Since I was a lad, every job I've had (except ditch digging, which I did for a while until I uncovered an angry colony of ants which brutally attacked The Boys, resulting in a hasty and possibly illegal shedding of clothing and my immediate resignation) required certain skills to competently complete. These former occupations included intense training and a mastery of each aspect, even though most were classified as "blue collar" labor.
When I was laid off from a highly-technical corporate job after 11 years, my search for a new career led me to bus driving. "Hey," I thought, "anybody can drive a bus." With apologies to my fellow operators worldwide, I quickly realized the folly of this statement. Desperate for gainful employment in a recession economy, I applied for the job. After psychological testing, drug/alcohol screening, panel interviews and a background check, I was offered a position as a trainee, with no guarantee that I would pass the rigorous training regimen. Through hard work and intense concentration, I made it through. Now I have some years on the road, I can personally attest to the level of professionalism and skill required to operate a transit vehicle. It isn't easy, and it's certainly not something anybody can do.
It truly requires no education past high school, yet many of my brothers and sisters have college degrees and impressive resumes from careers prior to this one. They are by no means unskilled. In fact, each day we make the big wheels roll, we learn something new. Those who do not evolve usually don't last long. It takes years of constant self-evaluation and meaningful contemplation to successfully (and safely) negotiate thousands of miles behind the wheel. Most large cities would not have robust economies without mass transit to transport their workforce. Yet there is a stubborn misconception that we are no more valuable than burger flippers.
I strongly believe that transit management today is no more "skilled" than its operators. We could, given the vast amount of experience many operators have gained in other careers, run the entire operation without those currently in management. Most of them have never driven a bus. Many wouldn't pass the training regimen, and others would likely run screaming from the seat if ever required to operate in service. These folks may believe what they're doing will improve local transit, but they cannot empathize with our problems. Conversely, I know many fellow operators who could lead the agency with a high degree of competence, while retaining our confidence they would lead us back to the top. They would manage with the knowledge of what it actually takes to do our job.
This isn't a corporation, it's a government agency that provides a valuable service to the communities in our metro area. Its Board of Directors are political appointees, rather than elected public servants. We've slid from the best transit agency in the nation to just above average. It's certainly not the fault of the hard-working professionals who operate buses and trains here.
Since I've worked here, I've seen enough incompetence to support my beliefs. Management has reneged on decades-long promises to retirees and hidden the fact it didn't fund pension obligations for decades. It jacked fare prices up considerably during the recession, putting operators on the front lines at risk due to the riding public's anger and frustration. Then it eliminated fare inspectors and put the onus on already-stretched-thin road supervisors to perform this job. It gave management a raise, while hiding this fact from its own board. It regularly finds new ways to harass operators, employs union-busting tactics and refuses to allow media to cover contract negotiations with our union. It touts the slogan "Safety Is Our Core Value" while failing to protect operators from assaults, and suspends some operators who rise up in self-defense when attacked. It has no policy to ensure operators who have experienced assaults to properly heal, instead allowing them to operate with severe cases of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder; this puts passengers at risk when a union member operates a vehicle with "diminished capacity." There are many other instances which reinforce my belief that their safety slogan is nothing more than a catch-phrase rather than a serious mantra.
The past few months, we've been scrutinized for On Time Performance to the point where safety and customer service have suffered. You can have safety first (as in a "core value"), but being on time depends on many variables that cannot be factored into statistical data sheets. If we're to remain close to on-schedule, we can no longer wait for passengers or answer the many questions we're asked every day. To think it's possible to have all three is pure folly, and anyone who's ever driven a bus knows this. Sure, you might be early on a Monday or Tuesday afternoon, but later in the week all bets are off when traffic piles up. Unless you find a logarithm which accurately predicts traffic patterns and any number of other possible disruptions to a schedule for each day of the week, it's impractical to expect perfection. Corporatists look at numbers, we experience the reality of transit.
State government has hinted at its dissatisfaction by discussing the possibility of outsourcing transit. Perhaps it should consider ways in restoring dignity and respect for this profession by entrusting us with our own management. Since corporatists basically took over many industries in the 80s, we've watched the slow and agonizing death struggle of the middle class. This transit agency needs new management, and should be rebuilt from within. We could certainly do no worse.