U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590

Skip to content
Facebook iconYouTube iconTwitter iconFlickr iconLinkedInInstagram

Office of International Programs

FHWA Home / Office of International Programs

European Practices in Transportation Workforce Development


June 2003



Transportation organizations throughout the United States grapple with how to hire and retain sufficient numbers of technical and administrative workers, as well as how to train and retrain those workers to ensure they will be able to meet changing needs. These organizations realize that their workers - the organizations' human capital - are their most valuable investment, and they want to protect and nurture that investment.

In fall 2000, when this scanning study was being planned, the unemployment rate in the United States stood at 3.9 percent - the lowest it had been in 30 years. At the same time, transportation agencies and organizations were losing record numbers of staff to retirement, watching as many of their most experienced and knowledgeable staff members - those hired in the 1950s and '60s during the heyday of Interstate Highway System design and construction - walked out the door and began collecting their pensions. Filling the void they left behind was dificult. Engineers and technicians were in short supply, largely because of the seemingly incessant demand for workers in the electronics, high-technology and Internet fields. Salaries and perks ofered in those technology fields made it difficult for transportation agencies to compete.

Even though unemployment rates have increased recently in the United States, resulting in a slightly greater availability of workers, many of these challenges persist in the transportation community. In the past decade or so, many public agencies have been forced to downsize even as their budgets have increased. Among State departments of transportation, for example, full-time employment has dropped 5.3 percent while budgets have increased 56 percent. Much of the planning, design, and construction work is now hired out to private contractors. But many of those same contractors face similar problems in hiring and retaining skilled workers. In addition, many younger engineers and technicians are drawn to more alluring high-tech projects, which can make civil engineering projects seem less desirable in comparison. The result of all this: transportation organizations are having increasing difficulty filling jobs and retaining staff.

There are no signs that the supply shortfall will ease anytime soon. 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. undegraduate engineering students, most of that increase is in the computer engineering field. The number of science and engineering graduate students in the United States has fallen for the fifth consecutive year. In short, the proverbial pie is getting smaller, and U.S. industries are fighting each other for a bigger piece of the pie.

The career goals of today's younger workers are also a factor. Generation X'ers - people born between 1961 and 1981 - fully expect to move from one employer to another as a means of taking on new challenges and responsibilities. Although Generation X'ers are eager to assume responsibility, they expect a more flexible workplace than that of their parents in terms of hours and culture, and they stand fast against allowing their work life to intrude on their personal life. Transportation agencies will have to find ways to accommodate these needs if they want to succeed in attracting these workers.

The needs of transportation agencies are also changing. In the past, most agencies were staffed primarily by highly trained civil engineers. Today, however, the staff must include workers proficient in computer engineering, high-tech electronics, regional planning, environmental protection, Federal regulations, accounting, management, communications, public outreach, marketing, and other skills.

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

These challenges are not limited to the United States. The Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), acting through the National Cooperative Highway Research Program, sponsored a scanning study to give State and Federal transportation agency representatives a firsthand look at how several European countries deal with these issues. The scan was conducted March 24 to April 7, 2001, in Sweden, Germany, France, and England.

Joseph S. Toole, director of FHWA's Office of Professional Development, and Pete K. Rahn, secretary of transportation for the New Mexico State Highway and Transportation Department, led the scanning team. Other team members included Randy Bergquist, program director for learning and development for the U.S. Department of Transportation; Ronald W. Carmichael, division engineer for FHWA's Western Federal Lands Highway Division; David S. Ferguson, personnel resources management officer for the Florida Department of Transportation; Gary Gilmore, administrator of the Montana Department of Transportation's Engineering and Highways Division; Gene C. Griffin, director of the Upper Great Plains Transportation Institute; Jerry A. Hawkins, director of FHWA's Office of Human Resources; and Kathryn Harrington-Hughes, director of operations for the Eno Transportation Foundation, who served as report facilitator. The scan coordinator was Jake Almborg of American Trade Initiatives, Inc.

The team had three key objectives:

Before heading to Europe, the team developed a list of amplifying questions, which was sent to their hosts to help them focus their presentations. The questions centered on five general themes:

Early in the planning process, Marie Dominque Gorrigan of American Trade Initiatives conducted an office-based study to gather background information to help determine which organizations and institutions active in education, training, and professional development the scanning team should visit. As a result of the desk scan, meetings were scheduled with public- and private-sector transportation organizations actively engaged in education, training, and professional development in Sweden, Germany, France, and England.

In each country, team members met with human resource managers, training directors, and other transportation agency staff involved in workforce development. What follows in this report is a summary of what they heard during an intense two weeks of meetings, presentations, and discussions.

<< Previous Contents Next >>
Page last modified on November 7, 2014
Federal Highway Administration | 1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE | Washington, DC 20590 | 202-366-4000