An ambitious Metro Transit training program for desperately needed light-rail mechanics — thought to be the first of its kind in the nation — has lapsed for now, its future unclear.
Faced with a shortage of light-rail mechanics, Metro Transit crafted the state-subsidized program with Hennepin Technical College to attract new workers to the agency, particularly those from communities of color.
While more than 350 people initially expressed interest in the program, six ultimately graduated from Hennepin Tech in 2019 with associate degrees in light-rail technology.
Just three of the six graduates were hired by Metro Transit; two others were recently let go after three years of intensive training. (A sixth died after graduating.)
No future classes are scheduled at Hennepin Tech, at least for now. Metro Transit spokeswoman Laura Baenen said the program is “evolving” as the agency “assesses its needs.”
The union representing the mechanics says the program was flawed and that Metro Transit abandoned the graduates it let go in March. It is charging Metro Transit with wrongful termination, among other violations of the union contract.
“I was one of the biggest advocates for [the program],” said Ronald Kammueller, executive board member for LRT maintenance with Amalgamated Transit Union Local 1005.
“What a great thing to do on a human level — give someone a hand to help lift themselves up,” Kammueller said.
Before entering the program, several of the graduates had been working at minimum-wage jobs with little chance of advancement — while starting pay for Metro Transit mechanics is about $27 an hour, with health and retirement benefits.
While in school, students had internships that paid $20 an hour at Metro Transit, where they were mentored by experienced mechanics.
The program was funded by a $387,000 grant from the state, with Metro Transit kicking in an additional $120,000 for tuition, books and supplies, and an unknown amount covering administrative costs.
The Minneapolis-based nonprofit Twin Cities R!SE provided employment readiness training and helped recruit candidates from underrepresented communities.
The graduation of the six inaugural students garnered extensive media attention, and Metro Transit was praised for creating a solution to the challenge of employee recruitment at a time of historically low unemployment.
Kammueller said a key issue was the entrance test taken by applicants to qualify for a permanent mechanic’s job. The tests, he said, were targeted for experienced employees, not new recruits, and some of the questions had multiple correct answers.
Although the union was a program partner, Kammueller said he was ghosted by Metro Transit management once he started asking questions about testing and other procedures. He said he has filed “at least five” information requests through the state’s Data Practices Act to gather more information about the program.
Kammueller said 80% of the graduates failed in the first round of testing. The test was later modified. Of the three graduates hired, two are white and one is of Asian descent.
The two graduates who were let go could not be reached for comment, but Kammueller said one now works on a garbage truck and the other as a cook in a hospital. The union said Metro Transit recently offered them a “settlement” of $5,000 each.
“These people worked here for three years. They were absolutely competent for entry-level positions,” he said.
When asked about the tests, Baenen said in a statement, “Ultimately, we can’t move people through into full performance until we’re sure they can perform the work. Our test was designed to assess individual ability to perform at the level necessary.”
She added that Metro Transit “takes its responsibility seriously to provide safe, reliable train service and to maintain our customers’ confidence in its safety. The training program was designed to help individuals obtain the skill, knowledge and experience they need to fulfill our responsibility for public safety.”
Either way, the demand for LRT technicians is unlikely to subside. Metro Transit has multiple openings, and more than two dozen technicians will be needed when the $2 billion Southwest light-rail line opens, scheduled in 2023.