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:
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.