U.S. Department of Transportation
Federal Highway Administration
1200 New Jersey Avenue, SE
Washington, DC 20590
Transportation agencies in 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 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 at the time of the scanning study was 3.9 percent, the lowest in 30 years. Coupled with the strong economy was a steadily growing demand for engineers and technicians, particularly in electronics and high-technology fields. Many transportation agencies expanded their stafs and expertise in the 1950s and 1960s, when the Interstate Highway System was designed and built. Today, many of those staffers are retiring, leaving a void that must be filled.
As transportation agencies in the United States shift from a new construction mode of operation to one of system preservation, much of the planning, design, and construction work is being outsourced, reducing the hands-on opportunities attractive to engineers and technicians. 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 offered by private firms, means 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, the 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 are also a factor. Most Generation X'ers expect to move routinely from one employer to another as a means of taking 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 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 tour 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 through 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; Kathryn Harrington-Hughes, director of operations for the Eno Transportation Foundation; and Jerry A. Hawkins, director of FHWA's Office of Human Resources.
In each country, team members met with human resource managers, training directors, and other transportation agency staf involved in workforce development.
The United States is not alone in facing issues dealing with workforce recruitment, retention, and training. The four countries visited face similar challenges, and they have implemented a variety of techniques and practices to overcome those challenges. Although there is no one overarching solution that can be gleaned from the experiences in Sweden, Germany, England, and France, team members have proposed a number of actions, based on what they learned in those countries, that merit the U.S. transportation industry's consideration. Those actions are summarized in four categories below. The findings and recommendations are those of the scanning team and not FHWA.
An implementation team has been formed to identify how the action items the team identified might be evaluated or implemented in the United States. The implementation team consists of Joseph Toole, Randy Bergquist, and David Ferguson.
The information uncovered during the scanning study has served as the basis for several implementation activities:
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