Transit Career Stories

Rich Diaz – Embracing the Power of Mentorship

Getting Started and Finding His Way 

As a college student, Rich Diaz was daunted by choosing a career path, overwhelmed by the endless options. When he decided to take his uncle’s advice to start working for Golden Gate Transit as a stepping stone, he didn’t realize he would be entering into a full-blown career that he’d still be in over a decade later. In September 2022, Rich was named Bus Operator Apprenticeship Coordinator as part of a joint Golden Gate Transit (GGT)-Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) Local 1575 program, a position that allows him to guide his peers on their own career journeys. “One thing I didn’t know was there’s a career in transit,” he says. “As operators, we’re concerned about just operating, and not realizing how big transit is and all the different professional jobs that are out there. I want to expose that as much as possible to the other operators, so they know that there are different opportunities to grow.” 

His current leadership and mentoring position allow him to help guide new operators, many of whom are just as unsure as he was at the start of his career journey, understanding the importance of having a good mentor. When he first started as an operator—young, impressionable, and wanting to fit in—he was drawn to a group that provided poor models for the job, resulting in some poor choices. Then, after getting into an accident, he became unsure of himself and his ability to do his job. “At that point, that’s when I realized, that’s not who I am. I go back to that moment and say [to myself], How many other people coming into transit can get affected, or get the wrong information?” He admits he felt ashamed and unsure of himself then. “I didn’t want anybody else to go through that same feeling again. You’re new, and you’re hoping that there’s somebody there to help guide you through or be on your side.” 

One of Rich’s biggest takeaways from the next stage of his early career was finding the right people to help steer him in the right direction. “If you look in the right places,” he says, “there’s definitely a lot of people who are willing to see you grow.”  

He also learned that compassion is a key element of the job. He recalls encountering a rider who couldn’t pay his fare on his work commute across town. Rich waived the fare, which was within his discretion, but also asked what was going on with him, and the passenger talked about challenges at home with his mother and his housing situation. About six months later, Rich ran into the rider at the rider’s workplace, and the rider thanked him for extending that favor. He told Rich it took a weight off his shoulders while he was going through a tough time, and he was doing a lot better, working on an EMT certificate. Rich says that we never truly know what a public transportation service means to someone. “We don’t know what anybody’s going through; having a little bit of compassion goes a long way.” 

Rich identifies this sort of interaction as an essential element of a career in transit. “I think what it comes down to is making sure that you do care about people. Transit is about people. It’s not just driving — it’s being able to connect. I find that people who love this work love people and helping and have that humanitarian part of themselves.”  

Rich Diaz shares his thoughts on how mentors make a difference

The Role of Mentoring 

Looking back on his own experiences and growth, Rich knows the importance of positive influences on impressionable young adults firsthand, and he had the opportunity to serve as a bus operator mentor for several years once GGT-ATU established a strong, structured bus operator apprenticeship program with mentoring at its foundation. He’s proud of facilitating a program ensuring that a new operator can rely on trained mentors for guidance and “somebody you can trust.” 

Rich sees mentoring as a “lifelong process,” and he appreciates people in positions throughout his agency for being “supportive of everything we do. It really is a collective, and people are positive and forward-thinking, and they’re trying to figure out how to solve the problems of recruitment, retention, and morale. Being able to have that support really does make my job a lot easier.” He is committed to ensuring that new hires coming into the career will have progressively better experiences as the years go on.  

Rich also expresses appreciation for the strong support he receives from his union, ATU Local 1575, which plays an active role in making sure his program has everything it needs to function. His work is focused on joint labor-management collaboration, and he says, “It’s really nice because I don’t necessarily have to take sides. I understand our position in the union, but also, it’s [about] seeing the business side of running a transit agency, and trying to find the in-between. It’s always a challenge, but if we work towards a common goal or common cause, we can get a lot of things done fast.” 

Rich helps facilitate collaboration between GGT and ATU 1575 on recruitment and retention. He credits both organizations for their ongoing efforts with the joint programs, because “everybody understands there are recruitment and retention challenges.” He notes that as a coordinator, his role is to “bring the right people in the same room, so that we’re all talking and we’re all headed in the same direction.” He feels fortunate that so many of the people he works with now, whether from ATU or management, “all want to grow” and “head towards a better transit system.” 

Creating Pathways for Others 

Drawing in new workers who will stay in the industry while keeping those who are already there continues to be a top priority for public transportation. In Rich’s current position, he fosters partnerships with junior colleges on apprenticeship and pre-apprenticeship programs, and he also works closely with several community-based organizations, all to cultivate outreach to others so they can have access to opportunities. GGT’s pre-apprenticeship program, described in various TWC resources, is “such a valuable tool for recruitment,” according to Rich. “Being able to bring people in who otherwise would have never had the opportunity, it can open up doors for families and help us in the transit industry solve that recruitment issue.” 

Working with education and community partners, Rich was able to help change operator qualifications so that applicants now only need to have a three-year driving history as opposed to seven, which means that younger people can participate. GGT now also offers alternative skills tests for people without high school diplomas, and those with diplomas from outside the country. Rich notes that this “opens up doors for many communities that are first-generation immigrants, low-income, and priority populations.” Onsite shadow days are offered to help people see if the job is a good fit. “We bring in the mentors, they share their experiences, and answer any questions anybody has about what it’s like to be a bus operator. More importantly, we’re bringing a diverse group of staff to get them exposed. What we’re finding is that the more diverse the group is, the better. As students, they may connect with a certain mentor, or someone from operations, or a supervisor. What we want to see is our students finding their personality as someone in transit.”  

Another change that Rich helped to make is eliminating the formal interview process for pre-apprentices. Instead, on shadow days, participants are given tips and tricks on how to interview, and their interviews are eventually conducted by someone familiar. Rich believes this change “benefits more people and helps them get into transit.”  

A “Growth Mindset” – Helping Others Succeed 

Rich subscribes to the concept of having a “growth mindset,” believing that skills and knowledge can be developed through hard work, and that learning happens when one perseveres through challenges. He loves discussing the topic because “with a growth mindset, you can achieve anything,” he says. He attributes his own growth process to being open-minded, more proactive, and less reactive. He believes a growth mindset means “never taking a defeat as a loss, but as a learning experience, and just to continue to grow. Given time, anybody can do anything they want or learn anything they want.” Rich has incorporated this philosophy into his own life, and it’s what he uses to teach his children at home along with the mentees, pre-apprentices, and apprentices at work.  

What motivates Rich and describes who he is as a leader boils down to his being a part of the clear improvements and advancements people can make. “Some of our pre-apprentices previously were working two, three jobs, and now only have to work one job. They didn’t have benefits, and now they’re able to get medical, dental, and a pension. Just being able to create opportunities for people to change their lives, for me, that’s really what I’m in it for, just to see people succeed.” 

Learn more about mentoring programs by reading TWC’s Apprenticeship FAQ and mentoring data factsheet, Transit Mentorship Metrics: Positive Signs for Retention, Attendance, and Additional Outcomes. For more on Rich’s work, read TWC’s case study on GGT’s and ATU Local 1575’s WIN Partnership programs.

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