Developing the Next Generation of Transit Leaders (Goal 7)

April 29, 2011

SEPTA is committed to building Greater Philadelphia's next generation of transit leadership. With a workforce of more than 9,000 employees, SEPTA is one of the largest employers in Greater Philadelphia. SEPTA's size, coupled with the specialized skill-sets required of many positions, demands proactive planning to ensure that SEPTA adequately recruits, trains, and retains a crop of skilled professionals that will serve as a pipeline of emerging talent for future positions of leadership.

Already, SEPTA has taken strides to improve the stability and versatility of its existing workforce. Turnover rates among operators, which compose nearly half of SEPTA's workforce, have historically been a drain on budget resources and employee retention challenge. In early 2009, new hire operator turnover was hovering around 25 percent. Later that year, SEPTA's Strategic Business Plan highlighted the mitigation of operator turnover as a corporate objective. In the last six months of 2009, new hire operator turnover fell to 10.4 percent, and remained relatively low for the first six months of 2010 (13.3 percent) and second six months of 2010 (16.5 percent).

Efforts To-Date

While the reduced operator turnover rates can be attributed in part to many extraneous factors (economic conditions, stepped-up screening efforts, etc.), they also are likely indicative of SEPTA's proactive approach to human capital development. Efforts include:

Customer Service Training. SEPTA has developed a soup-to-nuts approach to employee training around a renewed emphasis on customer service. For newly hired operators, a five-day experiential program was developed to build necessary skills related to conflict management and resolution. For veteran operators, a FOCUS ("Focus on the Customer") series of courses fine-tunes customer service skills around the "4 Cs" - cleanliness, convenience, courtesy, and communication. Management personnel is also required to participate in customer-service training programs that focus on the concept of building service-oriented teams throughout the organization.

SEPTA's comprehensive approach to customer service training is expected to yield a return in several areas. To the extent that it contributes to reduced turnover rates, SEPTA will save on operator training costs. Additionally, anticipated reductions in passenger complaints and increases in employee commendations may also result in greater customer satisfaction and, ultimately, greater job satisfaction among SEPTA employees.

Maintenance Training. SEPTA has received national recognition for its leadership as part of a statewide transit maintenance training labor-management partnership known as the "Keystone Transit Career Ladder Partnership." Keystone was created to address a growing skills crisis in the Pennsylvania transit maintenance workforce, from which more than 40 percent of workers in skilled maintenance positions are eligible to retire by 2015. To-date, Keystone has provided more than 10,000 training opportunities at 34 agencies across the state.

Source: Community Transportation Center

As Pennsylvania's largest transit property, SEPTA's partnership with TWU Local 234 has served as a proving ground for the program, which has applied a data-driven approach that has become a model for many large agencies in other states. According to a 2007 assessment, the partnership has generated a significant return-on-investment for SEPTA (and other agencies) through across-the-board maintenance cost savings:

"Research findings indicate that the unique partnership-based, data-driven training program has produced very positive results for SEPTA and in turn, for the state of Pennsylvania that funded the project. A combined investment of $2,625,127 in training through state government funding and employer match has produced a cost saving of between $6,466,907 and $14,488,436 in bus maintenance and fleet procurement over a four year period. The resulting four-year ROI is estimated between 146% and 452%. The annual ROI rate, though initially low (36% to 198% in Year 1), has climbed to a stable 2-to-6 times the investment in subsequent years."

The assessment warns that its approach to quantifying returns actually undersells the program's full benefits - for example, demonstrable improvements to "mean distance between failure" rates, a crucial transit performance metric, were not translatable into dollar values. Still, the report concludes with a ringing endorsement of SEPTA's proactive and efficient approach to workforce training and development:

"The strongly positive returns on training investment analyzed in this report show that Pennsylvania transit properties have done a good job of managing the limited public resources available to the transit industry. Well designed investments in partnership-based, data-driven maintenance training have allowed SEPTA and TWU to create important efficiencies in maintenance, including additional upgrades not directly reflected in this report. ... If other agencies can produce results similar to those achieved in Philadelphia, their investments in this kind of training will more than pay for themselves, and rather quickly."

Source: Community Transportation Center

Wellness & Safety. SEPTA complements employee training programs with both a wellness and a safety education program to ensure the ongoing health of all SEPTA employees and their families. Working with insurance providers and employee assistance programs - and most recently, a community supported agriculture (CSA) program, the "Wellness Connection Program" is designed to empower SEPTA employees with a comprehensive set of voluntary opportunities to be active and responsible partners in making health care choices. The ultimate outcome is a healthier workforce.

In addition to the Wellness Connection, SEPTA has also taken strides to improve employee safety. A safety notice program has increased awareness of work-related risks, and rigorous inspections of vehicles and facilities ensure compliance with safety standards. Policies to use non-toxic materials, such as low- and no-VOC paints and earth-friendly cleaning solutions also have improved workplace safety conditions.

Succession Planning. While workforce development programs help to ensure the wellness, safety and stability of SEPTA's existing personnel, additional steps will be necessary to ensure the ongoing ability for SEPTA's workforce to meet future organizational needs. So-called "succession planning" is a framework for evaluating and addressing looming workforce challenges in a proactive manner. As a result, SEPTA Training implemented various professional and leadership development courses. The programs have been on-going since FY 2010 and will continue to be expanded in scope.

SEPTA recognizes this need and has initiated a succession planning process and an internal steering committee to guide the effort. Ultimately, the succession plan will help SEPTA manage the risk associated with a growing number of organizational leaders eligible to retire, which will eclipse 50 percent of mid- and upper-level management by 2015.

A Plan to Improve Performance

SEPTA has established a target to fill 50 percent of employee turnover positions from the pool of employees to be developed through the succession planning effort. Performance will be tracked beginning at the completion of the ongoing succession planning process.

More broadly, SEPTA will undertake the following initiatives to build and sustain a highly skilled, healthy, and versatile workforce:

Complete comprehensive succession plan on schedule. SEPTA has begun to develop its next generation of transit professionals. Intensive succession planning will help to ensure seamless transitions between current and future members of SEPTA's leadership.

Increase attendance at employee training programs. SEPTA's Strategic Business Plan highlights the importance of ongoing workforce development and included a five percent annual goal for increased employee training attendance. Each SEPTA department will be held accountable for its performance towards this Authority-wide goal to ensure all SEPTA employees have access to training programs.

Incorporate sustainability into employee training and wellness programs. Organizational sustainability depends in large part on personal sustainability, which is an important aspect of workplace health and safety. Incorporating sustainability-based messaging into employee training programs, where appropriate, would illustrate the explicit linkage between the person and organization, helping to empower employees to do their part towards SEPTA's overall sustainability objectives.

Pair workplace safety with sustainability. Workplace safety considerations should be included in sustainable return-on-investment calculations. For example, using natural light and LED lights are key energy conservation strategies, but they also improve workplace visibility and safety. Studies have shown a direct correlation between lighting improvements and employee morale and productivity.

Strengthen SEPTA internship program. Providing a more robust internship program would allow SEPTA to compete for the best talent and connect with students who would otherwise commit to jobs in other sectors. Ideally, SEPTA's interns ultimately will become part of a new generation of SEPTA employees. In any case, SEPTA's internship program provides a pool of eager young professionals with an outside perspective and energy to the Authority. Currently, the program is focused on IT and engineering departments.

Promote volunteerism among all employees. SEPTA's "Ambassador Program" coordinates frequent charitable endeavors. Employees regularly volunteer their time to support book drives, food drives, and toy drives, as well as a series of annual events, such as the Philadelphia Flower Show and Spring Clean-Up Day. SEPTA has also employed the Ambassador Program to assist in important relief efforts, such as its "Helping Haiti" donation drive in January 2010 to benefit Haitian earthquake victims. These initiatives and others demonstrate SEPTA's commitment to the broader Philadelphia area community and represent a continued opportunity to build a strong culture of volunteerism among employees.

What's Next

Next week, we'll describe how SEPTA's workforce development goals extend beyond its own employees, but to the entire regional business community. In particular, SEPTA's tremendous market power in the region is an effective mechanism to promote regional business equity by supporting the growth and development of women- and minority-owned businesses across Greater Philadelphia. SEPTA's Disadvantaged Business (DBE) Program Office coordinates SEPTA's proactive approach to this important public service.

Next Week: Promoting Regional Business Equity (Goal 8)