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Nuria Fernandez: We're Growing Our Own; VTA's Pioneer Apprenticeship Program

General Manager and Chief Executive Officer
Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority
San Jose, CA

There’s a tsunami headed our way in Silicon Valley, a silver tsunami. Up to 40 percent of our workforce in public transit is, or will soon be, eligible for retirement. But the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) isn’t taking that news calmly. We’re responding to it by “growing our own” replacements with a cutting edge apprenticeship program created through the partnership of management, labor, education and government support.

The program—called the Transit Apprenticeships for Professional Career Advancement (TAPCA)—is a collaboration among the Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265 (ATU), VTA and Mission College in Santa Clara, with support from the California Labor Federation and the California Apprenticeship Initiative of California Community Colleges.

This is a cutting-edge industry-based program connecting employers, labor unions and educational agencies to establish career pathways to good jobs in the public transit industry to fill the need for workers. Mission College is offering college credit for the apprenticeship program.

What started in 2008 with the “first in the nation” program to offer apprenticeships for coach operators and mechanics is now expanding to add multiple disciplines needed to fill critical jobs in the authority. ATU Local 265 initially created the program to help fill a void expected by the so-called “silver tsunami,” a wave of retirement-eligible workers expected to leave the industry over the next five to 10 years.

Here’s what ATU President and Business Agent Diane Hermone had to say about the alliance: “If we can take ownership of our own work, we become part of the solution in helping public transit successfully meet the needs of the ­riding public. VTA is our employer. If VTA doesn’t succeed, we don’t succeed.”

We knew we couldn’t just wait around for people to apply for these jobs, we had to go out and find them and train them and set them on a path to leadership in the transportation industry. So VTA has expanded the program to “grow our own” by adding new technical training programs for overhead line and track workers this past summer, with plans to add light rail operator apprenticeships next year.

The very successful labor-management partnership is a model for other agencies in the state and around the nation facing the same labor pressures and looking to VTA for help in starting similar programs at their own agencies. We’re now fielding calls from the likes of Los Angeles Metro and other agencies around the country who want to follow in our footsteps to self-reliantly create the employees they’ll need for the future.

Apprenticeship programs are receiving national attention for the unique opportunities they provide working people. The “earn-while-you-learn” model provides an attainable path for workers looking to gain skills and a solid career with wages that can sustain a family.

The Program in Action
Coach operator apprentice Deniese ­Alejandro joined the program a year ago after losing a 25-year job at a Silicon ­Valley auto assembly plant.

“I had zero when I left the auto plant,” said Alejandro. “I didn’t know how I was going to make my house payment, and then I got into this program with benefits and a salary. It’s a godsend.”

Art Pulaski, executive secretary treasurer of the California Labor Federation, which offered support for the program early on, praised the unique partnership for this program between VTA and ATU.

“Creating these apprenticeships ­demonstrates how ‘high-road partnerships’ work because they involve the two stakeholders most invested in the long periods of planning, development and sustainability—labor and management,” he said.

Daniel Peck, president of Mission College, expressed his enthusiasm for the success of this program. “Our role as educators is to prepare the next generation of workers. We are so proud to see this program come together for the vision of our community.”

And, of course, VTA benefits by ­gaining well-trained employees ready to work their way into leadership positions in the transportation industry.

Fernandez is a member of the APTA Executive Committee and several other committees.

"Commentary" features points of view from various sources to enhance readers' broad awareness of themes that affect public transportation.

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