Highlights from the Coach Operator Registered Apprenticeship Program

Coach operator


Demand for public transit in Silicon Valley is increasing, while the area faces a large-scale worker shortage due to tight labor markets and an aging workforce. At Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority (VTA), 40 percent of coach operators are eligible to retire today. With this in mind, Mission College, in partnership with VTA and Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 265, created the first of its kind in the United States coach operator registered apprenticeship program. It attracted the interest of other transit authorities in and outside California.


Highlights of the coach operator apprenticeship program include:


  •  Employer Engagement: The Coach Operator Apprenticeship program grew out of a labor-management commitment to professionalize key transit occupations and better support career advancement within VTA’s workforce. A little over a decade ago, VTA faced a number of workforce challenges: pending large-scale retirements, recruiting and retention challenges in key positions, ongoing integration of new technologies, worker health and safety concerns, and the need to help VTA employees better prepare for the public service aspects of their jobs. To address these issues, VTA and ATU Local 265 launched their signature Joint Workforce Investment (JWI) effort in 2007, and a JWI mentoring and professional development program shortly thereafter. Over the next decade, Mission College and a partner consultant helped institutionalize JWI’s mentoring and training approach. By 2015, VTA and ATU had built a coach operator training program, which served as the foundation of the Coach Operator Apprenticeship. The VTA–ATU program was first registered with the US Department of Labor’s Office of Apprenticeship in 2015 under the American Apprenticeship Initiative and was subsequently registered with California’s Division of Apprenticeship Standards in 2016 under CAI. For Mission College, the program represented an opportunity to work with a local employer the college had long known and trusted in order to advance apprenticeship as a strategy for improving family-wage career opportunities in a sector critical to the region’s economy. For VTA and ATU, it offered the opportunity to affirm and formally recognize coach operator as a profession and not just a job, boost worker skills, improve retention, and signal a broader commitment to job quality and career advancement at the company.
  •  Program Structure: The Coach Operator Apprenticeship is the training program for all new coach operators. It includes 10 weeks of full-time classroom training followed by 15.5 months of on-the-job training (OJT), complemented by mentoring and additional credit-bearing training integrated into the OJT component and provided through JWI. Apprentices require about 18 months to complete the entire program.
  •  Apprentice Recruitment, Selection, and Orientation: VTA recruits for coach operator positions through open application periods typically held a few times each year. Once hired, new recruits participate in a two-and-a-half-day orientation program. Coach operator apprentices are almost all new VTA employees, with a few exceptions who transfer into these positions from other VTA job classifications. Since participating in the Coach Operator Apprenticeship program is a condition of employment for new coach operators, new hires become both VTA employees and Mission College students immediately following their orientation program.
  •  Apprentice Perspectives: Coach operator apprentices expressed considerable enthusiasm about all three program components—classroom training, OJT, and peer mentoring and programming through JWI. Peer mentoring (and professional growth more generally) is highly valued within VTA’s culture, by management and labor alike. JWI, which provides ongoing peer mentoring and professional development, was continually cited during stakeholder conversations and in surveys as a key asset that amplified the importance of the training and professionalism in the program and helped cultivate strong relationships between colleagues working in occupations that can otherwise be quite solitary.
  •  Employer and Union Perspectives: VTA and ATU expressed enthusiasm for the Coach Operator Apprenticeship program as a vehicle for structuring and formalizing the training, mentoring, and development offered through JWI, and for helping to institutionalize coach operator as a profession. The accompanying college credit and certification provided to apprentices upon completion of the program was of particular importance to ATU. The Coach Operator Apprenticeship connects and reinforces each learning component (instruction, OJT, peer mentoring, and programming), and prepares new apprentices for their jobs and also for their roles as mentors, learners, public servants, and professionals within the broader public transportation industry.
  •  Sustainability: VTA, ATU, and Mission College are all invested in sustaining and expanding the Coach Operator Apprenticeship and other transportation industry programs, and in helping other transit agencies begin to offer them as well. Recent legislative changes relating to community college reimbursement rates for classroom training provided by colleges for apprentices are making it easier for Mission College and other California Community Colleges to support and grow existing programs. Further, the May 2018 launch of California Transit Works!, a statewide consortium of transit industry partners building worker-centered training programs—and the interest of dozens of other transit agencies in developing their own versions of these types of apprenticeships—makes it likely that these programs will be scaled to other locations, establishing an ecosystem of transit agency apprenticeships in California and beyond.

Read a more detailed version of this article in the brief “BEHIND THE WHEEL: A case study of Mission College and Santa Clara Valley Transportation Authority’s Coach Operator Apprenticeship Program.”