Equity From The Frontline

Worker Voice Leads to a Network of Accessible Apprenticeship Pathways


Worker Voice Leads to a Network of Accessible Apprenticeship Pathways

Authors: Michele Mackey, Laura Dresser, and Mariah Young-Jones


This case study would not have been possible without the generous response of so many current and former participants of the Joint Workforce Investment, a partnership of the Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority and Amalgamated Transit Union, Local 265. We extend our heartfelt thanks to all who were interviewed for this case study, including Eliseo Acosta, Russell Anderson, Armando Barbosa, Maurice Beard, John Courtney, Inez Evans, Tom Fink, Carl Hart, Diana Hermone, Michael Hursh, Steve Jovel, Tai Lam, Jess Martinez, Deb Moy, Harpreet Singh, and Lisa Vickery. We are also grateful to everyone for their contributions and careful attention during the editing process, especially the historical edits and corrections provided by Tom Fink, Mike Hursh, and Deb Moy.

At COWS, we thank the Andon Group, LLC for their work researching and writing this report. We are grateful for the attentive work of our colleague Emily Miota for design and layout of this report, along with Michelle Bright’s support in verifying quotes.

Apprenticeship rooted in partnership and worker voice

Santa Clara County’s nationally recognized pathway of transit apprenticeship programs began with a single idea: What if workers and management came together to better meet the transit needs of Silicon Valley’s booming population? Tom Fink, a retired bus driver and former official of Amalgamated Transit Union Local 265 (ATU), posed this question in 2005. As transit demand and social inequities grew across the region so did the challenges facing bus drivers.

It became clear that the core challenge of being a bus driver was the totality of the environment: operational regulations, settling problems on the bus, keeping schedules, and managing your own life in the face of that stress. The industry assumed that your only challenge was driving the vehicle.”

Tom Fink, Retired Bus Driver, Former ATU Local 265 Official

Yet, training focused on driving the bus. Workers received little training or support on the service aspects of the job. Motivated by the need to help his fellow operators, Tom proposed a new approach adopting the skilled trades philosophy of craft.

A workforce development expert, Deb Moy advised that the building trades’ success at skill development relied on labor management partnerships to unite union and contractor-partner resources for craft-focused apprenticeship programs. In 2005, the ATU approached Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA) about forming a partnership to better prepare drivers for the entirety of their jobs.

After a facilitated process of frontline research and joint meetings, the ATU and VTA codified their partnership as the Joint Workforce Investment (JWI). Guided by three principles: Career Development, Public Service, and Workplace Solutions, JWI seeks to build a healthy work environment for all employees while enhancing the quality of service they deliver to the public. To best address the needs of bus operators, JWI agreed “to operate according to a worker-to-worker principle . . . all curriculum would be developed by workers themselves under the guidance and support of the program developer ─ in alignment, of course, with VTA policies and procedures."

Subsequent worker focus groups identified a need for mentors to assist new bus operators. New workers struggled to transition from the training environment to “the real world of driving the bus and handling customers.”—Singh. Workers also expressed concern about service workers on the fuel island. These overnight jobs cleaning and fueling buses had the worst shifts, lowest morale, and fewest advancement opportunities. An analysis of VTA’s workforce data further highlighted the need for new workforce development systems. The agency required new skills from bus operators and maintenance workers as transit vehicles became increasingly reliant on computerized systems and new “green” propulsion technologies. This worker feedback first led to the creation of the JWI New Operator Mentor Program. Launched in 2008, veteran coach operators help novice drivers transition from the training environment to driving a route. By January 2017, the Peer Mentor Program had grown to forty mentors. That year, JWI partnered with Mission College to provide mentors with formal leadership training and academic credit. The resulting programs are among the first in the country to professionalize transit job classifications from coach operator and track worker to overhead line. They also provide a path towards equity by extending opportunity from the most entry level occupations to the most in-demand and highest paid.

Harpreet Singh

Coach Operator Apprentice Mentor, VTA

“Every apprentice is different. There is no one template, or set rules on how to be a mentor. It changes based on the apprentice.”

Harpreet Singh has worked as a coach operator at the VTA for over nine years. Like many of the VTA personnel, Harpreet was introduced to the VTA through a family member. He applied while in college, and waited over a year for an operator class to begin. Harpreet’s willingness to help others on the job made him a perfect fit for the mentorship program. Although mentors volunteer their off-duty time, Harpreet has mentored as many as five apprentices a year for the past four years.

Having a mentor helps apprentices transition from the training environment to the responsibilities and logistics of operating a coach in population-dense Silicon Valley. Harpreet has guided apprentices through training, probation, and the realities of the job.

“The first couple of weeks we get a lot of calls about basic logistics. About where to show up for the run, scheduling issues, family constraints, and how to get paid. especially about starting on the routes. We also get asked about how to deal with the customer service aspect. Every interaction is on stage because passengers are watching.”

Based on the operator apprenticeship’s success, Harpreet suggests using the apprenticeship model for other in-demand VTA occupations. There are positions that sit so long on the recruitment board that they get pulled. Having an apprenticeship for people to learn these jobs would help the VTA and people who have already shown their commitment to the agency.

Read the full brief

Coach Operator Apprenticeship

JWI’s first apprenticeship began as a mentorship strategy for new operators faced with increasing demand for transit service and pending experienced operator retirements. New hires were expected to transition quickly to the responsibilities of the position. Historically, operators completed a nine-week training and then had to “rely on their personal toolkit to get through on the job.” –Beard. This approach met state requirements, but many new operators found the reality of the job unsettling and stressful. They felt prepared for the technical aspects of driving a bus, but not for dealing with challenging customer interactions and inconsistent schedules and routes. Using an apprenticeship model to restructure the operator training allowed JWI to create sustainable solutions to these issues.

The ultimate goal is to provide skills for the job and to elevate the coach operator position to a profession.”

Harpreet Singh, Coach Operator Apprentice Mentor, VTA

JWI registered the program with the U.S. Department of Labor in 2015, and the California Department of Apprenticeship Standards in 2016. New hires now begin coach operator training as VTA employees (classified “coach operator trainee”), registered apprentices, and Mission College students.

Although the VTA does not specifically target non-traditional workers, a diverse panel of supervisors considers candidates with the goal of “having a workforce that reflects the diversity of Santa Clara County.” The diversity of the candidate pool is helped by the demographics of Northern California, as well as VTA’s word of mouth recruitment process. The first waves of diverse employees recruited in the 1980s have encouraged friends and family members to join the agency. Community and workforce development groups help diverse populations prepare for the VTA selection process. Given the unpublicized one-week application window, people with connections to the VTA tend to dominate the candidate pool.

Coach operator apprenticeship is a key gateway to most occupations at the VTA. The quickest route to administrative, clerical, rail, and maintenance positions begins with time as a coach operator.

JWI apprentices have moved up into supervision and senior operations, and are carrying their knowledge of driving a bus forward as managers.”

Diana Hermone, Former President, ATU Local 265

For those apprentices pursuing coach operations, the position’s wage progression and substantial benefits (including a defined retirement plan and lifetime medical insurance after 10 years) ensure a family-sustaining career. After four years, coach operators reach the top of the occupational pay scale ($33.62/hour in 2016).

Armando Barbosa

Coach Operator Apprenticeship Graduate

“I came to VTA for the opportunity to grow. Benefits and financial opportunity. So many options for a career. I came to VTA because there is opportunity. June 1, 2016 was my start date. I was happy, relieved, and excited.”

Armando Barbosa’s mother discovered a career at VTA that enabled her to support her family in the 1980s. “Mom had been traditional Hispanic farm worker. She got a career job at VTA as an operator and it changed my family’s life.” At first, Armando didn’t join the family business. He spent years working in criminal justice, mental health, and addiction prevention. Becoming a rehab counselor seemed the next logical step in his career. Encouraged by his mother, Armando submitted his operator application during the annual one-week recruitment process.

Armando found the apprenticeship tough and demanding. The classroom training was specific and very technical. Apprentices had competency exams every Friday, and faced dismissal if they failed more than two tests. “You had to have two feet in. We were preparing for the big day. For the start of a career.”

Despite the intense preparation of the classroom and field training, the first weeks as a coach operator proved the most stressful. Armando credits the mentorship program with helping him successfully complete probation. “You put your life on hold through probation because you’re not sure of the career. My mentor drove the bus on my first day. It helped with the stress because I had the opportunity to ask questions and see how it should be done. Each situation is different from the next. I was very worried about crashing the bus for the first six months. The mentors were always there if you are ready to accept help.” Armando’s cohort provided additional support. The group established an online community to share experiences and lessons from the road.

Armando sees the VTA as a profession that benefits from his former community work. Driving the night shift, he sees many of the inequities facing Silicon Valley. “Transit is the pre-game for homelessness. We see it first. I share resources with the homeless. Tell them where to find the mobile shower or a washer and dryer.” He encourages students on his community college route to consider working at VTA. “I look for people who are ready to change their life. Who are eager to learn. They are already taking the bus to school and overcoming obstacles so I share information about the job.” Armando knows that when the community sees bus drivers, they also see the company. He is considering a supervisory role to bring ideas from his experiences on the road back to VTA operations.

Service Mechanic (Mechanic Helper) Apprenticeship

Bus mechanic (transit mechanic) is another highly desirable, family-sustaining career position at VTA. In the past, pathways into this occupation were primarily limited to people who had trained outside of VTA at technical schools, in the military, or through mechanical repair shops or auto dealerships. Entry level facility workers – who clean and maintain VTA transit facilities -- had no clear pathway into skilled maintenance positions. With VTA facing a lack of qualified diesel mechanics, veteran transit mechanics, and senior service workers recommended developing a career pathway for service workers to learn mechanic skills. Created with local and state financial support, the “Mechanic Helper” pilot program sought to formalize a direct pathway from the maintenance entry level positions of Facility Worker and Service Worker to Service Mechanic.

Eliseo Acosta

Service Mechanic (Mechanic Helper) Apprenticeship Graduate

“It’s a brotherhood, sisterhood. The program gave us that.”

For Eliseo Acosta, the Valley Transportation Authority “is like a family” both literally and figuratively. Both of his in-laws worked for the VTA. Eliseo joined the VTA in 1999 as a service worker. Yet not until the Service Mechanic (Mechanic Helper) pilot program did Eliseo truly feel a part of that family.

Eliseo became a service worker because it was an opportunity to work for the VTA, an agency known for family-sustaining, long-term careers. He soon experienced the low morale and stagnation of working on the fuel island. Even with the union’s negotiated biannual change of classification process, cleaning and fueling coaches on the 6:00 pm to 2:30 am shift did not provide the skills or opportunity to progress.

“It’s hard to see a future on the fuel island. It’s not the kind of job you can see yourself doing long-term.”

The launch of JWI’s Service Mechanic pilot allowed Eliseo to see a path forward. He completed the pre-requisite Automotive Systems 102, passed the mechanical aptitude test, and was offered a spot in the first cohort. The program started with the basics of “this is a wrench” and progressed trainees through computer and electro-mechanical systems. From the trainers, mentors, and his cohort, Eliseo found the program inclusive and supportive.

“Once you get in the program, it is welcoming regardless of your background. We had a mantra ten of us in ten of us out. We all made it through.”

After completing the program, Eliseo returned to the night shift as a Service Mechanic “to learn the trade because there is more work and opportunity to learn on the swing shift. It’s a trade because you are constantly learning, applying and practicing.” All his efforts paid off. Eliseo advanced from Service Mechanic and now works as a certified Transit Maintenance Technician. He specialized further becoming a Heavy Engine Repair mechanic and spends his days rebuilding coach engines.

Eliseo often shares how the Service Mechanic program changed his life. “If there was no Mechanic Helper Apprenticeship, I probably would have left the company. We got paid to go to school for a year at our previous union wage. We also kept our seniority. That was really important.” The success of this pilot paved the way for subsequent cohorts and formal apprenticeship status.

Pathways to Equity

JWI’s system of apprenticeships has institutionalized pathways towards equity for non-traditional workers. Women, immigrants, and racially and ethnically diverse workers have all found success through the apprenticeship programs. With people of color and women dominating VTA’s entry-level cleaning occupations, the Service Mechanic and Track Worker Apprenticeship Programs represent game-changers in removing systemic inequities.

People were trying to get into the maintenance field from the fuel islands but they didn’t have the background. These career ladder apprenticeships provide folks with a way to get into Fleet maintenance.”

Russell Anderson, Maintenance Training Supervisor, VTA

The programs provided women with the opportunity to identify and hone technical aptitude through its focus on electrical skills. With mentors who believed in their ability to learn technical skills, many apprentices from non-traditional backgrounds experienced their first professional successes on VTA’s shop-floor. The apprenticeships have turned what was once a dead-end position into a professional gateway.

Equity from the Start

JWI developed its apprenticeship programs within a culture that values diversity, inclusion, and equity. VTA and ATU have worked for over twenty years to build a transit workforce that reflects the highly diverse community of Silicon Valley. There are over 140 languages spoken in the Bay Area with vibrant immigrant and ethnically diverse communities.

Our whole mission is to be equitable. Transit promotes equity in the community by providing a way for people to access opportunity. Extend that to our own workers, with all of transit operations being diverse and with jobs that provide a family-sustaining wage, full benefits, and a career.”

Deborah Moy, Project Consultant, JWI

Workers and management acknowledge that building and maintaining an inclusive community takes work.

In the past, there were challenges for minority workers at VTA. My mother came in with the first generation of women, immigrant, and minority operators. It wasn’t easy.”

Steve Jovel, Assistant Superintendent, VTA

VTA transitioned the culture through formal and informal practices. The organization adopted formal diversity and inclusion initiatives. Human resources established equitable hiring processes including recruitment through community groups and diverse interview and selection panels. More recently, executive leadership has diversified its ranks with women of color serving as Chief Executive Officer and Chief Operations Officer as well as other senior agency roles.

These formal mechanisms led to an organization where diversity extends to immigration status, sexual orientation, and gender identity. Workers readily describe the work environment as familial.

It’s all family here. We are supposed to make it better for everybody. We have people who don’t speak English very well, but people listen and try to understand where they are coming from.”

Diana Hermone, Former President, ATU Local 265

Learning from a diverse workforce

JWI expanded upon this infrastructure of diversity and inclusion to advance equity through apprenticeship. From the beginning, VTA and ATU sought the guidance of its diverse front-line workforce. Having workers at the table revealed the opportunities for creating sustained equitable outcomes for workers. Worker voice is now part of the daily VTA Operations culture. Operators identified the need for peer support from veteran drivers. They recommended peers with cultural appreciation and shared lived experience, noting the importance of rapport and applicable guidance. The mentorship program, in turn, observed and shared opportunities to improve outcomes for entry-level workers.

Using mentorship to drive equity

JWI not only designed for equity, but also remained intentional about inclusion and equity at every stage of apprenticeship.

Mentorship and the apprenticeship programs can be used to do things in a different way. How do we make this community feel like home to all employees? It is happening throughout VTA. JWI makes it clear that it’s ok to talk about diversity and equity issues and work on them. People at all levels ask the questions to start setting the stage. It helps make the program more real for people to talk genuinely about bias or disparity.”

Lisa Vickery, Superintendent, VTA

Mentors provide a safe space for discussing and resolving equity issues. They are diverse in age, gender, and ethnic background. JWI also selects for breadth of experience on the job and in life. Apprentices receive a mentor likely to understand the specific issues they may face on the job.

A Framework for Apprenticeship Innovation

Organizations interested in apprenticeship “need an approach that is about asking questions of the workers. There is no checklist or template. Everything needs to start from the workers. All of our programs started because workers pointed out what was needed. They have the power to say 'This is our work. This is what it means to be a professional.' Most recently, the overhead line folks said to train track workers to move into the job because they already know about working on the track.” —Moy. Yet, the JWI collaborative model goes beyond worker voice. JWI’s approach embeds the equity concept of shared power to address common industry challenges. Veteran operators received training and authority to help their peers navigate the job. VTA has also supported the capacity of mentors to resolve problems and advance organizational improvements.

Plans for the Future

JWI continues to push the role of equity in apprenticeship. The partnership is expanding its apprenticeship programs to new occupational categories. Having launched the Track Worker and Overhead Line apprenticeship programs, JWI plans to further develop the light rail apprenticeship pathway with a Light Rail Operator Apprenticeship. The VTA expects significant equipment advances as well as line expansion in coming years. To meet the increased demand for skilled light rail operators, the new apprenticeship program will target both entry level and incumbent workers.

Expansion of the mentor program is also planned. To extend the leadership opportunity, JWI is piloting a new mentor process that allows operators interested in becoming mentors to apply. They must also pass a written and in person interview, receive mentor training, and complete a probationary period. According to Mike Hursh, former VTA Chief Operating Officer, “there are still opportunities for increasing equity. We need to get out into the community and share the value of a professional driving career — what the job is, the living wage and benefits, and the opportunity to serve your community. We have a lot of operators who came from the community. They grew up riding the bus. They know what public transportation means to people as they pursue opportunities for education and employment. They understand first hand our role in advancing equity.”

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