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Publication Number:      Date:  January/February 2003
Issue No: Vol. 66 No. 4
Date: January/February 2003


Pushing Through The Safety Plateau

by Kristine Lee Leiphart

To decrease fatalities, workforce skills must develop and adapt to new and changing transportation safety needs.

About 10 years ago, our Nation's highway fatality numbers reached a plateau (between 39,000 and 42,000) and have remained static since then. To restore progress in highway safety, the transportation community needs to find new, cost-effective countermeasures that can be implemented in a timely manner. The development of these safety measures should include an awareness of needs in different localities and functional road classes.

Snowplow. Richard J. Nelson, NVDOT

Snowplow operators help improve roadway safety for motorists traveling in winter weather conditions.

After development, the innovations must reach the transportation professionals, who can implement and use them to break through the safety plateau. This "technology transfer" contains an important component—communication—the act of providing transportation professionals with safety knowledge updates.

However, innovative ideas and emerging technologies are useful only to the extent that people apply the research findings. New technologies usually call for a change in skill sets to implement them properly. In this light, education, training, and professional development opportunities are key ways to maintain a well-equipped, knowledgeable workforce. Training fosters comfort with the newest technological advances and helps employees apply the innovations in their daily jobs.

In the President's Management Agenda, launched in 2001, President George W. Bush stated, "In most agencies, human resources planning is weak. Workforce deficiencies will be exacerbated by the upcoming retirement wave of the baby-boom generation."

To ensure that the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) has a skilled workforce to carry out safety functions that change with new technology, research concepts, and legislative mandates, FHWA's Office of Safety initiated a program called Professional Excellence for Highway Safety Program (PE-SHP). The new program, which started in 2001, is designed to facilitate information-sharing among transportation safety experts for their professional development and to enhance their job performance. The communication of ideas among the transportation safety community is accomplished through workshops, shared databases, and reference materials.

First Steps

A workforce development program encompasses activities that range from professional development to management of the labor force. Traditionally, workforce development involved identifying available staffing resources; projecting employee recruitment, retention, and retirement; preparing succession planning; ensuring that staff members have adequate resources and training; and matching the demand and supply of human capital (i.e., employee knowledge and existing and potential skills) to close the gap between future staff needs and present availability. Workforce development integration into an agency's strategic planning process can identify the number of individuals needed to staff various professional levels in an agency and determine present and future capabilities that an agency will need to reach long-term goals. This formal process helps match each employee's knowledge and experience with the programmatic and performance needs and projections of an organization.

Creating a comprehensive, transportation workforce program is a long-term goal. It requires research and development (R&D) of new tools that are necessary for transportation engineers, planners, and researchers to improve their job performances. R&D requires that: (1) there are practical applications for the research, and (2) the findings can be deployed to the transportation workforce in a timely manner. Prompt but well-designed deployment is essential to reap the benefits of R&D investments, and now is the time to invest for the future—before the transportation community lags behind or loses critical workforce knowledge.

Chart showing the percentage of USDOT Employees by Age groups illustrating that there are large proportion in the 50-59 age range, Source USDOT

Percentage of USDOT Employees by Age Groups.

Chart illustrating the percentage of retirement eligibles at USDOT. A significant increase occured in FY 01 for FHWA, FMCSA, FRA, FTA and NHTSA, Source USDOT

Percentage of Retirement Eligibles at USDOT.

Demand and Supply

Approximately 71 percent of the Federal government's current permanent employees will be eligible for regular or early retirement by 2010. Similarly, the Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government, the public policy research arm of the State University of New York, estimates that in the next 15 years, 40 percent of State and local government employees will be eligible for retirement.

Among various U.S. Department of Transportation (USDOT) offices, a large percentage of employees are nearing the retirement age categories. This trend is expected to lead to a large turnover, which will increase training needs within a short period of time. FHWA's workforce retirement turnover will be a relatively staggered and gradual process.

The percentage of employees projected to be eligible for retirement from USDOT increased from fiscal year 2000 to 2001. According to a study conducted by the Office of the Secretary at USDOT, in FHWA, the retirement eligibles were projected to be 12.3 percent for 2000 and 24.9 percent for 2001. For the Federal Transit Administration (FTA), it was 12.9 in 2000 and 31.5 in 2001, and similarly, for the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), 11.1 percent in 2000 and 27.7 in 2004.

The Federal government is using innovative recruitment and retention policies to attract and retain quality employees and maintain a quality work environment. USDOT's recruitment practices are comparable to the best practices of other major agencies. For the most part, the agencies within USDOT, including FHWA, have maintained consistent levels of hiring, with a slight increase from 8.3 percent in fiscal year 2000 to 11.2 percent in fiscal year 2001.

Various agencies within USDOT have had varying degrees of success in retaining experienced personnel, thus minimizing the cost of training and maximizing employee efficiency. Succession planning is being reviewed at FHWA because a higher rate of loss is expected for its most experienced and technical staff.

Along with integrating performance measures, improving financial management, using e-government initiatives, and employing outsourcing techniques to keep government accountable to the customers, managing human capital efficiently is a key factor in ensuring that any transportation agency will have quality programs and customer satisfaction. This concept of efficiency in the workforce will be especially important in the Federal government as the flux of people retiring from the public sector escalates in the next decade.

Training as a Workforce Strategy

A key way to use human capital more efficiently is training and continuing education to convey information about new findings.

Training helps increase the number of professionals who are able to educate the public about transportation topics. Educated professionals can help people of all ages understand, process, and retain the concept of the value of transportation. The transportation community can continue to contribute to sustaining an efficient transportation system by communicating that safer roads help save lives and reduce societal costs from crashes.

Although administrative duties often require staff members in an agency to concentrate on short-term deliverables, the organization's business plan focuses on sustaining and implementing a long-term vision. Training and education have an important role in showing that the agency is making investments in the people who largely determine how the organization will perform and function in the long run.

Planning the safety workforce is a process in evolution.

Managing Human Capital

Any organization or company has tangible resources (financial resources, capital assets) and intangible resources (human capital and brand recognition). In the case of private industry, the intangible resources can offer a competitive advantage since they are unique to that company and are not easily reproducible. In the public sector, like the private sector, performance can be linked directly to the quality of the organization's human capital. Some companies even strategize their future programs around their staff members' backgrounds and interests.

From time to time, staff members need renewed training so that they can develop fresh ideas. A gap remains between what transportation professionals learn from the transportation curricula during their college years and what they are expected to do on the job. Even among safety professionals who have been in the field for a number of years, many opportunities for training still exist. Logically, there should be no disconnect between the two knowledge transfer techniques: the one that is gained by attending training and the other that is attained by performing on-the-job duties.

Worker inspecting tank truck. Richard J. Nelson, NVDOT

The roadway workforce needs adequate training on how to conduct vehicle inspections on tank trucks such as this one.

Continuing education courses often differ from traditional college courses because they are designed to offer knowledge that is immediately applicable by the working professional. Additionally, adults have a different learning technique than college students in that they prefer more interactive learning than occurs in classroom lectures. University courses therefore may not be suitable for the adult learner.

On the other hand, the content of a continuing education course may lack the substantive rigor found in university courses. In a training course, participants are expected to take the fundamental knowledge attained from the adult learning course and then to seek out further knowledge on their own. Ideally, the result is that the transportation professionals can carry out their duties more efficiently and effectively because they are using newly acquired knowledge and a scientific process to arrive at decisions related to a specific assignment.

Training Courses

In order to raise safety awareness and offer continuous education for highway safety professionals, FHWA has developed new training courses and is enhancing existing courses. A new course, Introduction to Improving Highway Safety, will focus on using network screening, identifying high-crash locations, and conducting data analysis. Safety professionals will be able to establish baseline crash statistics for areas with the highest number of injuries and fatalities. The course also will explain the regulatory requirements of the Highway Safety Improvement Program (HSIP), which provides funds to States in order to make safety enhancements. Ken Epstein of FHWA's Office of Safety and Mike Griffith at FHWA's Turner-Fairbank Highway Research Center (TFHRC) are developing this HSIP course.

In 2002, FHWA produced a safety module to give new employees an overview of FHWA's safety programs. Peter Eun, Emmett McDevitt, and Tom Breslin at FHWA's Division Offices, in collaboration with FHWA's Office of Human Resources, developed this training course.

Matt Lister and Pete Rusch at FHWA's Resource Center in the Midwest, with Keith Gates at FHWA in Washington, DC, created a workshop that integrates safety with intelligent transportation systems (ITS), titled "Improving Highway Safety with ITS." The workshop explores the latest technological options available to enhance roadway safety, such as technologies related to weather, lighting, road designs, signs, and intelligent vehicle initiatives. The workshop compares technology-centered safety solutions to traditional safety enhancements such as rumble strips and guardrails.

Other training courses already exist or are in development by FHWA. For example, a Roadway Safety Audit course examines future and existing roads. The audits, adaptable to local needs and concerns, are a preventive tool that can raise safety consciousness and enhance the safety practices of State and local transportation agencies.

Another FHWA existing course, the University Course on Pedestrian and Bicyclist Facility Design, is intended for use in undergraduate- or graduate-level transportation planning and design curricula at universities and related institutions. The course provides current information on pedestrian and bicycle planning and design techniques, as well as practical lessons on how to increase bicycling and walking through land-use practices and engineering design. Developed in coordination with professors, the course is designed to be modular so that faculty members can teach it as a complete full-semester course, in segments, or as topics extracted to incorporate into their own courses. FHWA also received input from industry and State and local jurisdictions.

A work zone safety course currently under development will cover meeting the customers' needs for mobility and safety during construction and maintenance operations. Another course being developed recognizes the use of retroreflectivity—the visibility of signs and pavement markings—as an essential element for efficient traffic flow and highway safety. The course will address the evaluation of retro-reflectometer equipment for measuring the nighttime visibility of signs and pavement markings. The course also will cover how to determine when signs and pavement markings have reached the end of their useful life and need to be refurbished.

Safety Workforce Planning Workshop

To better gauge the professional development and training needs of FHWA's customers, the agency sponsored a Safety Workforce Planning Workshop in San Antonio, TX, on April 3-4, 2002. Cosponsors included the Institute of Transportation Engineers (ITE), the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), and the Transportation Research Board (TRB). The workshop participants—representatives of organizations in the highway safety community—assessed the needs of the safety workforce and discussed steps that could be taken to ensure transportation agencies have a capable workforce to meet future needs.

The goal was to derive policy recommendations that would help enhance highway safety training and workforce development. The workshop attendees recommended that the enforcement, engineering, education, and emergency medical services communities be involved in safety education and awareness outreach. Other specific policy recommendations drafted by the workshop participants included developing safety training programs and a comprehensive plan to prepare the workforce for their roles and responsibilities, establishing and funding a road safety curriculum, and developing safety training that is performance-driven. The attendees suggested a central source for housing all training information. The participants also recommended measuring the success of safety training by instituting performance evaluations of safety professionals and by measuring reductions in fatalities, injuries, and crashes.

The participants recommended that FHWA establish a comprehensive system of quality safety training that (1) includes a clearinghouse for training in the "Four Es" (engineering, education, enforcement, and emergency response); (2) assures the quality integration, timeliness, and appropriateness of the training; and (3) ensures integration of safety in related disciplines.

Traffic sign on highway

A new FHWA course will offer training on measuring the nighttime visibility of traffic signs such as this one.

Future Steps

The next steps for institutional consideration and implementation include encouraging integration of highway safety courses in transportation and civil engineering curricula at universities; integrating planning, engineering, design, operations, and training efforts necessary for highway safety; and exploring the technology, data, analysis, and evaluation needs for enhanced safety.

To help further training, education, and workforce development in areas such as highway safety, FHWA and USDOT have been expanding partnerships that are internal and external to the agency. FHWA continues to work with organizations such as AASHTO, TRB, and ITE to integrate safety with its organizational strategies. In an environment that supports a performance culture, the use of human capital is an area that can help government reduce costs and be able to do more with fewer resources.

Kristine Lee Leiphart, Ph.D., GLS, is a program analyst with the Office of the Secretary of Transportation where she is working on the agency's Performance and Accountability Report, and integrating performance into budget for various modal offices. Leiphart also worked for FHWA's Office of Safety on the Conditions and Performance Report to Congress and workforce development topics.




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