Major Participants: Denver Regional Transportation District (RTD), the Community College of Denver, Denver Transit Partners and the Urban League of Metropolitan Denver.
Background: In the 2000s, the Denver RTD’s rapid expansion plan, known as FasTracks, was fully underway. FasTracks was the largest voter-approved public transit expansion program in the nation, and at full build-out will include 122 miles of commuter and light rail and 18 miles of bus rapid transit. Around 2009, RTD General Manager Phil Washington started laying the groundwork for what would later become known as RTD “Workforce Investment Now,” or RTD-WIN. The idea was that the communities who were being directly impacted by the rail’s expansion should have the opportunity to work on the project and benefit from its growth. Nationally, transit has an aging workforce; in Denver, many workers had been on the job for 30 to 50 years. Besides needing new workers for RTD’s expansion, the system would also require an influx of workers to replace those who were expected to retire.
At first, Washington partnered with the Community College of Denver, the state’s largest community college. Next to join the partnership was the Urban League of Metro Denver, which is a longtime advocate for community and workforce development in the region. Together, they began to craft the RTD-WIN strategy, which includes training in three career categories: operators, mechanics and construction trades workers. RTD-WIN itself would not be the training agency, they decided, but would assemble opportunities provided by its network of partners. Training would span all levels of expertise—entry, skilled and advanced level positions—and would specifically target under- and unemployed residents in the communities impacted by the infrastructure projects.
The idea moved forward when Denver Transit Partners (DTP), the consortium building the $2 billion “Eagle” project that includes rail lines to the Denver International Airport, agreed to include language in their contract that committed DTP to the RTD-WIN project, with provisions for the hiring of RTD-WIN participants. DPT also contributed $195,000 to get the program off the ground. The Federal Transit Administration (FTA) also contributed through a $500,000 grant.
How it Works: RTD-WIN regularly engages local employers in order to understand their hiring needs, and then helps to develop customized curricula and training to help prepare residents for opportunities on regional construction and transit infrastructure projects. RTD-WIN then relies on its network of more than 50 partners who help with recruitment, outreach and training. Partners include local nonprofits, community and technical colleges, industry training programs and trade associations, and the public workforce system. All interested candidates are screened, educated on career pathways and then placed into appropriate training programs (at the Community College of Metro Denver and elsewhere) based on their career interests. Upon completion of the job training, RTD-WIN assists with job placement and provides continued case management in order to ensure job retention. For those interested in ongoing training, RTD-WIN will connect them with additional training opportunities to move up within the industry. Once a participant is in the program, all training and related services are performed free of charge to the party.
RTD-WIN routinely collects data to track performance and measure the program’s outcomes. As Washington explained to the Denver Business Journal, “This is not a social program; this is an economic development project. If people have a job, the metrics we’re tracking [including crime rates, sales tax revenue and homeownership in the neighborhoods near the projects] will change.” It’s a win-win for RTD-WIN: low-income residents are trained and then land well-paying, secure employment with companies that typically offer excellent benefits.
Results for Local Economy: Since the program launched in 2011, more than 600 RTD-WIN participants have landed direct employment on one of the RTD expansion projects, ranging from office engineers to train/bus operators, mechanics and administrative staff. Approximately 60 to 75 of these positions are union jobs. In 2016, job placements will expand to include operation and maintenance of the new RTD line, creating 80 additional positions.
In total, RTD-WIN has served nearly 1,500 people through its job training and network of service providers. Service providers, such as WorkLife, have provided RTD-WIN participants with guidance on employment-related issues such as housing access and legal issues. Job coaches work with each individual and perform a needs assessment to better understand how RTD-WIN can support program participants above and beyond direct training and job placement.
Remaining Challenges: When the RTD-WIN program first launched, it was relatively easy to find interested participants. Now that the program is in its fifth year, outreach and recruitment is becoming more difficult.
Compounding the problem is Colorado’s new law which legalized recreational marijuana. The RTD-WIN program requires background checks and drug screening. Since marijuana became legal, only 50 percent of interested candidates have passed the drug test. In some training cohorts, only one in 10 people pass the drug test. Though marijuana is legal in Colorado, the RTD project is a federally-funded project and therefore must comply with federal regulations.
Lessons Learned: Start small. This proved especially important as the program was getting off the ground. It would have been easy to open the doors and allow any interested group to participate in the planning discussion, but it would have prevented RTD-WIN from moving forward in a timely, organized fashion. Instead, the executive leadership team was intentionally small.
Programs such as these also must be driven by employers’ input regarding their hiring needs and exactly which skills are needed for those positions. Training partners can then respond by developing curricula appropriately. RTD-WIN has largely been successful given employer buy-in; this buy-in was achieved by designing a program that meets employer demands.
In addition to obtaining employer buy-in, it is important that unions understand the program and actively participate. The RTD-WIN partners had to show that this program would compliment, not compete with, unions. In Colorado, the trade unions are relatively small compared to other large cities, so this was not a major issue. In the same vein, it was important to show the contractors that this would benefit them as well. This was not to replace contractors’ existing workforce, but to supplement it as additional workers were added to the RTD expansion crews. RTD-WIN would find those additional workers and train them according to the contractors’ needs.