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Federal Highway Administration > Publications > Public Roads > Vol. 66· No. 3 > Filling the Pipeline

Nov/Dec 2002
Vol. 66· No. 3

Filling the Pipeline

by Clark Martin and Vicki Glenn

One of the most critical challenges to the future of the Nation's transportation industry is finding and retaining a workforce with the necessary skill sets to keep America moving. The demographic reality is that a decreasing pool of skilled workers is available to an industry in transition. Competition for the limited number of skilled employees is increasing not only between public and private transportation sectors, but also with other technical professions.

Photo of worker standing in a helicoidal dropshaft
This transportation worker is helping install a helicoidal dropshaft, an innovative technology used to remove air from rainwater draining from sheets in downtown Phoenix, AZ, reducing the need for constructing football-sized deaeration chambers. Photo courtesy of Arizona Department of Transportation.

The new transportation reality is that the industry requires technical and managerial skills and abilities beyond its traditional engineering professional orientation. In addition to the anticipated loss of the industry's technical expertise over the next 5 years through retirements, data indicate that 40 to 50 percent of the transportation workforce will be eligible to retire in the next 5 to 15 years. The need is urgent to address workforce issues in a coordinated, comprehensive manner.

In recognition of this urgency, a group of 75 transportation leaders met in May 2002 at a National Workforce Summit to consider how the transportation community can address the increasingly complex workforce issue. Summit participants included representatives from more than 40 Federal and State transportation agencies, academic institutions, industry, labor unions, professional associations, and consulting firms.

The meeting's agenda, designed for sharing ideas and insights, concluded with all present transportation leaders signing "A Partnership for Educating, Training, and Developing the Nation's Transportation Workforce." The agreement recognizes the critical importance of transportation to the Nation, calls on the signatories to address workforce development effectively within their own organizations, support partnerships to improve transportation workforce development, and promote greater understanding of the contribution that an efficient, well-trained workforce makes to national security, U.S. economic growth, and the quality of life for all Americans.

Framing the Challenge

The conference's moderator, Tom Warne, of Tom Warne and Associates, LLC, characterized the workforce issue as a critical challenge to all sectors of the transportation community.

Expanding on Warne's point, USDOT Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson framed the challenge to the summit's participants. "Times have changed," he said, "and the industry as a whole faces serious challenges of an aging workforce and the potential of more than 50 percent of the transportation knowledge, expertise, and institutional memory [being] eligible to retire in 5 to 15 years. The only response to this challenge is through cooperation and creative partnerships with educational and academic institutions, professional organizations, and State, local, and international transportation agencies."

Deputy Secretary Jackson added that he was proud to be the first to sign the partnership agreement.

His remarks struck a chord as the transportation community leaders focused on several key themes, including the need to "fill the pipeline" to confirm a sufficient number of transportation workers, ensure those workers use the latest technologies and practices, and find ways to institutionalize workforce development by building partnerships and fostering coordinated industry-wide collaboration.

Photo of presenters at the National Workforce Summit (names below in caption)
Presenters at the National Workforce Summit included (from left): FHWA Administrator Mary E. Peters, FTA Administrator Jennifer L. Dorn, and Administrator Ellen G. Engleman of the Research and Special Programs Administration.
Photo of Mary Peters and industry leaders during conversation circle at summit
Administrator Peters (center) comments to industry leaders during a conversation circle at the summit. With Peters are Tom Warne, the summit's moderator (left), and FTA Administrator Dorn (right).

The Need for Change

The summit's participants agreed that the transportation profession must overcome two obstacles: (1) potential employees do not perceive transportation as an attractive, rewarding career option; and (2) transportation offers inadequate opportunities for career development, which makes it difficult to retain qualified employees at all levels.

Comments by participants generally reflected an awareness that workforce development needs to reach beyond current efforts and be more strategically oriented. Parker Williams, administrator for the Maryland State Highway Administration, observed that the issues with which most transportation leaders deal are "problems." Agencies usually address problems through their strategic plans.

If development of the transportation workforce is a challenge, then "transportation agencies need to incorporate it into their strategic plans," he said, "including goals, objectives, and performance measures."

Dr. Jane Nichols, chancellor of the University and Community College System of Nevada, noted that the transportation industry cannot solve its problems without public education—K-12 through postgraduate. Universities are influenced by public mandates, she conveyed, and the industry should play an instrumental role. Nichols recommended viewing the pipeline as "a seamless opportunity to attract students through high school internships and with apprenticeships that help universities and technical schools shape certificate, bachelor's, and professional degree programs that meet industry needs." She reinforced the need for transportation professionals to think beyond the professional engineer, noting that it is one piece of many employment possibilities that include geologists, information technology (IT) professionals, and social scientists.

Although the representatives from the public agencies, private sector, organized labor, and academia expressed a desire to develop a workforce strategy, they also called for USDOT to exercise its leadership, particularly as a convener and advocate. Deputy Secretary Jackson advanced the need for the group to develop mechanisms to celebrate successful programs and find ways to help larger agencies adapt and refine the programs to different audiences. He noted that it is especially important to speak to a "wider audience as the industry approaches reauthorization."

Passing the Torch

The summit's participants noted that a sustained commitment on the part of the transportation community will be needed to ensure that the youth of today are attracted to the transportation jobs of the future.

James C. Codell III, vice president of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO) and secretary of the Kentucky Transportation Cabinet (KYTC), illustrated the difficulty faced by State transportation agencies attempting to recruit needed engineers. The KYTC has sponsored an Engineering Scholarship Program since 1948. Secretary Codell acknowledged, however, that the KYTC needs to revise its approach because not enough high school students are interested in the program. "They don't see transportation as a career," he said.

Noting that the private sector shares the challenges of finding and retaining qualified technical talent, Gary Griggs, president of Infrastructure, Parsons, Brinckerhoff, Quade and Douglas Inc., observed that the number of B.A. degrees has increased while the number of engineering graduates has decreased by 20 percent over the last decade. He added that today's engineering graduates "often don't consider transportation as a career option that benefits society." Griggs also pointed to the importance of retaining employees so that "firms and agencies don't lose their professional expertise." He called for a renewed emphasis on training and development through mentoring programs designed to give employees career alternatives and opportunities to update skills and abilities.

A Partnership for Educating, Training, and Developing the Nation's Transportation Workforce
May 13, 2002
Washington, DC

An effective, efficient, and safe transportation system is critical to the Nation's security, economic well-being, and quality of life of all Americans. The continued strength of our transportation system depends on having a committed workforce of men and women in public agencies and the private sector who have the skills and knowledge to keep America Moving.

Today, recruiting, developing, and retaining a skilled transportation workforce poses significant challenges to all of us in the transportation and education communities. This is particularly true now since a large number of skilled workers are retiring at a time when advancing technologies and more complex institutional relationships require new skills for all employees, especially those working across different modes, disciplines, and stakeholder groups.

The transportation and education communities recognize the challenges to developing the Nation's transportation workforce, but also see the benefits that will result from leading a coordinated and concerted effort to address them. To that end, we, the undersigned, on this 13th day of May 2002, agree to work together in partnership to:

  • Provide, within our own agencies and organizations, a focus on implementing programs and policies that will assure the development, support, and management of an efficient and effective workforce;
  • Support partnership efforts in the transportation and education communities that will help build young people's interest in transportation careers, and will support continuing education, training, and professional development opportunities for today's and tomorrow's workers; and
  • Promote a greater understanding that an efficient, well-trained workforce is critical to developing, operating, and managing the Nation's transportation system, and vital to National security, U.S. economic growth, and the quality of life of all Americans.
Photo of USDOT officials (listed below) displaying the signed Partnership for Educating, Training, and Developing the Nation's Transportation Workforce
USDOT officials display the signed Partnership for Educating, Training, and Developing the Nation's Transportation Workforce (from left): Administrator Joseph M. Clapp of the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration, FTA Administrator Dorn, USDOT Deputy Secretary Michael P. Jackson, and Administrator Engleman. FHWA Administrator Peters (not pictured) also signed the agreement, as did more than 40 other industry leaders to demonstrate their commitment to workforce development.

The Now Generation

A number of participants focused on the need for investing in skills development for in-service workers. Bruce Wyngaard, operations director for the Ohio Civil Service Employees Association, shared his concern about the "brain drain" in State transportation agencies. "This strains the system and affects agency accountability," he said. Citing the conflict in TEA-21, he noted that "under allocation guidelines, new construction money essentially competes with employee training and development funds."

Laura Ray, assistant general manager for the Metropolitan Atlanta Rapid Transit Authority, cautioned participants that "career development innovations must value the profession at all levels. Any development opportunities should include the 'work' side, in addition to the professional side of the transportation workforce."

Making It Happen

The summit's participants also recognized the wide range of organizations, agencies, and interests that make up the transportation industry and the need to develop partnership opportunities throughout the community as a way to institutionalize transportation workforce development. An institutional framework for coordinating workforce efforts is needed to bring the transportation community together to address the issue more effectively.

Joe Toole, FHWA associate administrator for professional development, noted that although a number of transportation organizations have outstanding outreach and workforce development programs, the efforts taken as a whole have not provided effectively for the industry's workforce needs. A concerted, coordinated institutional shift in how the industry develops its workforce will ensure a pipeline of workers into transportation and that in-service workers are trained in the latest technological advancements.

An industry-wide partnership also can help provide opportunities for minority students. Julie Cunningham, executive director of the Conference of Minority Transportation Officials, pointed to the partnership between the Texas Department of Transportation and targeted high schools to help students explore careers in transportation.

By the Numbers

Cinde Weatherby Gilliland, senior project manager of transit and transportation planning for URS Corporation, reviewed research about challenges facing the transportation workforce. She noted that the Government Accounting Office (GAO) views the projected human capital shortfall as providing serious programmatic problems and risks for the industry. Transportation Research Board (TRB) studies reinforce GAO data, citing institutional constraints, human resources, and an aging population as critical issues. Gilliland concluded by pointing to the need for credible data about transportation occupations. She noted the lack of real numbers of transportation workers compared to need (demand), and the number of projected workers (supply).

Photo of Cedar Canyon Bridge during rehabilitation
Preservation of historic transportation structure is another job for transportation workers. Here, they are rehabilitating Arizona's Cedar Canyon Bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a significant example of a two-hinge, girder-ribbed, arch bridge.
Deputy Secretary Jackson
USDOT Deputy Secretary Jackson addresses participants during one of the summit's conversation circles.
Administrator Engleman speaking to group
Administrator Engleman (center) shares an observation with Maryland State Highway Administrator Parker Williams (to her right). To her left are FHWA Associate Administrator Joe Toole; Tome Warne; and Administrator Peters.

An ad hoc Workforce Framework Group chaired by Cheri Marti identified important societal and cultural factors affecting the decision making process about career choices. Marti, assistant director of the Minnesota Local Technical Assistance Program's (LTAP) Center for Transportation Studies, reported that the members of the group developed a life-cycle continuum graphic that identifies opportunities for intervention to create awareness, influence choice, and "brand" transportation as an attractive career goal. The continuum reinforces the necessity to create learning paths for fundamental skills that satisfy workforce needs.

Multimodal and Multidisciplinary

To demonstrate the multimodal and multidisciplinary nature of the National Workforce Summit, presenters included three USDOT administrators: Ellen G. Engleman (Research and Special Programs Administration), Jennifer L. Dorn (Federal Transit Administration), and Mary E. Peters (FHWA). Administrator Engleman discussed RSPA's support for education and mentoring programs. She addressed the agency's dual challenge of promoting employees' professional development and looking outside the agency for potential employees.

Speaking next, Administrator Dorn remarked that the "OneDOT" philosophy should extend to a "One Industry" initiative that will thrive through collaboration and cooperation. She also discussed the role of the Federal government as a partner in workforce development, not the leader, underscoring the need for collective effort to meet the challenge.

Administrator Peters supported the need to help young people understand that they can have a role in making change in their communities. Education is key, she said, but educating the transportation workforce requires a variety of skills and disciplines in the new transportation environment.

Future Industry Trends

TRB Executive Director Robert E. Skinner, Jr., outlined his views on seven future industry trends and their implication for the transportation workforce.

  • Demographics. A growing population moving to urban centers can leave rural areas unable to meet local service levels.
  • Congestion. With few new lane miles, agencies are managing a crowded system, which could benefit transit agencies.
  • Changing public values. Security and safety concerns, much like the rise of environmental awareness, require new workforce skill sets.
  • Outsourcing and privatization. The drive for efficiency can cause staff shortages and reduce flexibility, limiting responses to conditions.
  • Private sector consolidation. All industries are affected, and consolidation can have implications for suppliers and consultants.
  • Technology. IT and biotech will define the 21st century, requiring agencies to be more flexible so that they can reduce the time needed to adopt technical innovations.
  • Finance. Reduced budgets affect the ability to offer competitive compensation packages or incentives to attract needed talent.

Skinner's remarks reinforced the transportation industry's need for new skills and disciplines to meet the challenge of maintaining an aging infrastructure in a time of increased travel. Transportation agencies must be more flexible so they can respond to technical innovations and management initiatives that enable them to operate more efficiently. Anticipated financial constraints can affect employee training and development, which make them more competitive and productive throughout their careers. Transportation agencies must be creative in a time of limited funding and reluctance by legislators to raise taxes or impose user fees.

To Be Specific

During the summit's breakout sessions, participants focused on three critical components of the issue: developing the workforce pipeline, improving training and professional development, and institutionalizing workforce development.

Developing the workforce pipeline. Working with the life-cycle continuum graphic, this breakout group identified the problem as being one of both supply and demand, highlighting the need to involve industry, locally led partnerships, and academic institutions at all levels. The group emphasized the value of lifelong learning that welcomes a diverse workforce to an array of academic disciplines and technical skill levels. Industry partners need to coordinate closely with educational institutions—K-12, technical schools, community colleges, and universities—to raise the awareness of the transportation industry as a rewarding career field.

Cooperative programs must be complemented with an aggressive marketing and outreach campaign to create excitement about transportation careers beyond the traditional engineering focus. The challenges in the group's recommendations involve identifying current partners and leaders to champion the effort.

Improving training and professional development. This group agreed that professional development encompasses more than traditional training and should include mentorships and other opportunities available throughout the industry. Several participants pointed to the necessity of modernizing organizational structures so that they can respond more quickly and accurately to employee training needs. The group also focused on the need to cultivate a public-private partnership to foster cooperative programs, develop a consistent definition of transportation training objectives and outcomes, and promote the need for broad training that incorporates both professional and technical skills. And participants saw a need to develop a clearinghouse for currently available training information. The clearinghouse would provide a mechanism for agencies to share best practices and learn from programs that failed to meet their intended goals.

Institutionalizing workforce development. A coordinated approach to recruiting, retaining, and developing a transportation workforce is needed throughout the professional life cycle. Group members agreed that the industry is larger than a single mode and requires a broad range of technical and professional skills. The participants regard partnerships with educational institutions, professional associations, and the U.S. Department of Education as vital to the success of any workforce development initiative.

Participants discussed the need for accurate essential data about the transportation workforce. The group linked workforce development with economic development issues, which can be translated into political support. In the short term, this data will be key to reauthorization. In the long term, having a better understanding about the status of the current workforce will help managers project future staffing needs. In addition to data, group members recognized the need for a more systematic way to identify best practices across modes.

Stepping Up to the Need

The challenge is to adapt innovations and create new initiatives to address workforce problems. This step will require champions from the transportation community who can advocate for resources to support the effort. Advancing initiatives to the institutional level will require start-up resources and the commitment of key decisionmakers if they are to be linked to agency capital programs.

As a follow-up, a National Workforce Development Steering Committee composed of transportation and academic community leaders is being formed to address the issues identified at the summit and develop initiatives to help ensure that the transportation industry has the skilled workforce it needs to deliver the Nation's transportation program.

At the summit's conclusion, moderator Tom Warne commented that the meeting is the beginning of a process that will have a far-reaching impact on the future of transportation workforce development. "Together," he said, "we've just taken the first of many thousands of steps."

Photo of employees working on an art project
Skilled employees with the California Department of Transportation and the County of Santa Cruz's Parks Department work on an art project beneath a road underpass in Santa Cruz, CA.
Photo of silt net
A silt net prevents silt-loaded water from contaminating a lake during a highway construction project on Route 3 in Franklin County, NY. Courtesy of New York State DOT.
Photo of cold pavement recycling in Montana
Pavement engineers routinely need to balance a variety of factors when selecting alternatives for improving roadway. Engineers rehabilitating this stretch of Montana 200 selected cold pavement recycling because it offered the lowest lifecycle cost, conserved pavement and petroleum, minimized disruption to traffic, and did not contribute to air pollution.
Photo of highway support facility in Washington, DC, area
Commuters across the country rely on the transportation professionals who staff call centers and highway support facilities like this one in the Washington, DC, area to help them get to and from work safely and efficiently.

Clark Martin is the workforce programs coordinator for FHWA's Office of Professional Development. Martin works closely with Federal, State, and local governments and private sector organizations to develop and coordinate programs that will assure an efficient and effective transportation workforce now and for the future. He has been involved with highway transportation throughout his career, having served as director of safety for the American Trucking Associations and executive director of the ATA Council of Safety Supervisors. He also has 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 B.S. degree in government and politics from the University of Maryland.

Vicki Glenn is a senior associate with Bergstralh-Shaw-Newman, Inc., and has been a contractor for numerous FHWA projects since 1992. She currently works with FHWA's Office of Professional Development to research State DOT innovative practices to recruit, train, and retain qualified employees, which are posted on FHWA's Transportation Workforce Development Web site (www.nhi.fhwa.dot.gov/transworkforce). A member of TRB's Committee on Transportation Education and Training, Glenn is cochair of the committee's 2003 forum on transportation internships and related mentorships. She holds a bachelor's degree in humanities from Macalester College and a master's in adult education from American University.

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