T cautious on biz-funded management initiative

Novel program has provided training to 41 employees

DESPITE A DESPERATE NEED for management talent, the MBTA has moved very cautiously in taking advantage of a novel initiative spearheaded by several Massachusetts business groups offering money for training and recruitment efforts as well as loaned executives.

The T has spent just over a third of the $365,000 provided by the business groups in the fall of 2017, with most of the money going for a program developed by Roxbury Community College to provide training for officials from bus maintenance and operations. No executives have been loaned to the transit authority so far.

A T spokesman provided limited information over the last few weeks on how much money was provided and how it was spent, but top officials refused to comment. Late on Wednesday, after continued delays, an agency spokesman issued a statement largely reiterating what had been provided earlier. T officials have not reported on the initiative to the agency’s Fiscal and Management Control Board and some of the business funders have received little in the way of updates.

“After the initial discussions, we haven’t heard anything for the past two years,” said James Rooney, president and CEO of the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, which contributed $100,000 to the effort.

The Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, which is made up of the CEOs of the state’s largest companies, also contributed $100,000 to the initiative and played an instrumental role in getting it off the ground. Jay Ash, a former member of Gov. Charlie Baker’s cabinet who took over as president and CEO of the Competitive Partnership on January 1, said several months ago he requested information on the program and received a breakdown on the spending.

Ash said the T is working on another training initiative with another local university and the Competitive Partnership is gearing up to loan company executives to the transit authority. He said he is satisfied with the progress.  “I have nothing that tells me otherwise,” he said.

The initiative was intended to help the T recruit new executives, to offer additional management training to existing employees, and to lend corporate officials to the T who could spend a chunk of time working at the transit authority. The goal was to address what has long been seen as a major weakness of the T – a thin bench of executive talent.

The panel appointed by Gov. Charlie Baker to report on challenges at the MBTA in the wake of the 2015 snowmageddon identified organizational instability as one of the agency’s biggest problems. “The MBTA has been hobbled by frequent changes of leadership, significant vacancies, looming attrition, and organizational insularity,” the panel said in its report issued in April 2015.

Dan O’Connell, who was the president and CEO of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership at the time, broached the privately funded recruitment and training initiative publicly at a meeting of the Fiscal and Management Control Board in October 2016. Nearly a year later, after extensive discussions with MBTA lawyers, the State Ethics Commission, and various business groups, O’Connell said the initiative was ready to launch. He said additional funding would be provided if the results were positive.

O’Connell and other officials said the private sector money could be used for training programs and recruitment expenses, including the cost of flying in applicants for interviews, relocating hires to Boston, and paying for professional licenses.

Since that burst of activity in late 2017, T officials have said nothing about the program. In response to recent requests by CommonWealth, a T spokesman said a total of $365,000 was provided by the business groups, with $100,000 apiece from the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership, the Greater Boston Chamber of Commerce, and MassBio; $50,000 from the law firm Goulston & Storrs; $10,000 from the Massachusetts Business Roundtable, and $5,000 from A Better City.

The transit authority said it paid $100,000 to Roxbury Community College to develop a management training program for superintendents and supervisors from bus maintenance and bus operations. Another $20,760 was paid to GannonConsult, a Gloucester firm, to support the training program.

A spokeswoman for the college and a T spokesman said the money was used to develop an eight-week program covering personnel management, customer experience, strategic thinking, financial management, and leadership. The officials said three separate groups, a total of 41 employees in all, went through the training between October 3, 2018, and December 4, 2018. Each employee received a certificate of completion.

“In light of the MBTA’s current capital investment program underway, the T is building on the success of the series by creating a construction management program in partnership with another academic institution,” a T spokesman said. One source said the institution is Wentworth Institute of Technology.

According to the T, another $15,000 has been paid to Keystone Partners for executive coaching for the T’s chief safety officer. It was unclear when that expenditure was made and whether it was for Ron Nickle, the chief safety officer who claims he was fired in March by the T for identifying safety hazards and pushing leaders to be more transparent about derailments, electrocutions, track problems, excessive overtime, and other incidents.

Meet the Author

Bruce Mohl

Editor, CommonWealth

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

About Bruce Mohl

Bruce Mohl is the editor of CommonWealth magazine. Bruce came to CommonWealth from the Boston Globe, where he spent nearly 30 years in a wide variety of positions covering business and politics. He covered the Massachusetts State House and served as the Globe’s State House bureau chief in the late 1980s. He also reported for the Globe’s Spotlight Team, winning a Loeb award in 1992 for coverage of conflicts of interest in the state’s pension system. He served as the Globe’s political editor in 1994 and went on to cover consumer issues for the newspaper. At CommonWealth, Bruce helped launch the magazine’s website and has written about a wide range of issues with a special focus on politics, tax policy, energy, and gambling. Bruce is a graduate of Ohio Wesleyan University and the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He lives in Dorchester.

Ash said his organization will continue to work cooperatively with the T, but he said the current training and recruitment initiative is not expected to last beyond three years. “This was a one-time commitment,” he said.

The program currently has a balance, with interest, of $235,590, according to the T