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ATU setting the standard for transit apprenticeships

ATU has been a leader in working with the Transportation Learning Center (TLC) to develop innovative transit apprenticeship programs for coach operators to prepare for the challenges our members face on the job day in and day out.

As part of the joint effort to promote registered apprenticeship as the go-to answer for transit workforce development, ATU Locals, transit agencies from across the U.S., and TLC staff attended a spirited meeting of the TLC’s Transit Coach Operator Apprenticeship Committee, hosted by Local 1005-Minneapolis/St. Paul, MN, and Metro Transit. 

TLC is a national organization that focuses on the front-line workforce in public transportation and transportation in general.  It is the only organization funded by the Federal Transit Administration, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the Transit Cooperative Research Program to develop and support technical training partnerships for today’s and tomorrow’s front-line workforce. ATU is a long-time supporter and advocate for the TLC’s programs and partnerships.

The Transit Coach Operator Apprenticeship Committee, formed in January 2016 to advance jointly developed apprenticeship programs, is composed of 22 members drawn from transit union locals and their management counterparts.

Over the four-day training, transit agency officials and ATU local officers joined Center staff to provide updates on existing and developing apprenticeship programs. The agenda included discussions on the benefits of registered apprenticeships, including those for returning veterans, and the labor/management relationships essential for implementing effective programs. 

Metro Transit recently became the second transit agency in the nation to implement a registered coach operator apprenticeship program. Efforts to achieve this were guided by the earlier successes of ATU Local 265-San Jose, CA, and the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority of San Jose (see story on page 16).

Former Local 265 member Tom Fink, now retired and working for the Center, initiated the program to address long-standing needs to improve training and increase the retention rate of new drivers. Relying on his expertise as a 25-year coach operator and ATU officer, and his relationships with VTA management, Brother Fink spearheaded the development of a joint labor-management partnership to address the workplace  operational issues confronting his members and the industry.

Traditionally, bus driver training has focused on the safe operation of the vehicle, with less attention paid to enhancing and valuing drivers day-to-day relationships with passengers. Yet it is these interactions and issues which more often than not elevate a driver’s stress, lead to related health problems; and undermine their commitment to the job.  The ATU has found that the best way to address these gaps in training is through union-initiated and jointly-sponsored mentorship and apprenticeship programs.

The success of ATU Local 265’s program with VTA bears this out. Their mentoring and apprenticeship program was built on the basis of three core principles. It was worker-centered, community-oriented and reflective of industry needs and standards. The programs in both San Jose and Minneapolis/St. Paul were designed around these principles.

While the September 2018 conference was in session, Local 1005 and Metro launched their first class of trainees, who attended the opening program and introduced themselves. In addition, some 30 coach operator mentors, who recently trained with  the TLC curriculum, participated in several of the sessions. 

As with San Jose, the Transit Coach Operator Apprenticeship Programs in Minneapolis/St. Paul are examples of a larger effort aimed at “registered apprenticeships taking hold within  the transit sector to address looming workforce development needs.”

ATU International President Larry Hanley, chair of the TLC’s Board of Directors, has long championed the Center and its joint labor/management approach to meeting the industry’s hiring needs. “I am very encouraged to see that Local 1005 and Metro have developed and started to implement an apprenticeship for coach operators. ATU International remains committed to supporting the expansion of apprenticeships to help build the skills and career opportunities of our members,” Hanley said. “Good training and career ladders give us another tool for reaching out to the communities we serve.”

Mentors provide critical street survival skills

Formal mentoring focuses on critical “street survival skills” and dealing with the daily stresses involving passengers, traffic, and the occasional disruptions both on and off the bus. These skills are key to reducing the rising attrition rate among new hires. And it works!

In San Jose as well as in Minneapolis/St. Paul, mentors become sounding boards for new hires as they become familiar with the rigors of the new job. The mentors are there to listen and help the new drivers learn the coping skills essential to ensuring a quality service. The new San Jose program was so effective that, since it started, 100 percent of new drivers were still working eighteen months after starting. Customer service complaints were down, absenteeism was cut, and job satisfaction rose.

ATU Locals developing apprenticeships for other transit jobs

While the transit coach operator committee was meeting in Minneapolis/St. Paul, Local 1287-Kansas City, MO, was finalizing an apprenticeship program for bus mechanics at KCATA. Local 1287 participates in a national joint labor-management committee to advance bus maintenance apprenticeships according to established U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) guidelines. Subject matter experts (SMEs) from 18 agencies have developed a comprehensive bus maintenance apprenticeship framework, approved by the DOL, that agencies can use to establish a 3-year registered apprenticeship. Like all DOL-sponsored apprenticeships, the program is designed with flexibility, allowing agencies to benefit from the national guidelines but tailoring them to address individual agency needs and resources. 

Local 757-Portland, OR, and Tri-Met established a registered apprenticeship program for signal maintainers. Local 268-Cleveland, OH, and the Greater Cleveland Regional Transit Authority (GCRTA) established registered apprenticeship programs for rail car technicians. Other locations are looking to replicate that.

Hiram Nix of Local 689-Washington, DC, helped lead an early effort to build transit apprenticeship at Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA). Hiram and his colleagues at WMATA maintain the largest array of vertical transportation equipment in the Western Hemisphere. Doing so requires hard work and a lot of skill. 

In 2009, WMATA and Local 689 joined forces with transit unions and management at three other agencies (BART, NYC Transit, and SEPTA) to address a growing skills shortage. With expert guidance from the TLC, they created a Consortium for Elevator-Escalator Maintenance Training. Skilled workers and frontline managers identified the essential skills, involved in very advanced digital technology. Instructional designers worked with them to develop classroom-ready training. By 2013, the DOL recognized a new national apprenticeship framework for transit elevator and escalator mechanics.

DOL stamp of approval

Achieving registered status recognizes apprenticeship training as meeting industry-adopted standards and assures that employees are adequately prepared for their many work responsibilities. DOL certification requires establishment of joint apprenticeship committees with equal labor and management voice in governing  local apprenticeships.

Registered apprenticeship programs can more easily access federal and state funding than stand alone training programs and can also more easily acquire approval for veterans to receive educational and other benefits under the G.I. Bill.

Transit apprenticeships key to addressing workforce shortage

Given the growing complexity of today’s transit systems, coupled with the growing shortage of skilled workers, transit has little choice but to train its own. Apprenticeships play a key role in solving an industry-wide workforce crisis brought on by a number of factors.

New technologies in the transit industry come at a time when a high percentage of senior technicians are nearing retirement age, and new hires are becoming increasingly scarce. That leaves agencies scrambling to meet service demands. Transit has the highest percentage of aging workers in the U.S. among all industries: 35% are over the age of 55. 

There are several steps needed to achieve registered apprenticeship status. First, top labor and management representatives from the agency must commit to the program. A joint apprenticeship committee (JAC) of SMEs is formed with equal representation to develop local standards that determine how the apprentice program is structured (i.e., apprentice and mentor selection process, work hours, wage progression, etc.) and the training program’s content (i.e., work process schedule, OJT and classroom coordination, etc.). The final step is to formally register with DOL and launch the program.

The TLC provides help with DOL registration, assist with developing the joint labor-management agreement and work process schedule, and provides onsite mentor training.  

There are many benefits to forming a registered-apprenticeship program. Union apprentices receive a technical education with little or no debt, have the potential to earn college credit, and are given a long-term career opportunity with increased wage potential. Agencies, meanwhile get assurances that the candidates that pass through their program are properly trained to adequately maintain the fleet.