As 2023 is the European Year of Skills. Never has this issue been more critical for the urban mobility sector. Urban mobility is undergoing a radical transition, with new services, digitalisation and automation transforming passenger and freight transport.
While these are pushing transport towards a smarter, more sustainable future, the repercussions for the workforce often remain under-examined and under-addressed. Transport is a leading employer, employing over 6.0 million people aged 15-64 years old in the EU, accounting for around 3.1% of total employment in the Union.
However, it is a sector which is changing rapidly. On 6 October 2023, the Urban Mobility Days conference will dive into this issue, hearing from high-level representatives from across the public and private sectors.
To provide a taster of what is to come, one panelist, Livia Spera, Secretary General of the European Transport Workers' Federation, spoke with Eltis about some of the critical issues shaping the current face of the transport workforce, and the challenges and opportunities the future holds.
Can you tell us a bit about the ETF, its goals and your role here?
The European Transport Workers’ Federation is the European trade union federation that represents transport workers. We have over 200 affiliated unions in over 40 countries and through them we represent more than 5 million transport workers. This includes around 1 million public transport workers. I’m here to represent the human side of mobility, the bus, tram, railway and metro drivers, mechanics, technicians and IT workers. Without them there would be no public mobility.
The Green Deal must result in the mass adoption of public transport to cut emissions and improve quality of life in our cities and this transition needs to be discussed with everyone and public transport workers’ voices need to be heard. The current worker shortage is putting even more pressure on the workforce. In a time when services should be expanding, they are being cut due to the lack of staff. This message, and the reasons behind it, need to be communicated to employers and policymakers.
What have been the key changes workers in the transport sector have faced/seen over the last decade? What has driven these changes and how have these changes improved conditions/ experiences of the workforce, and how have they undermined or damaged them?
In public transport, workers, especially post covid-19, have prioritised more their work/life balance and chosen other jobs. These jobs tend to have better and more definite work scheduling so people can better organise their family and social life. Current pay in the sector doesn’t compensate for the lack of work life balance.
Our urban centres have seen traffic conditions worsen, which increases stress for drivers. Recently, we’ve seen low traffic neighbourhoods and sustainable urban mobility plans put a focus on less private car traffic and more public transport use. But as we’ve seen in Brussels with the Good Move, this has not been easy.
With a greater volume of passengers in public transport, also comes great responsibility and stress to ensure the safety and comfort of passengers, especially vulnerable users. Investment in public transport must match the ambition of the Green Deal and sustainable urban mobility plans. This will result in a better experience for drivers and users. In Brussels, the Good Move has resulted in a reduction of city centre traffic and given time savings on bus and tram routes across the city particularly during rush hour. This is good for drivers, users and pollution/noise levels.
Another change is that job stability has lessened. Historically the sector had good job security. The pressure to tender routes and award routes to private operators has put downward pressure on job security, pay and conditions. This is particularly true when there is no sectoral collective bargaining agreement. People are choosing sectors with wage stability, better work life balance and a long-term career path.
From the ETF’s experience, what are the main concerns being voiced by workers, and their employers?
Driver shortage is the main concern for workers, a concern shared by employers. It is having a detrimental impact on working conditions, leading to an increasing stressful and unsafe work environment. More pressure on workers to do overtime and work longer hours to meet the service requirements.
Worker safety has become a key issue, violent incidents which increased during covid-19 have continued to be a major problem. This turns people away from the sector and contributes to the worker shortage. So you have a vicious circle, increased work shortage, greater pressure and stress, more exits from the sector.
There has been a growing volume of work looking at the sector’s lack of diversity (gender and other axes of identity). Why do you think the transport sector still struggles with diversity? And what are the next steps and perhaps what further research you would like to see?
Urban public transport is still predominantly older and male. Almost 20% of the UPT workforce in Germany will retire by 2030. The key remains making the sector attractive to under-represented groups including young people, women and minority groups. The sector struggles with diversity due to a lack of flexible working, no defined career path and poor work conditions and safety, particularly for women.
The ETF has worked closely on the issue of gender, can you tell me a bit about the evolution of your many campaigns (e.g. Get ME home safely: Unions demand safe commuting for women transport workers, Making the Transport Sector Fit for Women to Work in), and what you have planned in the future?
ETF has been campaigning for a long time on the issue of gender. The 'Get ME home safely' campaign involved all transports modes and highlighted the challenges women face commuting to work. Women continue to face violence and harassment and it remains one of the barriers to entering the sector.
We are raising this with employers to make a gender-based workplace risk assessment compulsory for commuting to work. We also call on governments to ratify 'ILO C190 (2019) Violence and Harassment in the World of Work' and implement the provisions in national law. We will continue to raise this at every opportunity particularly at all levels of social dialogue with employers.
As 2023 is the year of skills, what do you think are the key skills employers are looking for going forward, and how can they help equip young people with these skills?
The Green Deal commitments will see a revolution in urban transport. Clean buses will be rolled out in cities across Europe. Workers will need to be able to work with these new technologies, so IT skills and expertise in green technologies will be increasingly valuable. Employers need to work together with trade unions to design training for young people to equip them with the skills they need.
Many transport modes face a devastating skills and workforce shortage. How can the transport sector ensure it remains an attractive sector to work in?
I think we covered this already, but it’s true, all our sectors are facing a worker shortage. This is coupled with new jobs with new skills requirements that are emerging all the time. The fundamental issues of decent pay and quality work conditions remain key to attracting and retaining staff. A safe and rewarding work environment will always attract and retain workers.
What role can - and must - universities play here?
On training, a partnership approach between universities and all stakeholders is needed to provide training, which is best placed for the requirements of each region and transport mode. Worker/trade union involvement in the planning and design of reskilling/training programmes is key to their success. It can help guarantee buy-in and provide a clear career pathway.
On the green transition, more data and research are required to quantify the level of investment required for a successful modal shift from road to rail and private to mass transport. We need to know what the projections are for employment in all sectors to have an understanding of the impact on workers across sectors. We have a joint project with the IndustriAll trade union confederation looking at a just transition for our sectors but a lot more research is required.
What can/must European level decision makers do to support workers through the changes afoot?
Public transport is a key public service, it can never be a profit driver exercise. It is a collective good and key to social cohesion and prosperity. EU decision makers need to focus investment on rail and public transport to encourage mass mobility versus private mobility, ease congestion and improve quality of life. In our view, there is a continued focus on competition and tendering of public transport which is working against our shared social and environmental goals.
For more information and to register for Urban Mobility Days, see here.
To view the programme, see here.
Photo Credit: European Transport Workers' Federation