Amtrak’s Office of Inspector General recently released a report titled: Areas for Management Focus in Advance of Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act Funding
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA), passed by Congress in November 2021, provided Amtrak access to as much as $66 billion in funding the largest investment in passenger rail since the company’s creation 50 years ago.
|Part of this OIG report comments on the workforce, or lack thereof, from the top down and the bottom up. For years we’ve been commenting on the shortcomings of railroad management, both in their numbers and more specifically in their skillsets. Not only has our message finally been heard, it’s been articulated into creditable parlance that describes a weak administration that may be incurable by any amount of Biden Bucks.
The IIJA makes the largest investment in passenger rail since the creation of Amtrak. U.S. passenger rail lags behind the rest of the world in reliability, speed, and coverage. China already has 22,000 miles of high-speed rail, and is planning to double that by 2035. The legislation positions rail to play a central role in our transportation and economic future, investing $66 billion in additional rail funding to eliminate the Amtrak maintenance backlog, modernize the Northeast Corridor, and bring world-class rail service to areas outside the northeast and mid-Atlantic. This is the largest investment in passenger rail since Amtrak’s creation 50 years ago and will create safe, efficient, and climate-friendly alternatives for moving people and freight. White House briefing room
The legislation positions the company to play a major role in the country’s transportation and economic future by providing funds to repair and rehabilitate the company’s rail assets, work with state and other partners to modernize the Northeast Corridor (NEC), and bring world-class rail service outside the NEC.
The company plans to expand its workforce by as much as 21 percent this year, including hiring new managers to lead IIJA-funded projects and skilled agreement employees to execute them. Coming off the heels of the pandemic when the company lost many tenured managers as a result of downsizing and early retirements, the challenge will be not only to replace these employees but also to grow the workforce with highly qualified personnel. The company will face challenges building this workforce in a timeframe that will keep pace with growing demands, allow managers to concentrate fully on a reasonable scope of responsibilities, and avoid employee burnout. Exacerbating this challenge is a tight labor market in which multiple industries are vying for candidates with the same skills and experience the company needs in many cases to support IIJA-funded projects in other transportation sectors like highways or transit.
|(Management) Job applicants have more leverage to demand better pay, benefits, and work flexibilities.
Building an Experienced Management Team
The company estimates that it will need to hire more than 750 new managers in FY 2022 to replace those who left during the pandemic and to staff new positions associated with IIJA-funded programs. Many of these positions need individuals with highly specialized skills like electrical catenary engineers positions that are in high demand across multiple industries.
The competitive labor market is giving job applicants more leverage to demand competitive pay, benefits, working conditions, and other flexibilities. Recognizing this, the company has expanded its benefits packages and recently announced that it will allow managers to work more flexible schedules— including limited options for fully remote work—in order to attract and retain top talent. Our December 2021 report on the company’s readiness to build its workforce found that the company would first need to address critical staffing shortfalls in its Human Resources department, which has primary responsibility for recruiting, hiring, and onboarding high-quality employees to support IIJA projects and rebuild the company’s core operations.
As the volume of work grows under IIJA, the company will also need to closely monitor and balance its managers’ workloads to make sure that overtasking does not undermine program goals or lead to further attrition. Our recent work found that the company was already struggling with reasonable distribution of responsibilities without the added workload of IIJA. For example, our review of the company’s efforts to bring stations into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) program found that the company did not have enough staff to adequately oversee the contract employees it hired to augment internal staff. Likewise, our work on the Gateway program found that the core program team was overtasked with multiple and competing priorities, hindering the company’s ability to complete early project planning efforts. Similarly, our work on the company’s Human Resources function found that overtasking managers not only limited their ability to fully address strategic responsibilities but could lead to burnout and attrition, which would exacerbate the staffing shortfalls. The company responded positively to our findings in each of these reports and has identified and is in the process of filling positions needed to support program goals.
Developing the Agreement Workforce
The company has hired approximately 800 new agreement employees this year in its Service Delivery and Operations department and plans to hire at least 2,176 more through the end of FY 2022 to restore pandemic-limited operations and support IIJA-funded projects. In addition to attracting and hiring new employees, the company knows it will have the challenge of training them and making sure they are certified to repair and maintain the company’s infrastructure and equipment. Some of these training and certification efforts can take as long as two years, which will dictate how quickly the company can deploy some new employees onto IIJA projects. Our work on train maintenance and inspection facilities also identified areas where the company could pursue options with its agreement workforce to use it more flexibly to cover multiple tasks, leading to more efficient use of the workforce.
Supplementing the Workforce with Contractors
With funds now available to advance many large projects, the company has identified the need to contract with external parties to help address short-term staffing needs or to staff projects that require specialized skills or experience with new materials and technology. Our work on background checks and contract oversight has shown that the company has opportunities to better train its contracting officer’s technical representatives (COTR) and hold contractors accountable for performance. Additionally, provisions in the company’s labor agreements limit the extent to which the company can contract out for work. The company will need to partner with unions to obtain buy-in to use outside labor, especially on the NEC.
When we read about a Union buy-in, all we hear is Union sell-out.
View the full report here