By Aaron Isaacs, HRA editor
It’s spring at the Minnesota Streetcar Museum, where I work. Like so many small museums, we’re 100% volunteer. If we had to hire even one paid employee, our business plan wouldn’t work. I tell people we’re performing without a net. We only stay in business if people are willing to work for free.
We run two streetcar lines during spring, summer and fall. Each season we have to staff about 800 streetcar operating shifts of 2-4 hours each. On top of that we have five active streetcars to maintain, one truck rebuild project under way, a complete car restoration in its last year, and a series of small physical plant improvements to complete this year. We plan and put on special events throughout the year, and run a number of unscheduled streetcar charters. We maintain a library and history archive, publish a monthly newsletter and a quarterly history magazine. Of course there are the admin functions of paying the bills, buying insurance, etc.
To all those functions we must add training, and spring is when it happens. We have slightly over 300 members, of whom about 115 are active volunteers, doing all the tasks listed above. We need about 80 people to operate the streetcars. Every year we lose some, whether to death, disability or loss of interest. Every spring we advertise for new volunteers on our website and in neighborhood newspapers near our sites. A few people also approach us during the rest of the year.
It helps to be located in the middle of a metro area with 3 million people. Despite the fear that our volunteers will age out and we’ll implode for lack of recruits, we’ve always gotten a good response to our ads. This year 40 people responded. A few years ago we created the job of Volunteer Coordinator who contacts every interested person, learns their areas of interest and does the hand-holding necessary to slot them into a job, whether it’s running streetcars or something else.
Most of the new recruits want to run streetcars, but there is always attrition. This year 33 of the 40 showed up for orientation, and three of them decided it wasn’t for them and dropped out. To advance beyond orientation we require trainees to join as members, a $30 obligation. That weeds out some who just want to learn how to drive a streetcar, then disappear.
Next comes what we call Phase 1 training, which is classroom learning and getting acquainted with the basic parts of a streetcar. Now it dawns on some that this is a complicated undertaking that will require a time commitment, and we’re down to 24 recruits.
As this is written, the trainees are in Phase 2, on a streetcar learning the basics of running it. This is very hands-on, and it’s a big time commitment for the trainers who can only work with a few trainees at a time.
Inevitably we discover people who are not able to master operations. We invest extra time to give them every opportunity to succeed, but it’s not always possible. We have to remember that we’re operating potentially dangerous heavy equipment and we can’t put our members or the public at risk. Some decide to be depot agents only, and that’s fine with us.
Once they achieve basic competence running a streetcar, Phase 3 covers the Sequence of Operations (operating rules, procedures and safety). Running a streetcar is only part of the job. We ask our volunteers to operate a touch screen point of sale system, because we rotate them through the depot where they sell fares and merchandise. We also ask them to learn at least some of the basic streetcar history that we are interpreting. If they’re up to it, we ask them to give a brief 2-3 minute talk about the museum and streetcar history during each trip.
When basic training is done, a new operator graduates to Phase 4, working in regular service under the watchful eye of an experienced foreman, who gives feedback to the trainers. Only when everyone is satisfied that the trainee has it under control is he/she considered qualified and permitted to independently sign up for shifts.
This whole process starts in March with advertisements and ends in June or July, hopefully with a new group of qualified operators. However, we know that the attrition isn’t over. Our operators are supposed to work at least two shifts per month. Some of the rookies will pull a couple of shifts and disappear. Others will stay with us for a year or two, then drop off. But every year we seem to get two or three really good volunteers who work a lot of shifts and stay with us for the long term. Many are new retirees. It really takes a couple of years for new operators to feel comfortable in the job.
Will our museum be able to keep attracting enough new volunteers to stay in business? From my perch editing this magazine, it seems as though the museums that are actively recruiting and providing a quality experience are doing OK. For how long, we don’t know.