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The Source for Public Transportation News and Analysis March 21, 2014
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Meet Desmond Cole!

Desmond Cole
Senior Project Engineer
Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (SEPTA)
Philadelphia, PA
Member, Leadership APTA Class of 2010, Human Resources and Research and Technology committees, Diversity Council

How many people are employed at your agency?
SEPTA has over 9,000 employees. It’s one of the region’s largest employers.

How long have you worked in the public transportation industry?
My career started 18 years ago when I joined SEPTA as a third-class bus mechanic, working in one of the authority’s oldest depots, affectionately called the “Hill.”

How long have you been an APTA member?
I have been an APTA member for five years, but I have known about APTA since 2000. When I was selected for Leadership APTA, I became even more impressed with the association’s programs and activities. I only wish I had known earlier about the information, resources, and tools at my fingertips.

What drew you to a career in public transportation?
I could say the “invisible hand” and leave it at that, but I will be remiss in not sharing some background. As a little boy, I would watch ships sail in on the Atlantic Ocean and then berth in the harbor. I would daydream of a career piloting ships around the world.

Little did I know then that my career path was already charted—mapped in my genes. My grandfather, father, and uncle all had ­lineages to the ­railway industry, and I inherited those genes too. After generations of public transportation footprints in my family, it was the career path I had to walk, regardless of my childhood dreams.

My career morphed into engineering, but it took some twists and turns from jobs as a gas station attendant, tire changer, to a gas and ­diesel mechanic, which I did while going to night school. Then I switched to taking day classes and working nights.

At my previous job, I was encouraged by a customer—a SEPTA employee—to apply as a diesel mechanic at the authority. The “invisible hand” at work! I say this because, although you plan for certain outcomes, some unexplained diversion alters that plan.

Subsequently, with the help of SEPTA’s tuition ­assistance program, I finished with a BS in engineering and an MBA in business management. The railway, its sights, and its sounds are at the core of my very being. It’s no surprise I ended up in rail engineering.

What have you found to be the most valuable APTA benefit? Which one helps you do your job? Please explain how.
Leadership APTA! Not only has the program given me access to the world of APTA and public transportation, but also to the resources and connections to effectively do my job. The program name has given me access to alumni, transit executives, and other professionals. When you make a call, you can count on a pickup on the other end by mentioning Leadership APTA. Through the program, I became an active member in other ways too. Currently, I am a panelist on a few research panels with TCRP.

What do you like most about your job?
I love my jobs as rail and bus engineer. I have had the enviable and unique opportunity to work in all our operations’ engineering departments: bus, rail, and the New Vehicles Program Rail unit, my current “home.”

What I like most are the tangible results. I like the feeling of accomplishment and pride when I have solved a problem that keeps our vehicles in service or saves the authority thousands, if not millions, of dollars. I get a sense of gratification knowing that I made a contribution to the collective good of SEPTA and society. That’s what I like most about my job.

What is unique about your agency? What would readers be surprised to learn?
Like most large transit agencies, our purpose is to move people from point A to point B safely and within schedules. SEPTA, on the other hand, has taken this a step or two further in the customer service area.

Under our general manager, Joe Casey, our focus is listening, engaging, and responding to customers. He has done this through the creation of a customer service department, ambassador programs during special events, Thanksgiving dinner for senior citizens, and employee recognition programs that reward staff for exceptional customer service.

I think readers will be surprised to learn about the general manager’s program, which involves an employee shadowing him for a day, and the deputy general manager’s program, where he shadows an employee for a day. Those programs are part of SEPTA’s customer service initiatives in Building a SEPTA Customer Service Culture (BASCSC). Both programs provide a connection between executives and employees. Who knows? One of those lucky employees might just walk in their shoes someday!

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