating such as bus operation. Mentorship programs help avoid a feeling among employees that they are on their own and can also help with the overall effort of transitioning from skills-based learning to experiential learning; mentorship programs often last far beyond when a formal on-the-job training period would end.

In addition to classroom training, the mechanics at IndyGo benefitted from significant on-the-job training in order to gain hands-on experience with BEB technologies. A representative from the ATU explained how important the transit industry has found mentorship to be. A training process for a bus operator, for instance, that lacks significant on-the-job training can run the risk of putting them out on the road with passengers too soon—contributing to employee disengagement or even quitting. Operators deal with a wide variety of street sizes, intersection types, and traffic conditions, and learning how to navigate an entire transit district with all its conditions involves a steep learning curve. In addition, having bus passengers on board introduces several challenges from dealing with disgruntled or unruly passengers to accepting different forms of payment, to name a few. An operator’s day-to-day work comes with unique challenges such as sitting for prolonged periods of time and needing to stay off of devices/being out of communication with family and friends for long periods of time for safety reasons.

The stresses of being a bus operator are best shared with other, more experienced operators in the form of mentorship. Mentorship provides new bus operators with an outlet to discuss and sort through the physical and psychological challenges of the role with more experienced operators who can provide perspective. In the 2018 report, Equity from the Frontline, Armando Barbosa, a coach operator apprenticeship graduate and employee of VTA, explained why having a mentor was critical for his development as a staff member, “My mentor drove the bus on my first day. It helped with the stress because I had the opportunity to ask questions and see how it should be done. Each situation is different from the next. I was very worried about crashing the bus for the first six months. The mentors were always there if you are ready to accept help.”

3.6 Apprenticeships

Training though apprenticeships is covered in detail in Chapter 4, but is briefly mentioned in this section to bring some of the topics of the previous sections together and explain the importance of having apprenticeship programs, especially those that enable frontline staff to specialize in new transit technologies. If 1) training through the original equipment manufacturer, 2) periodic training for existing staff, and 3) on-the-job training and mentorship programs are the only training methods applied, a transit agency will have very limited ability to attract new employees. As mentioned in section 2.3.3, there are four general types of potential new recruits to a transit agency:

  • Group 1: New to the transit industry and just leaving high school (or potentially with some trade school/community college/university experience)
  • Group 2: New to the transit industry with some/significant work experience in another industry, but without skills highly valuable to the transit industry
  • Group 3: New to the transit industry with some/significant work experience in another industry with skills highly valuable to the transit industry
  • Group 4: Previously working in the transit industry for another agency

The pathways into the transit agency, also described in section 2.3.3, build on each other from level 1 with its apprenticeship programs to level 2 involving training to address skill gaps and level 3 with on-the-job training and mentorship. While all three levels would likely need to be completed by groups 1 and 2, group 3 would typically begin at a more advanced place in level 2, and group 4 (the most advanced group) would commonly begin with level 3.

If apprenticeship programs are not available in support of new transit technologies, then a transit agency would have difficulty attracting members of groups 1 and 2 who want to specialize in new transit technologies—those new to the transit industry and just leaving high school/trade school/community college (beginning their careers) or those new to the transit industry with some/significant work experience in another industry, but without skills that are highly valuable to the transit industry. Cutting these groups off, group 1 in particular, would result in a major gap in the talent pipeline—not only for individual transit agencies but for the transit industry as a whole. The transit industry and its agencies would be missing a vital piece of the workforce development puzzle—younger workers beginning their careers—just as the anticipated rates of retirement threaten the workforce stability of the transit industry and new transit technologies become a commonplace knowledge requirement for the transit workforce.

A representative from IndyGo explained that apprenticeships are the best way to train new mechanics on BEB technologies; in addition, incorporating apprenticeships for new transit technologies into an agency may also contribute to needing new job classifications. In order to address the fact that IndyGo’s BEB mechanics will be spending a portion of their time in the classroom (staff new to BEB), a portion in on-the-job training (staff needing hands-on experience with BEB), and a portion working day-to-day in the repair shop (experienced BEB staff), IndyGo has opened up a new job classification for its BEB mechanics that better reflects this breakdown as compared with mechanics focused primarily on diesel-powered buses. BEB mechanics are also more likely to be required to work on emergency needs with little notice, often to address new issues with the technology that come up suddenly, and the BEB mechanic positions are built around the kind of flexibility often required of these mechanics. Having a specific job classification in place makes IndyGo better able to balance the demands of BEB technologies such as requiring a certain percentage of the mechanics, at least at the present time, to be in the classroom and not in the repair shop.

IndyGo is currently working on an apprenticeship program, consisting of both classroom and on-the-job components to ensure apprentices gain both academic and hands-on experience, in order to train new BEB mechanics. IndyGo plans to employ a manager for this program and partner with Ivy Tech Community College in Indianapolis, Indiana.

3.7 Lessons Learned by IndyGo

Some of the lessons learned by IndyGo as they rolled-out BEB technologies include:

  • Involve frontline staff – Frontline staff should be involved early on when decisions impacting their work, such as the agency transitioning into ZEBs, are made. This enables them to be prepared for upcoming changes, such as needing to learn about new technologies that alter their daily work flows.
  • Prepare to train mechanics – The mechanics (also called technicians or engineers) of a transit agency, in particular, need to be involved early in the decision-making and roll-out processes for ZEB technologies. The ability of the agency to repair the vehicles, address unforeseen issues, and test the vehicles (for mileage range and other factors) largely depends on the skills of the mechanics; significant delays in vehicle usage can occur if they are not involved. Ideally, mechanics and other staff members would be trained on the vehicle technologies prior to them being delivered, so that the timelines align (i.e., by the time the agency has the buses, it also has mechanics who know how to work with them).
  • Leverage staff experience with hybrid vehicles when possible – As was noted by representatives of the ATU and IndyGo, mechanics who have worked at a transit agency that uses hybrid buses, buses that have both an internal combustion engine powered by diesel and an electric motor powered by battery-stored energy, prior to using ZEBs are much better prepared for an agency’s transition into using ZEB vehicles. Through their experience with hybrid buses, they have developed a knowledge base of ZEB-related technologies. IndyGo, for example, already had 12 hybrid buses in use in 2015, along with mechanics who knew how to work with them, when they made their first purchase of BEBs.
  • Plan for appropriate organizational structures – Transit agency management should consider the organizational structures that may need to be put into place to support rolling out new technologies such as ZEBs. IndyGo realized, for example, that they would need not only frontline staff but also a supervisor with BEB expertise to help lead the roll-out of the new technology.
  • Test a single vehicle first – It is better to test a single vehicle to make sure it fits the agency’s needs, as opposed to placing a large order without agency testing, since the agency may find out later that they’ve committed to vehicles that don’t meet the requirements.
  • Execute contracts that enable future purchases – It may be ideal for transit agencies to have contracts with OEMs that allow for an agency to purchase additional buses in the future with clear terms. This allows for a more seamless pipeline of vehicles, since the price is known and the board of the transit agency and other stakeholders would not need to approve the terms of additional contracts.
  • Obtain the longest warranty possible – The longer the ZEB warranty period, the better. This is always helpful in general, but even more so with newer technologies that may not function in the ways a transit agency anticipated.
  • Include training packages in contracts – Many transit agencies rely on the OEM, at least in the early stages, to train their staff on the new technology. Transit agencies will benefit from understanding in depth what types of training are needed so that these details are included in the purchase package; there may be some financial savings when the training is bundled with the vehicle purchase. A 2021 International Transportation Learning Center (ITLC) resource, Providing Training for Zero Emission Buses: Recommended Expanded RFP Language, provides related guidance on this topic.[1]
  • Understand operational implications in depth – The TCRP Research Report 219: Guidebook for Deploying Zero-Emission Transit Buses is a helpful primer on the operations that take place in support of ZEB technologies, such as the way that charging/refueling infrastructure works, the importance of working with local utilities in order to plan for energy use, and ensuring that first responders are briefed on the types of emergency events that could occur with the new technologies.
  • Make sure that operational needs and employee needs are aligned – It became clear through the interviews with IndyGo and the ATU that the sheer complexity of ZEB technologies leads to many issues that come up which are not necessarily directly related to employees, but impact them nonetheless and change the flow of their daily work. For example, having bus operators charge BEBs while on break, in order to maximize the mileage range, changes where they can take breaks. The break locations, break timing, and charging infrastructure must be thought out in detail to enable all the pieces to work together. Where the BEBs are parked at night requires even more consideration, so that the vehicles can reach full charge. A representative of IndyGo noted that all of these nuanced issues require more ongoing communication among staff than was previously required. The scheduling of shifts and breaks must be very precise, and all staff members must understand how the parts of the system work together.