As transit agencies across the country aim to build and rebuild infrastructure, among the issues they face is finding qualified workers to fill positions produced by projects, said prominent transit officials and stakeholders at an industry forum on Monday. Good workers, in turn, can get the jobs and wages needed to boost local economies and neighborhoods.

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“We have, I think, a national emergency,” said Metro CEO Phillip Washington. “We need a qualified workforce to construct, maintain and operate the transportation infrastructure that we must build.”

This and other related issues were discussed at the symposium “Transforming Lives and Communities: The Power of Transportation Investment” at the American Public Transportation Association (APTA) annual meeting at the JW Marriott in downtown Los Angeles. The event was organized by LA Metro, Jobs to Move America and APTA.

Washington was joined by other leaders from public transit agencies, labor, business, philanthropy and community based organizations, as they shared their perspectives on how transportation investment can be a catalyst for growth, access and transformation for the 21st century and beyond.

The panel was moderated by Dr. Beverly A. Scott, CEO, Beverly Ascott Associates, Albany, Calif. Panelists included Dorval R. Cater, Jr., President, Chicago Transit Authority (CTA); Patrick J. Scully, Executive Vice President, Sales and Marketing, Motor Coach Industries, Des Plaines, Ill.; Stephanie J. Jones, Senior Counselor to the Secretary and Chief Opportunities Officer, U.S. Department of Transportation, Washington D.C.; Amy Kenyon, Program Officer, Equitable Development of the Ford Foundation, New York; Elizabeth Bunn, Organizing Director, AFL-CIO, Washington D.C. and Kristian Mendoza, Kinkisharyo Palmdale facility.

Again and again, officials pointed to the challenges involved in finding workers who could do the job – and way that agencies are dealing with it.

In Chicago, for example, a program allows Chicago public school graduates who hold at least a B average to attend community college for two years for free. And CTA, like many other transit agencies, including Metro, offers internships and entry-level positions for promising young students. Among the goals is to expose inexperienced workers to the skills they will need to move forward with their lives.

“The U.S. was hemorrhaging jobs, as the economy became more global,” said CTA’s Dorval Carter, Jr. “How do we bring those jobs back? How do we do it and provide inclusion? We need to provide pathways to long-term sustainable jobs. And we don’t want to have jobs in neighborhoods where people don’t see their neighbors. Our responsibility is to give back to the neighborhoods we serve.”

Panelists agreed that the benefits of creating a qualified workforce goes well beyond just building new projects. Good jobs and pay flow can flow back to communities nationwide and help more people obtain property and the experience they need to compete in a global economy.

“By doing this, we can help create a new middle class,” said Metro CEO Phil Washington. “This is not a social program. This is an economic development plan.”

In 2012, Metro awarded a contract to light-rail car producer Kinkisharyo International after it committed to building a new manufacturing facility in L.A. County and creating 235 jobs that would be accessible to people facing barriers to employment. Kinkisharyo is producing four rail cars a month with that number rising to five cars per month later this year. Those rail cars are being added to the new Metro Gold Line and Expo Line extensions to make room for the influx of passengers.

Kristian Mendoza, a panelist and employee of Kinkisharyo, explained how the U.S. Employment Plan has affected him and his co-workers at the Palmdale facility.

“I’m a Marine vet and I had been out of work for two years. I was one of the first three people hired there,” Mendoza said.

It was hard at first but Mendoza said the effort was worth it. “People working in the plant are now able to get affordable housing and take care of their families.”