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As Transit Workforce Ages, Internships Bring in New Blood

As up to half of the public transit workforce may become eligible to retire in the next three to five years, agencies need to establish educational programs and internships to ensure retirees don’t take their institutional knowledge with them before transferring it to other employees.

Jesus (Jess) Guerra, director, Transportation Workforce Institute, Los Angeles Trade Technical College, made that point as moderator of a session on “Internships, Partnerships, Innovative Approaches.”

Two speakers reported on the educational efforts underway at their agencies. Ona Pradham, manager-light rail training division, for Metro Transit in Minneapolis-St. Paul, described the MTT [Metro Transit Technician] LRT Internship program, designed not only to conserve the knowledge of older employees but also to increase system employment.

“At Metro Transit, we have 122 light rail operators and 85 mechanics, many of whom are near retirement age,” she said. “We know we need to focus on our workforce. The first issue is how we can find people with the ability and the desire to work for us.”

Participants in the three-year MTT program, being operated by the agency on a pilot basis in partnership with ­Hennepin Technical College and a regional workforce readiness program, receive salaries during the course period and graduate with a degree—the first light rail technician degree being offered in the U.S.

From left: Ona Pradham, moderator Jesus (Jess) Guerra and Wulf Grote.

Pradham noted that 400 people applied for the first class of the program and 25 were admitted; only seven have continued into the final year, she said, because participants are attending classes full-time while also working for the agency. “We see people committed to the process after this much time,” she said, adding that Metro Transit will hire students as full-time mechanics following graduation.

Wulf Grote, director, capital and service development, at Valley Metro in Phoenix, called internships “a two-way partnership” in that both students and agency employees have to commit to the program.

In the early 2000s, he said, the agency was having trouble finding people who were both interested in light rail planning and design and qualified to work in the field. The program began in 2010 as an unpaid summer internship; interns are now paid and many past interns are now Valley Metro employees.

The agency partners with Arizona State University, where interns attend classes full-time and work part-time over a 12-month period. “These students get credit, experience, networking and income,” Grote said. “They develop skills, build their confidence and gain knowledge,” including rotations into several different divisions.

“It’s been a great program for us and we will continue with it,” he said, adding that public transit consulting firms have also hired the interns following graduation.
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