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|Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 65 · No. 1 > Help Wanted - Meeting the Need for Tomorrow's Transportation Work Force|
Help Wanted - Meeting the Need for Tomorrow's Transportation Work Force
by Clark Martin
What sign do you see in the windows of many stores and restaurants in America? "Help Wanted." And what can you hear from almost every part of the transportation industry, including private companies and government agencies? "Help Wanted."
And the situation is likely to get worse before it gets better. How bad it gets may well depend on the ability of the transportation industry to adjust its work force development and management policies and programs, and even its culture.
A Growing Problem
The baby boomer generation is moving toward retirement like a tidal wave. Estimates of federal workers at retirement age or eligible to retire in the next few years are as high as 53 percent. Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, until recently the chair of the Senate Subcommittee on Oversight of Government Management, Restructuring, and the District of Columbia, calls the work force problem "a crisis in human capital."
A compromised transportation work force would have serious repercussions for the U.S. economy. In testimony before the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure, Secretary of Transportation Norman Y. Mineta said, "Transportation is key to the productivity, and therefore, the success, of virtually every business in America."
He should know. As a former chairman of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and secretary of commerce in the Clinton administration, Secretary Mineta has a good understanding of the contribution transportation makes to U.S. business and the American way of life.
The demand for transportation continues to increase dramatically. The U.S. population has increased by 32 million since 1990 to a total of more than 276 million today, and vehicle-miles traveled is growing twice as fast as the population. Also, freight transportation is increasing rapidly as point-of-sale, just-in-time inventory systems, and e-commerce become more common business practices.
The rapid increase in transportation demand is increasing congestion in urban and outlying areas. Infrastructure development to address these needs must be balanced with increasing public concern over land use, air and water quality, and projects affecting environmentally and historically sensitive areas. The real challenge for the transportation industry is how to develop and manage a system that can keep pace with such a rapidly growing demand, provide for efficiency with safety as a priority, and balance public interest environmental and land use concerns.
Voinovich's subcommittee estimates that by 2004, 32 percent of the federal work force will be at retirement age and another 21 percent will be eligible to retire - a staggering total of 53 percent or 900,000 employees. Not all employees eligible to retire will do so, but the subcommittee conservatively estimates the number of federal retirements by the year 2010 to be 600,000. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) projects that 45 percent of its work force will be eligible to retire by 2010.
The Government Accounting Office (GAO) also has recognized the work force issue as a significant problem. In testimony to the Senate, David Walker, comptroller of the United States, testified that "serious human capital shortfalls are eroding the ability of many federal agencies and threatening the ability of others to economically, efficiently, and effectively perform their mission." GAO has added the work force problem to the list of the government's "high-risk" areas.
If the work force problem was confined to federal quarters, transportation policy-makers and managers could breathe a little easier, but it's not. The problem extends to the state and local transportation work force as well.
A recent study by the Rockefeller Institute of Government found that 42 percent of the 15.7 million state and local government employees were between 45 and 64 years old. Calling it the most "significant talent and brain drain ever experienced by government," the institute estimates that a full 40 percent of the state and local government employees will be eligible to retire in the next 15 years.
The increasing number of retirements is also expected to have a dramatic effect on private-sector transportation companies. With the support highway agencies receive from private-sector contractors, the work force problem has become truly a transportation community issue.
Loss of Baby Boomers
These numbers shouldn't surprise anyone. During the "Baby Boom," from 1946 to 1965, 77 million babies were born in the United States. The baby boomer generation is responsible for much of the planning, design, operation, and management of the best transportation system in the world, but now, many boomers are in their fifties and ready to retire. The other boomers aren't far behind, and when they go, they will take with them years of experience, institutional knowledge, and competencies that will be difficult to replace. And ironically, they will create a new demand for a transportation system that is responsive to the needs of older drivers who have become accustomed to mobility and aren't about to have it compromised.
To meet these challenges, significant changes are needed in the transportation industry's approach to professional development and business practices. Without them, the industry may fall further behind.
Planning for and developing a new work force must begin in earnest, but with a clear recognition that the new generation of employees will bring a different set of priorities, values, and talents into the work place. This new generation grew up in the electronic age, is more comfortable with change, has greater expectations for job satisfaction, and is willing to challenge authority and to be challenged by the demands of their work. The success of the new generation will depend to a great extent on the ability of employers to use these new attributes and introduce the emerging work force to innovative approaches in work force planning and development.
The competition for qualified professionals will be fierce, as almost every sector of business, industry, and government grapples with the same problem. Although the challenge is not unique to transportation, the field does have its own set of complicating circumstances because U.S. business and U.S. citizens are so dependent on the transportation system.
The New Transportation Dynamic
The U.S. transportation system is the critical link for business success and the recreational and leisure activity that Americans have come to enjoy - and expect. It is incumbent on transportation planners, policy-makers, and managers to make things right - now and for the future. They must deliver an improved transportation system in an environment in which public and political sentiment are key factors.
Transportation managers are further challenged by a new dynamic - keeping pace with the conflicting demands for less government and better transportation. Over the past decade, full-time employment at the state departments of transportation, on average, has decreased by 5.3 percent, while department budgets have increased by 56 percent. This trend is expected to continue as more and more staff retire and as the reauthorization of the federal highway program, which is just a short two years away, is likely to follow the path of its predecessors - the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA) of 1991 and the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) in 1998 - bringing a new set of priorities for transportation managers.
The problem has another dimension as FHWA and the states increasingly rely on contractor services to meet transportation "expectations" and "demands." Not only has the workload for the agencies increased, it has, in turn, led to more work for the private sector, putting state agencies in direct competition with commercial companies for a limited supply of workers.
Changing roles and responsibilities for federal and state agencies shifted attention to organizational and resource considerations sometimes at the expense of work force development. The noted journal Governing reviewed state government performance on work force development and found the states lacking.
"The single biggest component of any state budget is payroll, and the most important element in the execution of any statewide project is a well-trained work force ready to make things happen," reported Governing. "For many years, most state leaders acted as if these fundamental human resources realities didn't exist. … Personnel systems were rigid, rule-bound, and unresponsive."
New Challenge/New Opportunity
Now that's beginning to change with the recognition of the effect that retirements will have on the work force and as more and more agencies consider improvements to their work force development practices. Clearly, agency commitment and top management support is critical. Recognizing the work force problem is an important first step. With management support and a sense of urgency, agencies can take a more proactive approach to work force planning and development.
The projected work force shortages are relatively easy to determine and help provide a focus for the work force issue. However, the consequences of a compromised transportation system for the general public and for U.S. commerce and the resulting economic and political repercussions are not as clearly defined.
Transportation policy-makers and program managers can more easily relate to the number of jobs that could go unfilled. What would be the effect on an agency or program if four or five out of 10 of the work force positions were left vacant or if the replacement workers did not have the skills necessary to be effective?
A more difficult question is: What would be the effect on the transportation system as a whole and the consequences for business and the public in terms of lost productivity and competitive advantage, compromised standard of living, and safety implications?
Addressing the Challenge
FHWA established a multidisciplined task force on work force issues. Chaired by FHWA Deputy Executive Director Vince Schimmoller and Office of Professional Development (OPD) Director Joe Toole, the FHWA Work Force Planning and Development Task Force projects that 45 percent of FHWA employees will be at retirement age or eligible to retire by the year 2004. The task force identified 37 actions to address the FHWA work force problem and has already started to take the appropriate steps.
The recommendations of the task force focus on improvements in the traditional areas of recruiting, hiring, and retention. However, they represent an even broader view that includes issues of professional development, efforts to improve employees' quality of life at work, and better work force and succession planning.
In addition to looking at their own work force needs, FHWA is trying to help the entire surface transportation community deal with the same issues. Every element of the community, both private and public, plays a key role in the delivery of a quality transportation program. Helping to ensure that this entire enterprise is well staffed with trained people will go a long way in providing quality transportation systems in the future.
Understanding the needs of industry requires not only projections about numbers but also about the talents, skills, and competencies needed by this work force. In addition, employees must continue to learn as technology improves and programs change, and as they advance in the organization, they will need to develop leadership skills.
FHWA is working cooperatively with the states and others to help focus attention on these issues and develop solutions. FHWA recently hired a full-time work force programs coordinator to raise awareness of the work force problem and to develop private and public partnerships to effectively address the problem.
"We know we've got a problem, and we are making a concerted effort to gain industrywide recognition of the issue and to identify innovative practices so we can learn from each other," said Toole. One of Toole's biggest concerns is coordination.
"We've got a lot of good people already involved in the work force issue with a lot of good ideas, but to be successful, we have to coordinate the efforts and communicate effectively," he said.
A Work Force Framework
To help coordinate efforts, the states and FHWA are working together to develop a "Work Force Framework." The framework is built around six focus areas that are critical for developing the work force for the future. These focus areas are work force needs, career opportunities, recruitment, work force development, retention, and program effectiveness. For each focus area, objectives have been identified to help develop strategies for improving current work force programs and to establish new and innovative approaches for the future.
The framework is also intended to help bring consistency to the range of activities of federal, state, local, and private-sector organizations by identifying major considerations in the work force planning and development effort.
The framework includes some traditional activities of recruitment and program evaluation, but it also emphasizes emerging areas considered by many to be critical to the success of the work force effort. As an example, it links the planning for the people, skills, and disciplines needed by an organization to the organization's strategic planning - a tie that has not been a strong focus in all agencies.
Another emerging area is the emphasis on career opportunities. More and more organizations are beginning to recognize that to attract the talent that they need for the future, it is important to begin planting the seeds to cultivate interest in young people much earlier. Reaching out to schools, vocational programs, and universities is an approach included in this focus area.
Finally, the focus on retention is changing too. Retention is not a new issue, but the increasing mobility of our work force presents a stronger challenge to our retention of qualified workers. Factors that enhance retention range from quality-of-life improvements to a greater commitment to training and development.
Some managers question whether it is worth investing large amounts of money to train employees who may simply move on to another employer. To this concern, Thomas Warne, former executive director of the Utah Department of Transportation (DOT), responded, "What if we don't train them and they stay?"
Training and professional development, always an important element of work force development, is going to play an even greater role as younger, less experienced workers move into the work force and as current employees assume greater responsibility as managers retire.
"There are opportunities now for new and experienced workers, and there will be even more in the coming years," said Dr. Moges Ayele, director of the National Highway Institute (NHI). "Preparing them to assume these new responsibilities will be a challenge because this is not just training about new programs and new technologies; somehow we've got to find a way to transfer the value of years of experience to the new work force."
A New Attitude
Clearly, the retention issue has always been important, but it is taking on a new focus as competition to find and retain top-quality employees intensifies. While financial compensation is still a primary consideration for most workers, they also want opportunities to pursue their own interests and personal growth. Employer contributions to workers' quality of life and job satisfaction often include flex-time and telecommuting programs, as well as a greater commitment to innovative approaches to recognize and reward their workers. Organizations that excel in these areas are seeing a positive difference in productivity gains and in retaining quality people.
Filling the Pipeline
"Once burned, twice shy," Toole said. "We have a pipeline issue. The retirement problem is driving the work force issue and will for quite some time. But assuming we can address the current problem, we don't want to be caught short again. We've got to do a better job taking our transportation industry message to the prospective work force, and the earlier we can do it, the better."
Many agencies and organizations are finding creative ways to reach out to local schools and youth groups. A new concept is the idea of "living classrooms" in which the teachers would use major transportation projects as real-life platforms to teach everything from environmental sciences, math, and science to history. By using real-world projects, students in kindergarten through grade 12 - and even in colleges and universities - can learn about the highway and transportation program in their classrooms and in the field.
"Our hope is that by letting young people see and work with transportation problems, we might spur their interest in a transportation career or at least provide them with a better appreciation of the benefits transportation provides to people in their daily lives and in their communities." Toole said.
Another innovation has been the introduction of engineering curricula, including a strong transportation component, in the primary and secondary schools. Just last year, Massachusetts became the first state to require an engineering curriculum for kindergarten through 12th grade (K-12) - an approach that might be replicated in other states.
The Tufts University School of Engineering has championed the effort to create technically literate students by introducing engineering in the public schools and by serving as a resource for engineering education for the Massachusetts Department of Education. The dean of Tufts' School of Engineering, Ioannis Miaoulis, was the key figure in developing the program and in working with the state for adoption. According to Miaoulis, the program will "give our kids the essential problem-solving and design skills they need to succeed in our highly sophisticated, technological world."
The state is now in the process of implementing the curriculum in the classroom. One need is to teach the teachers about engineering, and so, Tufts is using its engineering graduate students to educate teachers. This effort is efficient and cost-effective. The university has already established a satellite program at Stow, Mass., where teachers learn about engineering and the new curriculum.
The "living classroom" and K-12 engineering curriculum will build on existing student outreach programs such as FHWA's Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Futures Program. The Morgan Program was established as a national educational initiative to develop partnerships between the transportation and education communities. The Morgan Program stimulates public-private partnerships to help educators integrate transportation components into the curriculum for each grade level, thereby making math and science relevant to school children. It builds upon the U.S. Department of Transportation's relationship with more than 300 adopted schools; DOT provides mentors, tutors, career information, and other forms of support for math, science, and technology literacy.
Attracting New Construction and Maintenance Workers
Another activity that is getting big results is "Construction Career Day," conducted by FHWA's Office of Civil Rights in close partnership with the Associated General Contractors of America, various state DOTs, and the educational community. This initiative is designed specifically to interest youth in opportunities in the construction industry by providing high school students with hands-on exposure to the highway construction industry.
Approximately 1,300 students participated in the initial program in Fort Worth, Texas, in March 1999. A second event attended by 2,800 students was held in February 2000. The 2001 Construction Career Day in Fort Worth, Feb. 27 to March 1, attracted more than 2,900 students. Donning hard hats and climbing aboard construction equipment, students, supervised by professional operators, pulled levers and punched buttons until they got the hang of operating some rather sophisticated pieces of equipment.
Ed Morris, director of the Civil Rights Service Business Unit (SBU) in FHWA, has supported the development and expansion of the initiative.
"It has been terrific in generating interest in the construction industry. It provides these young people with a good career opportunity in a way they can understand. There is just no substitute for the kind of hands-on experience they get at a Career Day event," said Morris.
Morris credits the program's success to the efforts of Humberto Martinez, formerly the civil rights director at FHWA's Region 6 office in Fort Worth and now the professional development team leader for the Civil Rights SBU. Martinez has been instrumental in working with private and public organizations in developing and administering the program and has been impressed with the commitment of industry to forge an effective public-private partnership.
"More than 80 organizations, including FHWA, the Texas Department of Transportation, and the Associated General Contractors, work together to make Construction Career Day a success," Martinez said. "It is really amazing to see the interest these kids have in the program and the satisfaction the adults get in running it."
Including past programs and those scheduled through 2002, Construction Career Day activities are expected to reach more than 45,000 students in more than 20 states. Morris and Martinez would like to see the program expand to all other states.
"There are more than 250,000 unfilled entry-level positions in the construction and transportation industries today," said Morris. "A lot of these young people like working outside and working with their hands. The construction industry offers a great opportunity for them, and these career days give them a good appreciation for the business."
Morris also is excited about another pilot project for high school students managed by the Fort Worth Independent School District, and he would like to see it replicated in other states. Trimble Technical School in Fort Worth, in partnership with FHWA, the Associated General Contractors of Texas, and the Texas Engineering Extension Service of Texas A&M University, has developed a Highway Construction Program curriculum. The Trimble program covers heavy equipment operation and includes courses on preventive maintenance, safety, first aid, estimating, surveying, and basic soil mechanics. Students spend three days a week in class and two days at the Texas Engineering Extension Service site for hands-on training.
"We're already behind the curve in developing interest in young people in the construction industry. Construction Career Day fascinates participants with real-time, hands-on learning about career options and generates interest in the construction industry, but students need a place to go to be trained. The Trimble Technical School provides that opportunity in the Fort Worth area, and we need to provide similar opportunities in other states."
Looking for New Ideas
The Massachusetts K-12 engineering program, living classroom, and construction career days are initiatives that could make a major contribution to developing the transportation work force of the future. However, with a significant percentage of the work force on the verge of retirement, there
is also a need to focus on changes for the short term.
The Work Force Framework was developed initially in support of a broader effort to identify the innovative practices of state agencies in work force development, and a "scan" (tour to observe best practices) of the states is now underway to do just that. The scan is a cooperative effort among FHWA, the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and the National Transportation Training Directors.
The New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department (NMSHTD) is the lead agency for the effort. The scan is a follow-up to NMSHTD's 1999 study "Staffing Plan Survey of State Transportation Agencies" and will identify successful practices to address work force issues and to serve as models for state DOT programs.
"States have been sharing information for years. With the work force problem upon us, we need a more structured approach to gathering and disseminating information, and we think the domestic scan/innovative practices effort will be a great help to the states and other organizations in developing the transportation work force," said NMSHTD's director of human resources, Tony Alarid, who is managing the effort.
Nancy Richardson, chair of the AASHTO Human Resources Subcommittee, agrees, "I'm looking forward to the results. I think the scan will help us come together as an industry to address the problems we have now and to develop new programs for the future."
In an effort to move quickly while the more expansive all-state scan is developed, FHWA has contracted for a preliminary compilation of state work force innovative practices, focusing on several of the more progressive work force practices. To date, more than a dozen innovative practices have been developed and include a wide range of topics from a number of states, including:
The National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP) is also studying innovations in work force strategies and is identifying areas for additional research. The NCHRP study is a follow-up to "Managing Change in State Departments of Transportation," a workshop for state DOT chief executive officers, held in Minneapolis in June 2000, and sponsored by the Transportation Research Board Strategic Management Committee, FHWA, AASHTO, and Minnesota DOT. The NCHRP study suggests the development of guidelines for state DOTs in the succession planning, recruitment, and development of information technology personnel and in the recruitment and retention of civil engineers and planners.
The innovative practices are a clear indication that the states are beginning to respond to the work force problem through changes in work force policies and programs. States are beginning to push hiring decisions to lower levels, streamline employment processes, and enhance outreach for recruiting. There are also efforts to increase salaries to the highest levels possible, using position benchmarking and salary surveys. Recruiters are emphasizing that a DOT is a good place to work - a "family" - with employee programs such as flex-time schedules and telecommuting. Many organizations are involving employees more directly in decision-making. Many states are developing succession-planning programs tied to the agency's strategic plan and making a greater commitment to professional development and continuous learning.
FHWA and AASHTO are not limiting their search to domestic innovative practices. Pete Rahn, New Mexico secretary of transportation, and OPD Director Toole co-chaired a team of 10 transportation officials that conducted an international scan of work force programs. They met with their counterparts in France, Germany, Great Britain, and Sweden to identify innovative practices for recruiting, developing, and retaining qualified transportation workers.
By all accounts, the trip was a success. The study team traveled to four countries in 15 days and met with 53 officials. Now, the team will share these practices with the U.S. transportation community.
"The Europeans are also facing the work force issue head on, [but they] have been more focused on transportation education at the high school level, which seems to be an advantage for them in developing their transportation work force," said Rahn.
Germany has a very strong apprenticeship program. France has a university devoted exclusively to highway program engineering and management. Great Britain conducts extensive workshops for technology sharing.
The Europeans also appear to have closer working relationships between the public and private sectors. In Great Britain, private contractors work with public transportation agency officials to develop highway specifications and proposals, and in Sweden, the government designs, develops, and administers training programs for public- and private-sector workers.
In Europe, like the United States, the baby boomers have peaked and are now poised to leave the work force. The emerging work force is more mobile and less hesitant to move to a new job. Worker loyalty is to the individual's development, not to the organization. Employees are more satisfied when an organization is committed to developing their skills and providing a challenging work environment. Without these commitments, workers are likely to move to other employers.
Rahn was particularly impressed with Great Britain's "Investors in People Standard," which lists the principles for work force development in the categories of commitment, planning, action, and evaluation. For each category, the "Standard" includes examples of how management and workers can demonstrate a commitment to work force development.
Successful programs hinge on the ability of senior managers to describe organizational strategies that have been adopted to support worker development, of middle managers to explain specific actions they have taken in support of workers, and of workers to confirm the specific strategies and actions that have been taken. When all three of these elements are present, workers believe the organization is genuinely committed to supporting their development.
The Standard was "a real indication of the commitment of the organization to its people and to developing the work force," Rahn said.
Learning from their European counterparts, the study team identified 14 "action items" to better develop and manage the transportation work force in the United States. The study team will release its final report in spring 2002 at about the same time as a planned National Transportation Work Force Summit.
According to Toole, a number of efforts "will come together at that time: the final report for the international scan will be completed, the results of the domestic scan will be available, the states will have had an opportunity to implement several innovative practices, and we will have had additional experience in addressing the issue."
Welcome to the Web
A transportation work force Web site at www.nhi.fhwa.dot.gov/transworkforce also has been developed to provide information about the issue and to encourage the transportation community to share information and experiences. The Web site includes information about the international scan, posts the innovative practices, provides information on work force studies and policy decisions, and addresses other topics affecting the work force issue.
Planning for the Future
The Web site, work force summit, international scan, and other work force-related initiatives are designed to bring attention to the issue and provide information that will help agency managers and decision-makers to address the work force issues now.
To better understand the transportation work force of the future, FHWA, AASHTO, and others have helped support the Transportation Research Board (TRB) in conducting a "Future Surface Transportation Agency Human Resources Needs" study to assess the work force needs of transportation agencies over the next two decades. The study will make recommendations for recruiting, training, and retaining employees.
"The study can make a real contribution to the programs and processes transportation agencies will require to develop, manage, and maintain a work force suited to their future missions. It may also suggest new programs, curricula, and continuing education courses for universities and training organizations that are preparing the future transportation work forces of DOTs and transit agencies," said Steve Godwin, director of TRB's Studies and Information Services Division.
The study will also consider both professional and nonprofessional staffing needs for state and local highway agencies, transit agencies, and for private-sector organizations that provide contractual services to agencies. Construction, maintenance, and service workers are important segments of the transportation work force and efforts to develop interest in these areas are critical to the success of the highway program.
The changing dynamics and increasing demand for a more efficient and safe transportation system, the challenge to develop and deploy new technologies, and the pressure on transportation to continue to support the United States in increasingly competitive international markets are pushing work force development up the priority list.
It will take a concerted effort by the entire transportation community - working individually and in partnerships - to plan, develop, and train the new transportation work force. Toole suggests some specific actions organizations can take to address the work force issue:
"Stay involved by following the results as new information becomes available. A good source will be the transportation work force Web site. Become part of the implementation effort, a pilot, a new initiative, or an evaluation team, and consider what can and should be done in your own organization. It will be important for managers to become leaders in effecting change and to share with others so that we can continue to learn from each other."
Toole believes our current work force challenges can ultimately result in significant long-term benefits.
"The work force problems we are facing should be viewed not only as a challenge but as an opportunity to establish new and innovative transportation work force programs for the 21st century."
Clark Martin is the work force programs coordinator for the Federal Highway Administration's Office of Professional Development. He works closely with federal, state, and local government agencies and private-sector organizations in the development and coordination of programs to ensure an efficient and effective transportation work force now and in the future. Martin joined FHWA in December 2000 to fill this newly created position. He served as director of safety for the American Trucking Associations (ATA) and as executive director of the ATA Council of Safety Supervisors. He also served as the national coordinator for the American Association of Motor Vehicle Administrators (AAMVA) for the implementation of the Commercial Driver License Program and as AAMVA director of motor carrier services. He has a bachelor's degree in government and politics from the University of Maryland.
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