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Fed-Funded Program Preps New Orleans Workers For Streetcar Expansion

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(This article is published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the May 6, 2013 edition.)

This spring, thirteen Crescent City residents completed a year of classes and hands-on training in streetcar maintenance, funded by the Federal Transit Administration and run by the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority and Delgado Community College. Eleven of those graduates are now working full time at the RTA though they aren't necessarily taking care of streetcars. The program trained workers for maintenance jobs that will open as RTA staffers retire.

According to the FTA in January, "in anticipation of its expanding streetcar network, the New Orleans Regional Transit Authority competed for and received in 2011 a $400,000 workforce development grant to establish a new streetcar maintenance training program specifically for disadvantaged workers 21 and over." The city's Loyola streetcar line opened in January and will be extended up Rampart St. in 2015.

Meanwhile, the city's unemployment rate is below the national average. But residents living in poverty are well above the national norm so workforce development is clearly needed. Nonetheless, the FTA's one-year training program, which ran from March 2012 to March 2013, has cost taxpayers plenty. To date, RTA has spent about $275,000 of the $400,000 workforce development grant that it received.

In addition, the RTA has contributed in-kind services valued at over $365,000, mainly for staff to provide on-the-job instruction.

That $275,000 in spending is enough to have paid for four years of tuition at, for example, Louisiana State University. And $400,000 would cover four years of college tuition for fourteen students. But the point of the FTA program was to put unskilled, high school grads on a fast track to skilled jobs. Participants were in their twenties and thirties.

Under the grant, RTA was required to identify, train and hire candidates to qualify for future streetcar maintenance jobs as current workers retire. Transit agencies around the country have aging rail and bus equipment that needs constant maintenance, according to the FTA. Workers hired by Veolia Transportation after the program ended in March can bid for maintenance jobs they were trained for as positions open up, in accordance with union rules. Skills can be applied to jobs at other transit agencies too.

As for Veolia Transportation, the RTA Board of Commissioners signed a management contract with the company in 2008, and a public-private partnership was formed in 2009.

RTA spent the $275,000 on evaluating program candidates--including background screening and random drug testing; Delgado program expenses; student stipends for 52 weeks; classroom supplies and materials; workers' compensation; and job-related certifications. Students received $8.00 an hour for a 30-hour workweek.

RTA spokeswoman Patrice Bell Mercadel said her agency was selected for a grant that included classroom instruction from Delgado and training at RTA facilities. She said students were mentored by experienced Veolia Transportation employees, and they worked with RTA's craftsmen and artisans to learn specialized skills to maintain streetcars.

Bell Mercadel said "participants received three transferable certifications--one for safety from the NCCER, or National Center for Construction, Education and Research; one for forklift operator; and one for air conditioning refrigerant handling. And they received RTA-specific certification in the Fundamentals of Streetcar Maintenance."

All thirteen graduates were offered full-time, RTA positions available when they completed the program, and eleven of them accepted jobs, she said.

So what are these graduates doing? After finishing the program in late March, New Orleans resident Wayne Croffitt is now a body and repair shop technician, working on buses at the RTA's Canal St. facility. When he applied to the program over a year ago, he was delivering furniture and had planned to study diesel mechanics. In the RTA-Delgado program, "we learned basic auto-mechanics and many other skills," he said. "We broke down a streetcar, learned all the parts and put it back together. I could do that with my eyes closed now."

Croffitt said "the job offers we received were based on attendance and performance in class." He's happy to work on buses or street cars as long as he's employed, and said "buses give me new skills."

City resident Eliot Barron is a graduate of the program. "I'm interested in the art, craft and mechanics of alternative forms of transportation and in historic preservation, mainly bicycles and streetcars," he said. "They're the past and future of New Orleans. I own a collection of bicycles and I'm trained as a bicycle mechanic."

Barron said a Delgado instructor led the class in March 2012 and then RTA took over. He credits RTA manager Howard Amos for taking the program under his wings, and said "he wanted to make sure our learning was useful."

Barron said "they have a ton of streetcar maintenance experience at RTA. They've been doing it for over 100 years."

For a year students reported to RTA facilities--the Willow St. car barn or the Canal St. bus and street car facility--for 30 hours a week with most federal holidays off. Barron said "RTA really supported the program but their immediate intention for us was something other than street car maintenance. Instead, it was doing everything from painting and body work to automotive mechanics and mobile air-conditioning service."

Barron said he received a certificate from the program in late March, and was informally offered a job by NORTA as a hostler, which he turned down. He said "the job involved cleaning, polishing and putting streetcars to bed at night, or working on buses at the Canal St. station, pumping gas for them and replacing windshield wiper fluid and wiper blades."

Barron said RTA doesn't have any openings for streetcar maintenance workers now because that staff has been slow to retire. He wants to hold out for something more advanced than hostler and intends to apply to RTA in the future.

Barron said the government paid for his 12-month training, and he received a stipend of nearly $1,000 a month, along with used textbooks, five uniforms and several pieces of equipment--including an AC DC multimeter to test circuits and a 6-inch scale for making precise measurements. Students returned their used books at the end of the program.

He was given an RTA identity card that allowed him to ride streetcars and buses for free. "That ID card was the highlight of the benefits," he said. Students were covered by RTA workers' comp but they didn't have health insurance, he said.

As for Delgado's role, the community college was selected by the RTA to be the training provider, Delgado spokeswoman Carol Gniady said. "That included creating national standards curriculum and conducting customized training on site at the RTA facilities," she said. National standards exist so students across the country are taught the same basic information in a subject.

Gniady said "as stipulated in the Memorandum of Understanding with the RTA, Delgado was paid $142,900, which covered the costs associated with creating national standards curriculum for two relevant industry certifications--NCCER core certification and Level 1 electrical certification; providing training materials and text books; and conducting 782 hours of on-site training for up to twenty students."

The federal grant limited the number of students to twenty, and the program started with nineteen participants, according to the RTA.

As to why the college was chosen, Gniady said "Delgado provides customized business and industry professional development and training through our Workforce Development and Technical Education unit." She said the school has a good track record in training students for local jobs.

Bell Mercadel explained how students were selected, and said "all applicants were referred to us following screening by JOB1 and the West Jefferson Business and Career Solutions Center."
Job1, run by the City of New Orleans, provides employment assistance and federally funded training through the Workforce Investment Act. The Jefferson Business & Career Solutions Center has offices on the West and East Banks of Jefferson Parish and is supported by the Louisiana Workforce Commission.

In data released in late April, unemployment in New Orleans, not seasonally adjusted, was 6 percent in March, below the national average of 7.6 percent. But that masks a high poverty rate that points to a need for job training. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 25.7 percent of people in Orleans Parish lived below the poverty level from 2007 to 2011 versus a national average of 14.3 percent. end