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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 69 · No. 6 > Acting Now, Building for the Future

May/Jun 2006
Vol. 69 · No. 6

Publication Number: FHWA-HRT-2006-004

Acting Now, Building for the Future

by Vicki Glenn

SAFETEA-LU provisions aim to bolster professional, management and technical skills and expertise at State DOTs

The transportation workforce requires an increasingly diverse set of job skills, including welding for steel bridge fabrication. Here, a bridge maintenance welder from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation is introducing students to arc welding during Rhode Island Construction Career Days in May 2005.
The transportation workforce requires an increasingly diverse set of job skills, including welding for steel bridge fabrication. Here, a bridge maintenance welder from the Rhode Island Department of Transportation is introducing students to arc welding during Rhode Island Construction Career Days in May 2005.

Over the years, generations of hard-working men and women provided the intellectual, technical, and physical expertise and ingenuity to construct, manage, and operate the U.S. transportation systems that move goods and people around the country.

Now, as many in the industry are reaching retirement age, an emerging challenge is to find, hire, and retain a workforce with the necessary skills and qualifications that ensure the continued successful operation of the system in the future. To meet the challenge, the U.S. Congress incorporated a number of provisions related to workforce development into the recently enacted Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: A Legacy for Users (SAFETEA-LU). The legislation provides resources that enable the U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) and its public and private sector partners to bolster existing activities and develop new ones to help nurture and prepare a new generation of transportation professionals to succeed in the workforce.

An Industry and Workforce in Transition

A look at the expected demographics of the future workforce paints a troubling picture. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), growth in the U.S. workforce declined from a high of 2.6 percent in the 1980s to a low of 1.2 percent in the 1990s, with a projected growth rate of only 0.2 percent from 2015 to 2025.

Compounding the situation is the fact that many in the baby-boom generation will begin to retire in 2006.

The numbers are more immediate for the transportation field, where up to 50 percent of the technical workforce will be eligible to retire in 2010. More than one-third of senior managers at State departments of transportation (DOTs) are eligible to retire immediately, with another 10 percent eligible in just 3 years. Concern about workforce development and retention affects all facets of the transportation industry, as the public and private sectors compete for the same smaller pool of eligible workers.

Over the last decade, full-time employment at State DOTs decreased while transportation agency budgets have increased dramatically. Another emerging challenge is that DOT employees now supervise contractors who perform work previously conducted by State employees, requiring State employees to have additional skills in contract and project management, oversight, and business. Rapid changes in transportation technology mandate ongoing training for employees, and program delivery demands drive the need for workers with new, diverse skills.

"Our research shows that to do business in this era, transportation workers need a broader range of skills," says John Horsley, executive director of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). "Earlier in our industry, strong engineering skills were the focus, and other skills—in such areas as finance or communications—were considered complementary but not essential. Now, they're crucial because the nature of our business has changed. Interacting and communicating with the public is a major need now, as is understanding the why and how of environmental requirements."

Working on laptop computers, these transportation professionals are learning to use new computer software during a workshop sponsored by the Rhode Island Technology Transfer Center.
Working on laptop computers, these transportation professionals are learning to use new computer software during a workshop sponsored by the Rhode Island Technology Transfer Center.

Workforce Initiatives Provide Support and Perspective

As the interstate construction era drew to a close in the mid-1990s, industry leaders began serious study and evaluation of the future workforce challenge. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) collaborated with its professional and industry partners on a series of activities and research-related studies that laid the foundation for many of the workforce development initiatives included in SAFETEA-LU. Some of these earlier efforts include the following:

CEO Strategic Management Forums. In June 2002 and May 2003, FHWA, AASHTO, and the Transportation Research Board (TRB) invited chief executive officers (CEOs) from State DOTs to participate in workshops on key strategic management areas-one of which was workforce development. An important outcome, documented in TRB Circular 501, was consensus for stronger investment in employee recruitment and retention, as well as better sharing of best practices between the States.

National Workforce Summit. A summit held in May 2002 brought together public and private sector leaders from the transportation and academic communities to focus on the challenge of attracting and retaining a qualified technical and professional workforce now and for the future. Participants identified the need for the transportation community to become more involved in attracting young people to transportation careers and to better coordinate training efforts across the industry. To demonstrate their commitment, summit participants agreed to work together through a Partnership for Educating, Training, and Developing the Nation's Transportation Workforce.

TRB Special Report 275, The Workforce Challenge: Recruiting, Training, and Retaining Qualified Workers for Transportation and Transit Agencies. This 2003 study cited the need for more DOT investment in training, adding that more Federal funds should be available for training and education. Further, the report found that transportation agencies need to partner with universities, community colleges, training institutes, and Local Technical Assistance Program (LTAP) centers to meet workforce development needs. Another priority cited in the report was to establish cooperative partnerships between transportation agencies, the private sector, educational institutions, unions, and employees to focus on innovative practices for managing human resources.

AASHTO Strategic Plan 2005-2010. In a 2004 AASHTO survey, CEOs from State DOTs identified training and workforce issues among their highest priorities and in-service training for professional and technical personnel as one of their most pressing needs. The subsequent AASHTO Strategic Plan 2005-2010 includes such goals as expanding training opportunities and collaborating with other transportation associations, the Federal Government, and other entities to inform State DOT managers and supervisors about the array of course offerings.

In a report requested by AASHTO and prepared under the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP), Tom Warne, president of Tom Warne and Associates, LLC, conducted the interviews about inservice training needs, speaking with CEOs and training and human resources personnel from State DOTs.

"The CEO perspective is especially important because some are private sector professionals appointed to their positions, while others bring State government experience and perspective to the job," says Warne. "Perhaps more important is their commitment to change within their agencies, demonstrated by the integration of workforce development into the State DOT strategic planning process."

These construction workers are assessing material excavated from a pit dug several feet below the surface of the road. Tomorrow's engineers and designers may discover innovative materials and techniques to create more durable, longer lasting, and safer roadways. In addition, new monitoring and evaluation technologies will reduce the need for road maintenance and related traffic disruptions.
These construction workers are assessing material excavated from a pit dug several feet below the surface of the road. Tomorrow's engineers and designers may discover innovative materials and techniques to create more durable, longer lasting, and safer roadways. In addition, new monitoring and evaluation technologies will reduce the need for road maintenance and related traffic disruptions.

Warne defines inservice training as "training provided to employees both to maintain their current skills and to provide new skill development to meet changing job requirements or agency needs." The skills cited in the report as increasingly important for DOT staff demonstrate a dramatic departure from those traditionally associated with an agency's mission of construction, maintenance, and operations:

  • Project and program management require financial and administrative abilities to deliver larger projects and multiple smaller projects.
  • Public and stakeholder relations entail skills in public outreach, meeting facilitation, and consensus building.
  • Leadership skills need to be developed and applied throughout the agency to prepare individuals for senior management positions.

SAFETEA-LU Favors Industry-Wide Institutional Change

In 2003 many of the provisions included in the House and Senate versions of the transportation reauthorization bill pointed toward the need for a more comprehensive approach to fostering an industry-wide workforce. Indeed, some workforce concerns raised by leaders in the transportation industry had been resonating with legislators since 1998 when they debated the previous law, the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21).

To continue developing innovative designs for transportation infrastructure, such as this bridge in Vermont, the public and private sectors need to recruit and retain well-educated engineering and design professionals.
To continue developing innovative designs for transportation infrastructure, such as this bridge in Vermont, the public and private sectors need to recruit and retain well-educated engineering and design professionals.

Signed into law in August 2005, SAFETEA-LU authorizes Federal surface transportation programs for highways, highway safety, and transit for fiscal years (FY) 2005-2009. SAFETEA-LU provides more than $26 million annually for training and education programs, with $4.75 million for new programs for fiscal years 2006-2009. SAFETEA-LU also allows State DOTs to fund training and education through five core programs: the Surface Transportation Program (STP), Bridge Program, Interstate Maintenance Program (IM), National Highway System Program (NHS), and Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program (CMAQ). States are not required to provide matching funds; workforce development activities can be funded with 100-percent Federal funds.

Section 5204e of SAFETEA-LU provision funding is discretionary, meaning that States can commit a portion of federally allocated core program funds to workforce development. The amount committed, however, will reduce the State's funds available for capital projects. But some States regard investing in workforce development as necessary to the success of effective capital programs and their overall transportation missions.

Section 5204(e)(3) of SAFETEA-LU defines workforce development as "activities associated with surface transportation career awareness, student transportation career preparation, and training and professional development for surface transportation workers, including activities for women and minorities."

SAFETEA-LU efforts also focus on recruiting qualified workers at various technical and professional levels throughout their careers and fostering a work environment that provides professional development and training opportunities throughout each employee's career.

Funding Distinctions

Section 5204(e) of SAFETEA-LU permits State DOTs to use funds from five core programs—Surface Transportation Program, National Highway System, Interstate Maintenance, Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality Improvement Program, and the Bridge Program—for workforce development activities, such as employee education and training and other career outreach and preparation initiatives. These activities can be 100-percent federally funded. Below are answers to frequently asked questions about using SAFETEA-LU funding for workforce development.

How do the workforce provisions affect funding available in the core programs?

The use of core program funds for workforce development is discretionary; therefore, funds committed to that end will reduce funds available for capital projects. However, because the investment in workforce development will ensure that workers have the skills and knowledge necessary to work efficiently, funding this activity is an essential complement to capital programs and the States' overall transportation missions.

How do workforce development provisions differ between TEA-21 and SAFETEA-LU?

TEA-21 authorized States to use up to 0.5 percent of STP funds for employee training but required States to provide a 20-percent matching provision. SAFETEA-LU provides 100-percent Federal funding for workforce development activities, extends eligibility for the activities to the five core programs, and does not limit the amount of Federal funding a State can use from each program. SAFETEA-LU also authorizes "pipeline" programs to help students prepare for transportation careers.

What are examples of pipeline programs that core funds can support?

According to SAFETEA-LU language, States may use funds for "education[al] activities, including outreach, to develop interest and promote participation in surface transportation careers." This includes activities associated with preparing students for transportation careers, such as transportation-related internships, cooperative educational programs, activities to support universities and colleges, and scholarship programs (other than the Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program, which is funded separately).

How else can State DOTs use core program funds?

States may use the funds for a range of professional development activities, such as training programs, academic course studies, apprenticeships, short-term work details, or rotational assignments. Funds also may be used for training or professional development necessary to support a specific surface transportation capital project, such as a major roadway or bridge construction project.

Can core program funds be used for travel or equipment and material purchases?

Yes. However, travel and purchases must be directly related to a defined employee training or professional development need, program, or activity, or directly associated with a student transportation career awareness or preparation activity. State DOTs also can use funds to cover the cost for travel to and from an industry training or professional development program, such as an NHI course, that will improve an employee's skills, knowledge, and abilities. Examples of pipeline activities that core program funds can support include bus transportation for students to participate in career awareness or development programs such as Construction Career Days. The funds also can pay for materials for transportation-related programs such as AASHTO's TRAC and AGC's Build Up! programs.

Can core program funds be used as matching funds for other Federal programs such as LTAP or UTCs?

No. Federal funds cannot be used to match other Federal funds, unless specifically provided by the statute. There are no statutory provisions that allow core funds to be used to match other federally funded programs.

Cooperative workforce development activities, aimed at using limited resources more effectively, need to focus on alternative ways of developing skills and delivering training. As a complement to traditional classroom training, shown here, other methods such as Web- and computer-based instruction, distance learning, and Web-based professional networks can make training accessible and affordable to a broader audience.
Cooperative workforce development activities, aimed at using limited resources more effectively, need to focus on alternative ways of developing skills and delivering training. As a complement to traditional classroom training, shown here, other methods such as Web- and computer-based instruction, distance learning, and Web-based professional networks can make training accessible and affordable to a broader audience.

The SAFETEA-LU language builds on ideas developed at the 2002 workforce summit: looking at workforce development as (1) a continuum designed to help students perceive transportation as an important and rewarding career, (2) activities to prepare students for careers in transportation through college and postgraduate programs, (3) and an ongoing effort for current employees to continue to develop their knowledge and skills as transportation professionals. Various SAFETEA-LU provisions focus on the continuum concept by funding programs to increase awareness of transportation career opportunities in elementary and middle schools, refine skills development in secondary schools and colleges, and support technical training to meet continuing professional development needs throughout an employee's transportation career.

A training instructor is demonstrating how the controls work in this mini excavator. More than 1,000 students from across the State learned about careers in the construction and transportation industry while participating in Rhode Island Construction Career Days in 2005.
A training instructor is demonstrating how the controls work in this mini excavator. More than 1,000 students from across the State learned about careers in the construction and transportation industry while participating in Rhode Island Construction Career Days in 2005.


Under the direction of an instructor, this student is lifting an I-beam into place using a crane simulator. This mobile training unit enables participants to simulate operating heavy equipment in a safe environment at a fraction of the cost of using an actual crane.
Under the direction of an instructor, this student is lifting an I-beam into place using a crane simulator. This mobile training unit enables participants to simulate operating heavy equipment in a safe environment at a fraction of the cost of using an actual crane.

The law also expands the focus of the following programs to enhance transportation workforce development:

Garrett A. Morgan Technology and Transportation Futures Program, SAFETEA-LU Sec. 5204(d). USDOT established this program in 1997 to generate awareness of transportation careers in elementary and secondary schools, but current provisions fund it for the first time at $1.25 million annually for FY 2006-2009. The curriculum will complement existing efforts in the private sector, including the AASHTO Transportation and Civil Engineering (TRAC) and the Associated General Contractors' Build Up! programs.

University Transportation Centers Program (UTC), Sec. 5401. SAFETEA-LU expands the UTC program from participation at 33 universities to 60 institutions and provides a stronger connection to national research needs and transportation education. Provisions also require each UTC to establish an education program that includes multidisciplinary coursework and 5 to 10 degree programs closely related to highways and public transportation.

SAFETEA-LU also establishes new initiatives:

Transportation Education Development Pilot Program, Sec. 5204(f). SAFETEA-LU provides funds to establish a pilot program to develop training and educational curricula for all workers involved in delivering highway programs. Funding can support development of university and community college curricula for individuals coming into transportation and for current transportation employees with management, technical, and vocational job responsibilities.

Transportation Scholarship Opportunities Program, Sec. 5505. This new scholarship program authorizes Federal DOT operating administrations and nongovernmental institutions to establish scholarships and mentoring programs with nongovernmental institutions. The program is entirely discretionary, and no funding is provided; however, the framework enables the transportation industry to develop a more comprehensive scholarship program.

SAFETEA-LU at Work in West Virginia

As in other States, retirements and attrition led officials with the West Virginia Department of Transportation (WVDOT) to become concerned about loss of managers and technical professionals. Restrictions in TEA-21 on matching funds left the agency unable to invest in a wider range of training options. WVDOT had supported technical training, but limited resources left the agency short of funding for workforce and leadership development for the future.

With the passage of SAFETEA-LU, however, States now have many more options—and opportunities. "When training funds are limited, important management training is often neglected," says West Virginia Division of Highways Commissioner Paul Mattox. "Given our particular needs, elimination of the matching requirement under SAFETEA-LU could not have come at a better time for WVDOT. This provision has allowed us to schedule much-needed training opportunities for our staff."

Gary Lanham, training director for the WVDOT Division of Highways, is spearheading the initiative. "It's critical that we plan and implement a long-term strategy to create agency leaders and ensure our technical excellence," Lanham says. "SAFETEA-LU gives us the flexibility to draw on numerous resources and partnerships."

For example, in January 2006, agency leaders completed a course based on Stephen R. Covey's course and publication, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People. To demonstrate its commitment, the agency enrolled several "Train-the-Trainer" personnel as participants, and these trainers will present course highlights to nearly 700 WVDOT employees across the State. The agency is exploring additional training opportunities, including teaming with Marshall University's Nick J. Rahall, II Appalachian Transportation Institute to identify needs and opportunities.

The FHWA Division Office in West Virginia is involved as well, working with WVDOT to develop a long-term, programmatic, and strategic approach to workforce development. According to FHWA West Virginia Division Administrator Thomas J. Smith, "The comprehensive approach by WVDOT along with an emphasis on partnerships promises an opportunity for synergy that will benefit the greater transportation community. SAFETEA-LU gives DOTs additional options for collaboration, creating a brighter future for the transportation industry."

SAFETEA-LU also continues support for FHWA's core training and professional development programs, including the National Highway Institute, LTAP, and the Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program.

FHWA Commitment to Workforce Development

SAFETEA-LU provides an opportunity to develop the transportation workforce by enhancing current programs and creating model programs that can be replicated throughout the industry. Now it is up to transportation managers and decisionmakers to put these tools to use, build upon the progress achieved over the past few years, and continue to demonstrate the effectiveness of collaborative initiatives in addressing workforce issues.

These young people are participating in a project to replant vegetation along a widened highway in Maryland. Activities such as this show children that career paths in the transportation industry can vary widely from engineering and construction to biology and landscape design.
These young people are participating in a project to replant vegetation along a widened highway in Maryland. Activities such as this show children that career paths in the transportation industry can vary widely from engineering and construction to biology and landscape design.

" There has been progress because of the continuing commitment of a number of transportation organizations," says FHWA Associate Administrator for Professional and Corporate Development Joseph S. Toole. "The SAFETEA-LU workforce provisions provide additional opportunities, but it will be the collective efforts of the transportation community that will provide our greatest opportunities for success."


Vicki Glenn is a transportation project manager with CACI Premier Technology, Inc., and has supported FHWA projects since 1992. Previously, she worked with the FHWA Office of Professional and Corporate Development to research and write about innovative State DOT practices to recruit, train, and retain qualified employees. She is a member of TRB's Committee on Transportation Education and Training, where she cochaired the Committee's 2003 forum on transportation internships and related mentorships. She holds a B.A. in humanities from Macalester College and an M.A. in education from American University.

For more information, contact Clark Marin at clark.martin@fhwa.dot.gov.

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