Metro-North faces 10% workforce loss, bringing concern about talent drain

Pat Flynn, a retiring Metro-North Railroad employee, is Pat Flynn, a retiring Metro-North Railroad employee, is photographed at home in Hyde Park with part of his model train collection. Flynn, a heavy equipment operator, plans to spend much more time on his hobby after retiring. (April 12, 2013) Photo Credit: Xavier Mascarenas

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Metro-North will lose more than 600 workers to retirement this year, a massive hemorrhaging of talent that presents untold challenges for the commuter railroad as it undergoes the biggest service expansion in its history.

"This is a huge human resources challenge," Metro-North President Howard Permut said in an interview with Newsday. "Many people are retiring and it's not easy to recruit people. As they leave, their years of experience go with them."

The losses cut across a broad swath of the railroad's 6,000-person workforce, from top-level managers to engineers, conductors and track workers. The retirements have railroad officials moving swiftly to find and train qualified replacements.

Fueling the departures is the 30th anniversary of Metro-North's 1983 beginning, when many of those leaving were hired or were inherited from the railroad's predecessor, Conrail. Some 17 percent of the workforce hit the 30-year mark in January and became eligible for retirement.

"To have that much institutional knowledge leave in such a short period of time is a lot," said Chris Silvera, secretary-treasurer of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters Local 808, which represents track workers among other Metro-North employees.

LIFETIME METRO-NORTH WORKERS MADE RAILROAD A SUCCESS

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Among those who've left is Robert MacLagger, who was 31 in 1983 when he took a low-level planner's job at Metro-North, hoping he'd found the place where he could carve out a career.

The early signs weren't encouraging.

Aging rail cars inherited from Conrail had holes in the roof where water seeped in. Wheels were coming off trains and derailments were a regular occurrence. Workers had to lift wheelchair-bound travelers onto trains. An 80 percent on-time rate meant that twice a week, a commuter could count on being late for work or late getting home.

Thirty years later, MacLagger notes with some pride, Metro-North is the busiest commuter rail in the nation, with 83 million riders last year and an average on-time rate of 98 percent.

"It took 30 years, billions of dollars and a lot of blood, sweat and tears," said MacLagger, who shepherded the railroad's recent off-peak and weekend expansion efforts.

MacLagger, 61, left his job as vice president for planning two weeks ago.

He is among three top managers, with a combined 100 years of experience, who retired from the railroad in a four-month period, Permut said. And so far, the railroad has only been able to find a qualified replacement for one of the three positions.

"That's a huge loss of talent," Permut said. "It's hard to find replacements."

At the same time, Metro-North has in recent months been moving quickly to train engineers and conductors to work on some of the 187 extra trains that have been rolled out into service. Those trains were mostly added to off-peak and weekend hours as Metro-North expands its mission beyond the traditional Manhattan-bound morning commuter market. Today, railroad data show, the largest surge in ridership is among reverse commuters, those leaving New York City for the Hudson Valley or weekend travelers to the city.

LOSSES CREATE OPPORTUNITIES TO DIVERSIFY

The retirements give Metro-North, and the industry at large, a chance to bring more women and minorities into a field that has been male-dominated for decades, Permut said.

"It certainly creates an opportunity," Permut said. "We want the railroad to be increasingly diverse. ... We're building from a position of strength. It's not like we're trying to build a railroad from the bottom up."

Metro-North has been working to increase the percentages by attending women- and minority-focused job fairs as well as visiting middle schools and high schools with large minority populations.

However, Silvera worries that managers have not done enough to prepare for the transition. Over the next four years, some 10 percent of his union's 600 workers will retire, Silvera said.

"It presents a problem for the railroad," Silvera said. "But I think we can weather the storm."

Others worry that the newest generation of younger workers won't have the same work ethic as the baby boomers who will be leaving.

"It's a different generation," said Pat Flynn, 58, a heavy-equipment operator who works in Poughkeepsie and will retire at the end of next month after 36 years with Conrail and Metro-North.

"We've been told we're OK," Flynn said, referring to the transition to new employees, "but personally I feel we're not.

There was a time, Flynn said, when he and his co-workers thought nothing of spending a day on the rails lugging 250-pound wood ties around tracks. "It wasn't a job," Flynn said. "We loved to be around trains."

And that won't end in retirement. Flynn's looking forward to spending his retirement years laying out a vast model electric train system in the basement of his Hyde Park home.

"I just haven't had the time to work on it," he said.

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