Metro’s Hiring Practices

Over at Greater Greater Washington (GGW) there is an interesting piece by David Alpert titled, “To really FixWMATA or Unsuck DC Metro, get involved”.  It has attracted a lot of attention and generated many comments.
I just posted a comment that I spent a significant amount of time on and I thought it would make a good blog entry.  It is in reply to a comment about the competency of Metro employees:
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In Automatic Train Control (ATC) it did often appear as though new technicians were hired for the wrong reasons. Instead of ‘picking names from a phone book’ though, it seemed that there was pressure to hire recent immigrants.
I know, the red flags and alarms are going off right about now. It is not possible to prove that one is not a screaming racist/xenophobe in an online comment so I won’t try, except to say — trust me!
Seriously, I can at least tolerate most types of people but I can’t stand racists. The world would be a better place if they weren’t in it. Same with xenophobes. Some of the best ATC techs were recent immigrants. I enjoyed the diversity that we had in our dept. It’s interesting to talk with people from other countries. I don’t give a rat’s ass where a person is from, what religion they practice, or what shade their skin is.
That said, they must be a) competent and b) able to read, write, and speak English fluently. That was not always the case, not in ATC anyway.
I like to think I’m pretty good at understanding people who have a strong accent and/or speak broken English but even so, it was difficult to understand some of the new hires when speaking face to face, let alone on the phone or the radio. In a job where people’s lives are at stake (employees’ and passengers’) it is _imperative_ that employees be able to communicate clearly.
A less common problem (but a problem nonetheless) was that some new hires (whether they were 8th generation Americans or recent immigrants) were incompetent.
In some cases, the employee had both problems — lack of basic English skills and a shocking lack of knowledge/ability.
Many of my coworkers and I could only assume that there must be some incentive for Metro to hire certain people. After all, in this economy you’d think that Metro would have plenty of applicants to choose from. To be fair, I did hear from a former coworker/ATC supervisor that ATC was having a tough time attracting qualified applicants. He had been designated the unofficial recruiter and was traveling to tech schools and job fairs within a 100 to 150 mile radius of D.C. and told me that technicians were still in high demand and that recent graduates were simply getting better offers elsewhere and/or wanted to stay close to home, rather than deal with the drawbacks of living in the D.C. area — insane traffic and epic commutes; high crime rate; inflated cost of rent/real estate; generally unfriendly people, etc. On top of that are the drawbacks of being an ATC technician, which I wrote about on my blog.
In that post I mention two or three factors — shift work; shift/reporting location/days off potentially changing every 6 months; and the inherent danger of the job. I didn’t really touch on the working conditions which can be horrible — outside in the heat and cold, filthy tunnels with unknown fluids dripping on you — walking through muck and mud, the ever-present danger of trains and the third rail, train control rooms (TCRs) saturated with tunnel dust, a constant, loud 60 cycle hum in most TCRs; being forced to work holidays, etc, etc. So…even if the ATC ‘recruiter’ can convince someone apply and they get hired, they often quit after a few days or a week.
The above might explain why Metro is forced to hire some less-than-competent techs but it does not explain why a disproportionate number of new hires are recent immigrants with English as a second language.
At the very least, if Metro wants to hire people who have poor English skills, they should require them to attend English classes 8 or more hours per day, 5 or more days per week. They could even pay them to go to class. Once they can pass written and verbal English proficiency exams, then they could be placed in a “Helper” position (the entry level position, equivalent to an apprentice in the trades).
Once again, I don’t care where someone is from. This comment is not intended to be any sort of immigrant bashing and I truly hope it is not taken that way. I’m merely pointing out what most people in ATC (and presumably other departments) are concerned about and talk about in private.
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4 Responses to Metro’s Hiring Practices

  1. Ryan Stavely says:

    Thanks for sharing this, along with everything else. It’s been a fascinating read to be sure.

    You didn’t happen to know an ATC worker by the name of Gus Lee, did you?

    • I don’t believe I did but if we ever met I hope Gus will forgive me!

      Although I worked for Metro in the ATC dept for 27 years, I almost always worked PM shift on the Red Line — primarily Shady Grove Yard (A99), as well as Glenmont Yard (B98) and Grosvenor (A11).

      In addition, I rarely worked overtime (OT) so there were/are a whole lot of ATC techs I never met and I’m sure there were even a few whose names I never heard.

      That puts me at a disadvantage when writing a blog about Metro.

  2. ATC Mechanic says:

    Similar as 20 years ago WMATA hired mostly Vietnamese, since approx. 2011 it has hired mostly Ethiopians – once who have no technical background (some of them claim to have worked in airports before) nor ability to speak English. I do remember one of my coworkers in year 2012 told me he wants to “make urine” and pointing to his stomach. About 25-30 percent of ATC employees now come from Ethiopia, this is disturbing disbalance and is not proportional to DC population at all. In fact, I suggest OIG to investigate HR hiring practices to find out who gets them hired. Just a thought.

    • Needless to say, discussing WMATA hiring practices and the racial and ethnic makeup of any given department is often difficult. Simply bringing up the topic can elicit charges of racism, sexism, and/or xenophobia. Sometimes those labels are accurate, but quite often those asking questions are well-intentioned and they have legitimate questions.

      I do not know who “ATC Mechanic” is. I allowed the post because it seems sincere.

      As “ATC Mechanic” mentions, there did seem to be a disproportionate number of Vietnamese-Americans in ATC several years ago, when I was still an active employee. That did not bother me — in fact, generally speaking the ATC techs from Vietnam were more friendly and easier to work with — but I did question why they made up such a large percentage of ATC employees.

      I’ve always assumed that the State Dept., Homeland Security, and/or ICE has significant influence at Metro. Perhaps applicants from certain nations and/or ethnic groups that are currently ‘in favor’ get special consideration. That is the best explanation I can come up with.

      Whatever the case, if Metro insists on hiring people for whom English is a second language, then for everyone’s safety (and sanity) HR should require that they learn at least basic English before being tossed out into the field. Being an ATC tech is dangerous enough. Several of my coworkers (including half of my crew at Shady Grove) were killed on the job during my time at Metro. It is abject recklessness and disregard for the lives of employees and passengers alike to give someone who speaks little/no English a vest and a flashlight and send them out on the tracks.

      I’d say it is grounds for a lawsuit in the event of any injury or death(s), but Metro employees and/or their families cannot sue WMATA, because employees are covered by Worker’s Comp Insurance. I and my deceased coworker’s widow found that out after he (along with another ATC tech) were run over and killed by a Hi-Rail truck. The fact that the NTSB laid the majority of the blame on OCC (Central Control) did not matter. No lawsuit for you. Sorry about killing your husband, buh-bye!

      Suggesting that all ATC employees demonstrate basic English proficiency is not racist or xenophobic — it is (or should be) common sense.

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