Bike mechanics emerge as key component of Citi Bike’s equity efforts
March 11, 2015
April Corbin, PeopleForBikes equity writer
Here's an underappreciated equity benefit of bike sharing: It's created a new career path into the bike industry for people good at working with their hands.
Finding the right people to hire for the unsung but essential job of maintaining thousands of bicycles isn’t as simple as testing someone’s ability to fix a busted chain. The repetitive nature of the warehouse environment turns off many of the people who have the required technical skills.
Luckily for the operators of Citi Bike, there’s one consistent place they can turn for recommendations on new hires: Recycle-A-Bicycle, a community-based nonprofit that specializes in empowering youth through job training and environmental education.
Eleven of their 20 mechanics are alumni of a Recycle-A-Bicycle program, as are two of the five mechanic supervisors on staff.
That high percentage is no coincidence, says Phil Capezio, the bike fleet operations manager for Citi Bike.
“This group of people who came from Recycle-A-Bicycle, they tend to just be more open to this type of work,” he says. “They’re not close-minded to what do we do here. They’re just really excited to learn more skills and help with the mission.”
“Our experience here is significantly different than in a normal bike shop,” continues Capezio. “While a lot of the skills you need to be successful are the same, we don’t have customers, there’s no sales, no variety because all of the bikes are the same.”
He’s found that people who enjoy the bike shop experience because of the communities they create or a pure love of working on different types of rides, don’t enjoy working in a warehouse responsible for servicing and repairing 7,000 identical bicycles. (This isn’t true of everyone with traditional bike shop experience, of course. Capezio previously worked in three before moving into the burgeoning bike share system back in 2011 with Boston Hubway.)
“The work tends to be repetitive, and many mechanics would think of it as warehouse assembly work, though it’s not that extreme,” he adds. “I’ve had a number of people who really love bike share but find the work disappointing.”
A photo from one of Recycle-A-Bicycle's programs.
In contrast, those who’ve come through Recycle-A-Bicycle don’t have traditional bike shop experience. Instead, their focus is much more on learning marketable skills and gaining employment experience.
“For some of them, this is their first job outside of working for us,” says Karen Overton, the executive director of Recycle-A-Bicycle, “so this is a new experience for them. It represented a raise for them. It creates new opportunities for them.”
That path might even lead to a traditional bike shop.
“The irony of going on an interview as a bike mechanic is that they hope you have two years experience,” says Overton. “Once you’ve got that, you’ve got it. But how do you get that? How do you get that two years? This is a way.”
Overton and Capezio are also proud that all of the Recycle-A-Bicycle hires have been people of color. Additionally, one of the mechanic supervisors who came from the program is a woman. (Capezio believes she’s the only female supervisor of the New York City-based staff.)
“It’s diversifying the workforce,” says Overton. “That’s really something.”
Humberto Facey is one of Capezio’s bike mechanic supervisors. He was the first of the Recycle-A-Bicycle group to be hired in 2012, right after he graduated high school. He describes both his current job and his past experience with Recycle-A-Bicycle as a blessing.
“Recycle-A-Bicycle came into my life as I was trying to figure it out,” he says. “I think it’s a good program for the city. It has meant a lot to me.”
Facey heard about the nonprofit’s earn-a-bike program during high school and decided he wanted to participate. He hadn’t owned his own bicycle since he’d moved to the United States from Panama when he was 10 years old. After successfully earning a bike, he completed an internship with Recycle-A-Bicycle and was hired to work on youth programs.
“I got experience not just in fixing bikes, but in teaching in their school programs,” he says. “I learned how to be more patient and work better with children.”
All that helps him a lot these days, says Facey.
“When new people come on board, I can be the one to take the reins.”
He says he is proud of the work the mechanics do and is in awe at how much the staff has grown since he started three years ago. Seeing all that growth, he sees the potential to move up himself.
“We’ve been doing a great job here in making the company run,” he adds. “I’m glad I’m a part of that. I’ve learned more responsibilities here, and hopefully that allows me to continue to move up here at Citi Bike.”
And he’s not the only one seeing potential.
Overton says donors are increasingly seeing the value of investing in Recycle-A-Bicycle job-training programs that focus on mechanical skills.
“In the past, when I’ve tried to raise money, people have said, ‘Oh, bike mechanic, that’s not a real job. You can’t make enough money doing that,’” she says. “Suddenly, we have Bike and Roll, we have Citi Bike moving into the market. Now people are starting to pay attention. I think that Citi Bike has put bike mechanics on a more legit footing as a job”
Humberto in the shop.
This unofficial partnership between Citi Bike and Recycle-A-Bicycle is one that both sides hope to formalize in the near future.
“It should be institutionalized,” says Overton. “We’re doing amazing work.”
He says that has always been part of the plan, noting that the contract between the Department of Transportation and Citi Bank requires the creation of a job-training program specifically for youth.
“There are no specifics on when that has to happen, or what it has to be composed of,” he adds, “but Karen and I are holding onto that. We need to make that happen.”
Early talks about partnering with Recycle-A-Bicycle fell by the wayside when Citi Bike's budget challenges and ownership changes took precedence. As that played out, Overton and Capezio made it work without a formalized process.
Now, as Citi Bike moves into its third season overall and its first under the new ownership of Motivate, Capezio hopes they will be able to push along progress much quicker. He says a new education and outreach manager hire should help.
“It’s extremely important to have this kind of relationship,” he says. “I don’t tend to think about what life would be like without Karen.”
The Better Bike Share Partnership is a grant-funded collaboration between the City of Philadelphia, the Bicycle Coalition of Greater Philadelphia, the National Association of City Transportation Officials (NACTO) and the PeopleForBikes Foundation to increase access to and use of bike share in underserved communities. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Story tip? Write firstname.lastname@example.org
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