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Change Agent—Michael Townes, Attracting a Diverse Workforce to Transportation

Michael_Townes_cropped

By Victor Greto

Growing up a child of the Civil Rights movement during the 1960s gave Michael Townes a multidimensional perspective on the world. “My father was politically and socially active in Richmond, Virginia, one of the principal places in which the debate unfolded,” said Townes, 60, Vice President and Transit Market Leader at CDM Smith, an international engineering and construction firm. The culmination of Townes’ early life, career, and influence within the transportation industry has led to his passion for diversity, including filling the industry’s workforce pipeline with more women, and for supporting WTS International.

Townes was a key presenter at the 2014 Transportation YOU DC Youth Summit, leading a panel discussion of young women congressional staffers to help the high-school Summit attendees understand the importance of transportation to the U.S. and to the world. Townes’ support of WTS and the advancement of women has spanned many years; while he was in leadership at the Peninsula Transportation District, the transit system was the first to receive the Minority & Women Advancement Award twice from the American Public Transit Association (APTA), an international organization with more than 1,000 member agencies.

Townes’ road to a career in transportation started with his father’s investment in a charter coach company. As a teenager, Townes cleaned the buses and worked in the parts room. “I got to know a little about buses and I got to know about bus drivers and the culture around that,” he said.

A short-term ground-floor job eventually became a career that has spanned nearly four decades.

As a young man, Townes lived through a wide range of the triumphs and tragedies of life during the racial strife of the 1960s. He attended public and private schools that ran the integrated/ non-integrated gamut, including what is now the Pennington School near Princeton in New Jersey, which he and his brother were able to attend thanks to scholarships. It was there, in 1969, where he and the other six black students out of a student body of 257 celebrated the first “Negro History Month” that February by doing a presentation of an Eldridge Cleaver speech at a nearby coffee house.

But it is his career in transportation that ultimately made his life fulfilling. It began with inspiration from a college teacher who saw something in Townes that the teenager did not see in himself and guided him toward urban planning. When he began college at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), Townes thought he wanted to be a lawyer, until he took a land-use law course and a few urban planning courses as electives, and was then called into the office of Professor Morton B. Gulak. “He knew more about me than I knew about myself.” Gulak told him, “‘Mike, I can see that you’re a little lost and don’t know what to do.’ He felt I had a lot to offer the world.”

At Gulak’s urging, Townes applied for a HUD grant, got it, and earned his Masters at VCU in urban planning in 1978. Only two years later, with the help of a friend, he became director of planning at the Greater Richmond Transit Company.

Townes’ career-long advocacy of women in transportation kicked into gear during a two-year stint in Saudi Arabia during the early 1980s, where he worked as a manager of planning, marketing, and scheduling for the Saudi Arabian Public Transport Company. “Women weren’t respected there,” Townes said. “It was inconceivable to me that women weren’t even allowed to drive. That had an impact on me.”

The lessons he learned overseas had their roots in childhood. “My mother was a teacher, a typical job, but she took it seriously and affected the lives of people,” Townes said. “As I grew up, folks came up and told me she was their teacher. That had a positive influence in my life, and I always took pride in that. Because of that, I never looked at women professionally any different than men in their knowledge and ability to learn.”

Afterward, as an assistant to the Executive Director of the Peninsula Transportation District Commission, as Interim Director of Tidewater Regional Transit, and then, finally, for 11 years as president and CEO of Hampton Roads Transit in Virginia, he employed women as much as possible. Call it a passion for diversity.

“At one time, women who chose to go into transportation had to do what African-Americans did―fight,” he said. “And there’s still a glass ceiling. Making the playing field even, to be judged on the content of your character and your ability and nothing else―young people understand and they’re willing to act on it.”

The work of the WTS International helps facilitate the changes that have been taking place, Townes said. “WTS is another conduit in the transportation industry for the growth of young people, and inclusion of diversity in our industry,” he said. “The issue of workforce development and the lack of talented people of all types is a real concern to me and to others, and WTS is an important asset for attracting young women, training them and including them in positions of responsibility in the transportation industry.”

Since joining CDM Smith four years ago as the firm’s lead practitioner and market leader for public transportation, Townes said he has made it his goal to attract diverse young people into the business. “If we don’t attract more young people of all descriptions, particularly women and minorities, there will be a huge deficit in brain power,” he said. “I tell young people everything in their life is affected by transportation. The clothes on your back came to you via transportation. You can’t access education, health care and even entertainment without transportation. Without it, life doesn’t exist.”

Demographics project that the country is growing more diverse, Townes said. “Fifty percent of all children born in the U.S. now are non-white, and I believe in inclusion of all people— White, Asian, African-American, Latino-American, and particularly women. They have been underrepresented historically, and we have an opportunity to address and reverse that imbalance.”

 

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