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Key MBTA positions go unfilled

An MBTA maintenance worker examined a Green Line trolley car at the Riverside maintenance facility in Newton. Key positions at the transit agency are going unfilled.Steven Senne/Associated Press/File

With its aging trains and miles of decaying tracks, the MBTA has plenty of maintenance needs — but plenty of unfilled jobs in its maintenance department.

Half of the top jobs in the engineering and maintenance department are open, as is that of the director of the human resources department, who would lead the charge to hire such employees.

About 18 percent of the MBTA’s highest positions are vacant, according to a Globe review of a July 11 organizational chart that represents nearly 120 top jobs.

Officials and observers say there are several reasons for the vacancies in high-priority jobs: a hiring process that sometimes takes so long that the best applicants slip away, the recent creation of new positions, a small talent pool, low pay, and an aging workforce.

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But the vacancies highlight yet another obstacle to fixing the MBTA.

“The bottom line is, the efficient operation of the MBTA requires for these positions to be filled,” said Paul Regan, executive director of the MBTA Advisory Board, which represents communities served by the agency. “And while you can understand why there are some delays in filling them, you’ve got to get past that and fill them anyway.”

Steve Poftak, a member of the MBTA’s fiscal control board, agrees: “It’s a huge problem in terms of the depth of operations, and making sure everything is properly managed, and it’s hindering the ability to deliver capital projects,” he said.

Brian Shortsleeve, acting general manager of the T, says the agency is on its way to fixing the hiring process. “Our focus on continuing to bring people into the organization won’t stop,” he said.

The Globe’s review found that the empty positions include:

■  The director of human resources, who must lead the process of filling these empty positions. The last director, Donna Scott, retired a few months ago, after less than a year on the job. The position had been vacant for three years before that.

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■  The director of labor relations, who oversees the union contracts that make up the majority of the T’s expenses. Its former director, Kimberly Poirier, left the agency in recent months.

■  The director of right-of-way maintenance, who leads a team that takes care of the tracks throughout the system. Its former director, Patrick Kineavy, also retired this year.

■  Several newly created positions under the chief procurement officer, who is responsible for ensuring that critical purchases, such as new Red and Orange Line cars, go well.

All this comes as the MBTA is also grappling with the departure of its top official, general manager Frank DePaola last month.

Officials have acknowledged that the hiring process needed fixing: In March, T officials said they hoped to hire candidates for all jobs in less than 100 days — an improvement to a process so slow that the best applicants sometimes give up and accept jobs elsewhere.

“It has taken too long to identify candidates, launch search processes, and get them on board,” said Joseph Aiello, chairman of the fiscal control board. “That time has caused us to lose talented people in the past because they get frustrated.”

In the past, the agency has also been criticized for understaffing the T’s human resources department. A 2014 Ernst & Young audit found that the lack of staffing could “limit the department’s ability to fully implement a new staffing workflow.”

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That exacerbates other problems: Monica Tibbits-Nutt, a fiscal control board member, notes that the industry isn’t teeming with qualified applicants. “There aren’t a ton of people doing this for a living,” she said.

And still more positions are open because of department shake-ups that have been ordered in the last year. For example, the top leadership of one of the MBTA’s most crucial departments — the engineering and maintenance department that helps repair the infrastructure that commuters rely on every day — has been expanded.

Four new positions, including the senior director of engineering and maintenance for physical infrastructure, were created. All this comes as T leaders have worked to speed up the retirements of longtime employees, as officials search for cost-savings. About 260 MBTA workers are on their way out the door, taking advantage of buyout offers.

Jessie Saintcyr, assistant secretary of human resources who oversees the hiring departments for both the T and the Department of Transportation, said they’ve made progress with key hires: Officials have added staff and cut down the number of approvals needed. They have worked with the governor’s staff and recruiting firms to attract more talent, she said.

In 2015, it took an average of 137.5 days to fill each vacant position — more than 750 in all. For about 290 employees hired in the second quarter of 2016, the agency says it took an average of 89 days.

MBTA board members say fixing the hiring process is a priority, but many have also expressed interest in raising pay for executives in an attempt to hire more qualified people.

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“If we’re going to be a world-class transit agency, we need to attract world-class talent,” said Shortsleeve.

Regan said he sees the difficulty of hiring quickly at a time when officials have also been focused on cost-savings and management improvements.

“I don’t fault them for focusing on those issues, but the rest of the problem is just as real and it’s just as pressing,” he said. “That’s how it is at the T. There are a million things going on, and they all have to be fixed right now.”


Nicole Dungca can be reached at nicole.dungca@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @ndungca.