Solving the operator ‘shortage’ by not running transit like a business

In my second dating app message to my now partner I shared a link to this New York Times article. I was responding to the question, “what are you doing today?”, and I said reading this article and thinking about how it applies to the public sector. The article compares the career path of a Kodak employee, who started in the 1980s as a janitor and become CTO, to a person who works now as a subcontractor janitor at Apple without employee benefits or promotional opportunities, to illustrate how changes in corporate practices contributed to income inequality. Lucky for me, we are still talking about the article together!

Right now I am thinking about it in the context of the current crisis in the public transit sector to hire enough frontline employees, especially bus operators, which is causing service reductions across the country. The problem of not enough bus operators existed before the pandemic, but as you can imagine the risk of COVID and increasing operator assaults makes the job even less attractive. There are many possible other factors like increasing opportunities as delivery drivers who don’t need to interact with passengers. (I also heard a theory about the impact of federally required random drug testing for transit employees.) I think to solve the problem holistically, we need to understand the changes in the US economy illustrated by the NYT article and implement long-term solutions that reverse these trends.  

Stories like Gail Evans’s rise at Kodak were always rare, but these stories were the exceptions that held up the dream of the US economy as a meritocracy. At this point they are almost non-existent in large private sector firms, but it is still possible in a public transit agency for someone to start at the frontlines (e.g. bus operator) and work their way to the top. In the past the MBTA had bus operators become General Manager. The current head of  King County Metro Terry White started at the agency as a telephone operator. At the MBTA I saw the immense value of working with people who had started at all levels of the agency and the knowledge they brought to the team.

The public sector in the U.S., which maintained higher unionization rates than the private sector, has historically served as a pathway to the middle class, especially for Black Americans. But throughout my lifetime (I was 1 when President Reagan fired the air traffic controllers) there has been increasing pressure on public sector unions and attempts to maintain/lower public sector costs in order to maintain/lower tax rates. It is commonplace to hear politicians and business leaders alike say that we should run government like a business.

During my time at the MBTA, mostly between 2015 and 2018, I got to see running government like a business in practice. There was a concerted effort to lower the cost curve by using strategies from the private sector that limit upward economic mobility. The most visible efforts were the attempts to outsource some internal jobs.  Outsourcing was successful for cash collection jobs, customer service agents (now the red jacket ambassadors), and warehousing. And attempts to contract out some bus operations and bus maintenance jobs were used as leverage in union negotiations, including the 2016 ATU contract that lowered starting wages for bus operators in exchange for not outsourcing.

As in the example at Apple, outsourcing meant that, along with any lower wages or benefits, workers in the outsourced positions likely have a limited career pathway with the private employer. Previously, an employee could have worked as a customer service agent during a long career at the MBTA, but today, being a T Ambassador is less likely to be a stepping stone in a career than a short stint in a string of low-wage jobs.

A less externally visible private sector practice in this time period was hiring more executives who were generalists (experts in management), instead of hiring experts in transit operations or training existing workers in management skills. To try to understand my new colleagues I did a lot of reading about the rise of the MBA. Most of it connected changing management strategies in the private sector to the shift from an economy based on producing things to consuming things (a financial and service sector economy). I found fewer resources on the impact/extent of MBA management in the public sector. (If you know of sources, please share them!)

I suspect that the desire to have ‘professional’ managers is, at least in part, to create an experience barrier between executives and workers under the theory that someone who worked their way up would be less inclined to cut costs in ways that impact the people following behind them. Regardless of the motivation, the impact is a limit on the upward career mobility of the workforce and decrease in the incentives to invest in their professional development. In transit agencies like the MBTA this increases the demographic divide between the frontline workforce, which is predominantly people of color, and management, which is significantly white.   

Riding a bus in 2017 I had a conversation with an MBTA bus operator who spoke pointedly about the operations and management divide. After seeing my employee badge, he opened up about how he had been at the T for 17 years and it used to be that someone could work their way up from bus operator to GM, but he couldn’t imagine it happening now. It felt like there was an increasing divide between operations where most managers had worked their way up and the executive team where most people didn’t know the business.  

Part of the larger economic shift illustrated in the Kodak and Apple story is the decreasing amount of time that people expect to stay with an employer. People stay longer in public sector jobs and I suspect it is partially due to availability of retirement and pension plans. I believe that if the pension disappeared tomorrow, the MBTA would lose even more talent and would have a bigger operator shortage. However, it isn’t a sign of a healthy, robust workplace if people are mostly staying for the pension.

With the pension, even with a lower starting wage, the MBTA is a better employment choice than driving for a private company if you plan to stay for 25 years. But I wonder how much that factors into people’s employment decision-making right now, especially if a transit agency doesn’t seem like a place you want to stay for a career. (I am not an expert on pension financing, but it is worth noting that at the MBTA, executives are given a choice between joining the pension or a retirement plan where you are fully vested in 5 years; but non-executive workers don’t have the retirement plan option.)

Another pivotal change in the post-1970’s U.S. economy was a shifting of the burden of job training from companies to individuals through higher education, which is increasingly financed by personal debt. With the drop in accessible pathways to secure middle-class jobs in the private sector came a marked increase in people from working class families attending post-secondary schools with aim to receive training and credentials that would allow them to access jobs with greater potential for economic advancement and stability. Not only did this shift create an epidemic of education debt, it under-emphasized the value of technical trade jobs leaving a shortfall in the workforce needed in the infrastructure sector in the US as the existing workforce retires.

The NYT article ends with the observation that in the 21st-century economy the reality for most workers is: “Rather than being treated as assets that companies seek to invest in, they have become costs to be minimized.” The Great Resignation brought on by the pandemic should be a clear sign that this economy is untenable. Public transit agencies should be in a good position to attract job seekers since they have the foundation for career pathways, benefit packages, and on-the-job training programs. Instead of borrowing a cost-cutting mentality from the private sector, they need to invest in their workforce. These investments need to be in long-term structural and culture changes, in addition to short-term measures like wage increases, work rule changes, and addressing immediate safety concerns.

The investment needs to start in K-12 education with curriculum about infrastructure careers and pathways through technical training as well as higher education. Infrastructure is literally community building and the rewards of a career in a public transit agency can be mixed into learning about civic participation, climate science, and technical skill building. Introducing Youth to America’s Infrastructure is developing and piloting curriculum as a model.     

Transit agencies need to invest in professional development at all levels so that not only is it possible, but it is a goal that people starting on the frontline reach management levels. Making transit agencies a place where everyone can advance (and want to stay for a career) also requires addressing underlying racism, sexism and toxic workplace cultures so they are healthy and safe places to work. I am encouraged by VTA’s actions after a workplace shooting earlier this year, King County’s equity and social justice workforce goals and SFMTA’s racial equity plan. And I know other agencies around the country are creating internal equity teams to do this hard culture changing work.  

Yes, these investments will require additional public resources for public services like transit. But these people focused investments outweigh the costs when we measure all the benefits. In addition to quality and reliable public services, pathways to economic mobility and equitable and inclusive public sector workplaces help address income and racial inequality in the US.

2 responses to “Solving the operator ‘shortage’ by not running transit like a business”

  1. JimT says :

    These agencies need more half-time skilled or professional jobs for peak service drivers. Drive the bus from 5 to 9:30, and then do a day job from 10 to 2:30 or so, and let someone else do the evening rush hour.

    • asmerrimac says :

      The MBTA used to have “swing days”, full time days split in half Morning & afternoon rush hours. They eliminated them with the use of part timers who did the smae shift with less hour & didn’t get paid for the time in the middle.

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