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Transit Agencies Must Replace Thousands of Maintenance Workers

Transit agencies are facing overlapping crises, including a shortage of maintenance workers. They’ll need new recruiting and training regimens to hire more workers and transition to zero-emission fleets, per a new report.

A person boarding the No. 91 Maryland Transit Administration bus at the Mondawmin Transit Center in Baltimore.
Boarding a bus in Baltimore. Transit agencies face a severe shortage of maintenance workers at a time when revenues are down due to declining ridership.
(Kim Hairston/TNS)
In Brief:
  • The public transit industry employs 430,000 workers and anticipates thousands of job openings for mechanics over the next decade, according to a report from TransitCenter.

  • The industry should build on successful partnerships between agencies, labor unions and high schools and colleges to recruit a more diverse maintenance workforce, the report says.

  • Agencies need to plan proactively for workforce needs. They will require funding for workforce development from the feds and states, TransitCenter concludes.

  • The Central Ohio Transit Authority, which runs bus service in and around the state capital in Columbus, offers paid internships to area high school students who are interested in becoming mechanics. Interns earn $12 an hour while learning the rudiments of bus maintenance and inspection from experienced workers in the authority’s vehicle maintenance department. In the last few years, about half of the interns who’ve completed the program have been hired to work with the authority full time.

    Many more such partnerships will be needed if the transit industry is going to overcome a deep shortage of maintenance workers, according to a new report from the New York-based advocacy group TransitCenter.

    The report, Developing Transit Talent Pipelines, is the last in a series that has examined workforce challenges in the industry over the last several years. An earlier report explored the shortage of vehicle operators, which started before the COVID-19 pandemic but was accelerated by it (and which has complicated agencies’ schedules and service-expansion plans for years). Another report probed human resources practices in the transit industry that make it more difficult for agencies to hire and retain workers.

    The labor shortage has been spurred by a wave of retirements with no accompanying wave of young hires. And it has dovetailed with a dire fiscal crisis in many transit systems, driven partly by a loss of ridership during the pandemic. Agencies have begun to make some headway in filling vacant positions in recent months, says Chris Van Eyken, research director at TransitCenter and author of its latest report, but they have much more work to do to solve the challenge — and prevent it from making public transit’s woes much worse.

    “It’s unfortunate that this is coming at the worst possible time, because agencies are worried about the bottom line,” Van Eyken says.

    Maintenance Workers Needed

    Surveys have shown that around 13 percent of mechanic positions are vacant in the transit industry. Those vacancies often mean agencies can’t keep up with critical maintenance of their fleets and have led to service cuts in some places such as Seattle. The transit industry employs 430,000 people nationwide. Over the next decade, it’s anticipating thousands of vacancies for mechanics, mostly due to retirements.

    Transit agencies compete for workers with other public and private organizations that maintain large vehicle fleets. Mechanics, including electricians and other maintenance workers, can usually learn most of their necessary skills in general training programs that aren’t tied specifically to the transit industry.

    Additionally, transit agencies are working to decarbonize their fleets with new zero-emissions vehicles. The technology for powering electric buses is evolving quickly, which requires agencies to adapt training programs — along with new charging infrastructure and storage depots — for mechanics working on electric fleets.

    To attract and retain workers, including operators and maintenance workers, agencies need to offer competitive compensation and a good workplace culture, TransitCenter concludes. Agencies have made improvements on those fronts — offering pay bumps and signing bonuses to hire new workers during the pandemic — but those job-quality improvements have yet to solve the shortage on their own.

    “Transit agencies do need to do more work to get a grasp of what their workforce needs are,” Van Eyken says. “They need to have a supportive culture and appeal to a diverse workforce that will really help build them up for the future.”

    Recommendations for Agencies and Governments

    The report compiles recommendations for ways that transit agencies, governments, labor unions and philanthropic organizations can help fill current and future gaps in the transit industry’s maintenance workforce. All of its recommendations have been deployed with some degree of success in various places.

    For transit agencies, TransitCenter suggests developing apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, perhaps in partnership with labor unions and nearby schools, to build a pipeline of new maintenance workers. Agencies should also expand efforts to recruit from more diverse populations.

    Partly because of longstanding networks among generations of workers, bus and truck mechanics, as well as diesel fuel engine specialists, are overwhelmingly white and male. Women make up less than 2 percent of that workforce.

    Agencies could create partnerships with high schools, community colleges and trade schools, similar to a partnership between New York City Transit and the city’s Department of Education, to expose students to transit-industry skills while they complete other educational programs. And they should empower their HR departments to plan proactively for future workforce needs — including a transition plan for maintenance of new electric fleets, Van Eyken says. “If you’re acquiring [a zero-emission bus],” he says, “it’s not just buying a bus, but it’s who do you need to hire to support that bus and make sure it works well.”

    The report calls on the federal government to build capacity at the U.S. Department of Transportation to carefully administer funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act that are set aside for workforce training as part of grants for low-emission vehicles. State governments should provide funding for workforce training and development at transit agencies as well, while local governments “should empower and encourage local agencies to identify partnerships and work with nongovernmental organizations to provide workforce training for individuals interested in working in transit.” Philanthropic groups should support workforce training and technical assistance for local agencies and governments too, according to TransitCenter.

    Above all, transit agencies need to steadily improve job quality to make transit jobs attractive to young workers. They should take advantage of reported upticks in interest in vocational jobs among young people, and also the sense of public mission that transit can provide. And they should build diverse, inclusive, supportive work cultures that improve job quality.

    That’s something that’s often modeled in pre-apprenticeship programs organized by the Amalgamated Transit Union and transit agencies in California, Van Eyken says.

    Giving young workers opportunities to interact with more experienced mentors can expose them to the industry’s most appealing qualities. “It can feel really daunting when you make a mistake for the first time, forgetting that everyone’s made a bunch of mistakes in their career and you just need to talk it out with someone else,” he says. “There’s a culture of camaraderie that makes people want to stay.”

    Correction: This article was updated to reflect the scope of future job openings among transit mechanics.
    Jared Brey is a senior staff writer for Governing. He can be found on Twitter at @jaredbrey.
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