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European Practices in Transportation Workforce Development


June 2003



The following statement and questions were sent to the host agencies before the scanning mission to help them focus their presentations.

Transportation agencies in the United States grapple with how to hire and retain technical and administrative workers and how to train and retrain those workers to ensure they will be able to meet changing needs. These agencies realize that their workers - the organizations' human capital - are their most valuable investment, and they want to preserve and grow that investment.

The unemployment rate in the United States is at 3.9 percent-the lowest in 30 years. Coupled with the strong economy is a steadily growing demand for engineers and technicians, particularly in electronics and high-technology fields. Many transportation agencies expanded their staffs and expertise in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Interstate Highway System was being designed and built. Today, many of those stafers are retiring, leaving a void that must be filled.

As transportation agencies in the United States have shifted from a new construction mode of operation to one of system preservation, much of the planning, design, and construction work has been outsourced, thus reducing the hands-on opportunities engineers and technicians find attractive. In addition, to many of today's younger engineers and technicians, civil engineering projects do not have the same allure as high-tech projects. That, coupled with the higher salaries typically ofered by private firms, means that transportation agencies are having increasing difficulty filling jobs and retaining staff. As a result, many jobs at transportation agencies go unfilled, forcing agencies to contract for more services. In some cases, services are provided by former transportation agency staff members now employed by the contractor.

The number of engineering students in the United States has not kept pace with the growing demand. Although there has been a slight upswing in the number of U.S. undergraduate engineering students, most of the increase is in computer engineering. And the number of science and engineering graduate students in the United States has fallen for the fifth consecutive year.

The career goals of today's younger workers also are a factor. Most Generation X'ers expect to move routinely from one employer to another to take on new challenges and responsibilities. Although they are eager to assume responsibility, they stand fast against allowing their work life to intrude on their personal life, and they expect a more flexible workplace (for example, in terms of hours and culture). As a result, transportation agencies must adapt to the shifting work culture.

The needs of transportation agencies are also changing. In the past, most agencies relied primarily on a cadre of highly trained civil engineers. Today, however, the civil engineering staff must be augmented by workers skilled in computer engineering, high-tech electronics, regional planning, environmental protection, federal regulations, accounting, management, communications, public outreach, marketing, and other areas.

The challenges facing a transportation agency are broader than ever. Meeting those challenges requires a competent, skilled, and experienced workforce that can create and sustain a knowledge base.

The members of the scanning team would like to learn how public and private highway agencies in Sweden, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom build and maintain a dedicated, trained workforce of technical and non-technical staff. They are eager to learn both what has worked and what has not worked.

In particular, they are looking for answers to the following questions:

  1. How do you determine your workforce needs?
    1. What types of people and skills do you need?
    2. How often does your agency review and evaluate your people and skill needs?
    3. How do you identify gaps in the labor pool?
    4. What tools do you use to forecast attrition?
    5. How do you link workforce needs with your strategic plan?
    6. What is the right level of investment in training? For example, do you budget a certain amount of money for each employee?
    7. Do you monitor and evaluate employee training to ensure it is meeting the needs of both the employee and the agency?
    8. How is your training funded?
    9. What type of formal system or process do you use to anticipate future agency needs or major changes in skill needs?
  1. How do you find and hire the right people for the job?
    1. How early in the educational process do you begin recruiting for the "right people?"
    2. How do you compete in a tight labor market?
    3. What core competencies are needed, and how are they determined?
    4. How do you assess talents versus skills?
    5. What types of outreach mechanisms work best?
    6. Do you target mid-career hires?
    7. How do you get students interested in a career in transportation?
    8. How do you keep students interested in a transportation career until you're ready to hire them?
    9. Do you use incentives or bonuses to attract employees?
    10. What arrangements do you have with educational institutions to prepare students for transportation jobs?
    11. What alliances do you have with professional associations that link transportation and professional development?
  1. How do you keep the right people?
    1. How do you reward good performance?
    2. How do you balance your employees' work and life issues?
    3. How are jobs defined, and how do you encourage and allow your employees to grow in their jobs?
    4. How do you plan for succession?
    5. Do you cross train? If so, how?
    6. How do you encourage skilled workers to stay in the transportation industry (whether at your agency or another)?
    7. What are the costs (tangible and intangible) of losing and replacing a worker in your agency?
    8. What are the costs versus benefits of "paying" to retain workers (i.e., matching competing salaries)?
    9. What agency-funded scholarships or work-study programs are available?
    10. What is the role of technician certification and professional licensing in workforce development?
  1. How do you continually improve skills to match changing needs?
    1. What is your process for assessing skills?
    2. What tools do you use to improve skills? How do you use technology in training?
    3. Is training done within your agency, or do you contract for training?
    4. Please describe any process your agency has for continual employee development.
  1. How do you motivate employees?
    1. How do you gauge employee morale?
    2. What tools do you use to develop and maintain good employee morale?
    3. What employee performance assessment procedures have been most effective?
    4. To what extent are salary increases tied to performance?
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