By Christine Dunn, @VtownCommuter

Public transportation in the United States is a crucial part of the solution to the nation’s economic, energy, and environmental challenges – helping to bring a better quality of life. Across America, people are using public transportation in increasing numbers.

The American Public Transportation Association (APTA) reports that public transportation use in the United States in 2013 rose to 10.7 billion trips – the highest number in 57 years. As Americans look for a transit-centric lifestyle, public transportation use has grown at a faster rate than both the population and vehicles miles traveled.

This also is true at the local level: At the San Mateo County Transit District, ridership on Caltrain is at a historic high, with average weekday ridership nearing 60,000. SamTrans also is seeing an upturn in ridership for the first time in years.

Increasing demand for new and innovative services brings with it a corresponding need to develop the next generation of public transportation professionals. As the current workforce ages, the transit industry is facing a significant worker shortage in the coming years.

Internship programs are one way of attracting new, highly qualified employees to this critical industry. For a number of years, SamTrans has mentored students with an interest in public transportation through its summer internship program.

Michael Eshleman, a planner who develops SamTrans bus service and is supervising a summer intern, said, “We are not so concerned with how much work we can get out of them. The burden is on us to teach them as much as we can and get them excited about a career in transportation.”

Several former SamTrans interns have caught that excitement and are now working in the transit industry.

Alan Velasquez, a civil engineer with the City of San Jose, is working on the City’s first Bus Rapid Transit project. Velasquez was an engineering student at San Jose State University in 2007 when he worked as summer intern at the transit district. Velasquez said going through the underground tunnel at Caltrain’s San Jose maintenance while it was under construction was one of the highlights of his summer.

Erin Mader was a civil engineering student at University of California, Berkeley when she worked as a summer intern at SamTrans in 2010. Mader said, “I really enjoyed my exposure to the rail industry while an intern at SamTrans. I’ve carried that experience into my current job at Herzog Technologies.”

Desmond Chan said, “SamTrans was my first internship and one that sparked my career path in the transportation industry.” While at SamTrans he researched and analyzed real-time data for changeable message signs on Highway 101. Chan graduated from San Jose State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in civil engineering. He takes Caltrain to his job as an assistant engineer for the City and County of San Francisco. 

Other interns are working in construction and engineering fields. Daniel Pare surveyed the communications systems at every station on the Caltrain corridor during his internship. Pare credits his internship with his success in getting into graduate school at Stanford, where he earned a master’s degree in civil and environmental engineering. Pare works at a San Francisco company that designs energy-efficient component buildings that can be assembled on site and, in his off-hours, mentors high school students interested in a career in engineering.

Assal Yavari recalled her experience as an intern at SamTrans, “My most memorable experience was being able to watch the seismic reinforcement of a tunnel in San Francisco’s south of Market area on a Saturday. This was my first opportunity to see shotcrete done in a tunnel. It was awesome!” After earning a master’s in engineering from University of California, Berkeley, Yavari now works for Gilead Sciences, Inc. as a facilities and operations manager.

Jennifer Werner was a construction management major at California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo in 2009, when she was an intern. Today Werner works for the City of Santa Cruz, heading up their green building program. 

Some interns, like Engineer Patrick Kitto, become SamTrans employees. Executive Officer of Customer Service and Marketing Rita Haskin started her career at SamTrans as an intern while she was a student at San Jose State University.

Most recently, SamTrans hired former interns Julie Huang and Tracey Lin as associate schedulers/planners in bus operations planning. Huang said, “As interns, we met so many people from so many different departments. I am not sure that would have happened if we had started as regular employees. Coming in as interns gave us a good structure for working here.”

This summer, five interns continue the tradition, partnering with SamTrans employees to get hands-on, real-world professional experience in public transportation.

College students Sonal Aggarwal, Jenny Ha, Michael McAlister, Samuel Moffit , Alexa Moreles and Daniel Shockley are working on everything from analyzing Caltrain shuttle service to using geographic information systems (GIS) to map SamTrans bus stops.

Hopefully, they will be among the innovative thinkers working to solve real world problems through a career in public transportation.

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