by Clark Martin and Alexandra Dudley
The transportation industry is leading the effort to recruit and train workers to fill a growing number of jobs. The future of transportation depends on these endeavors.
The transportation system in the United States is a cornerstone of the country’s economic growth and prosperity. The system facilitates travel for work, school, and other everyday needs for mobility. The efficiency of the transportation system is dependent on the skills, knowledge, and abilities of the workforce that develops, delivers, and manages its many operations. However, today’s transportation workforce is facing several challenges, including difficulty in filling job openings.
The retirement of workers from the “baby boom” generation, an increase in competition from other industries, and new technologies that are driving the need for enhanced skill sets are among the primary factors driving the critical need for new skilled workers. A highly skilled workforce is necessary to address the rapidly evolving areas of automation, information technology, autonomous vehicle technologies, intelligent transportation systems, environmental stewardship, facility and system design, and an expanding global economy.
In August 2015, the U.S. Departments of Transportation, Education, and Labor released a joint report titled Strengthening Skills Training and Career Pathways Across the Transportation Industry. The report analyzes future job needs in the transportation industry. According to the report, the transportation industry will need to hire 4.6 million workers from 2012 to 2022—the equivalent of 1.2 times the size of the current workforce. Of those 4.6 million workers
, 417,000 jobs are projected to be related to industry growth and 4.2 million are related to separations, which includes retirements, occupational transfers, and other exits from the industry.
In addition to hiring, the industry must ensure that the new hires are well-trained and prepared to deliver the Nation’s transportation system.
The Demographic Cliff
In 2014, approximately 53 percent of transportation workers were over the age of 45 years. As the majority of the transportation workforce nears full retirement age, further workforce challenges emerge. Baby boomers (those born between 1946 and 1964) have already begun leavi
ng the workforce. By 2024, they will be between the ages of 60 and 78.
Not only is the retirement of the baby boomer generation already leading to a significant number of job openings, but it also will mean loss of valuable knowledge and experience. As baby boomers retire, younger workers need to fill their jobs. However, not enough workers are completing the training and educational programs required to fill these positions, posing a challenge for the transportation industry. Without a sufficient number of skilled workers, the industry will have difficulty designing, constructing, and maintaining an efficient, effective, and safe transportation system.
Through 2022, projected annual job openings are approximately 68 percent greater than the number of individuals who are completing transportation-related education and training programs each year. This disparity highlights the gap that the transportation industry needs to address to meet anticipated industry demand. Without effective action, the industry will continue to experience a shortage of qualified workers with the skills necessary to fill the projected job vacancies.
The highway sector has its own set of workforce challenges. U.S. travelers rely on U.S. highways. The National Highway System has more than 4 million miles (6.4 million kilometers) and slightly more than 144,000 bridges. To better understand the highway construction industry’s workforce challenges, the Associated General Contractors of America (AGC) conducts an annual survey of its member companies. The 2016 survey, which received more than 1,400 responses, showed that construction firms throughout the country are struggling to fill open positions and hire a sufficient number of qualified workers to meet their needs. Difficulty filling positions directly impacts firms’ ability to deliver projects on time and potentially delays repairs needed on the transportation system.
“Putting new workforce development measures in place will make it easier for construction firms to keep pace with growing public- and private-sector demand,” says Stephen E. Sandherr, chief executive officer of AGC.
To avert a potential crisis, the Federal Highway Administration is working in conjunction with other public agencies and private companies and organizations to attract, educate, train, and retain a qualified highway construction workforce. Many government agencies, local organizations, and employers have formed partnerships, developed training and educational programs, and filled job openings. Continued collaboration and leveraging of resources will be necessary to meet future demands for skilled labor.
Through its Center for Transportation Workforce Development, FHWA is bringing together key partners to develop and implement a focused effort: the Highway Construction Workforce Pilot. This pilot program is a joint effort with the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO), Associated General Contractors of America, American Road & Transportation Builders Association (ARTBA), U.S. Department of Labor’s (DOL) Employment and Training Administration, State and local workforce development boards, and other local labor and workforce development organizations. The effort aims to identify, train, and place individuals in high-need highway construction jobs in 12 pilot locations throughout the country. The pilot program will support on-the-job training criteria in highway construction occupations and will explore how to more effectively link qualified applicants with workforce opportunities in highway construction. AASHTO, AGC, ARTBA, DOL, and FHWA established the Highway Construction Workforce Pilot and are working togetheras the National Partners Group.
“We know there are a lot of people out there who would excel in these jobs, but finding those individuals has been a challenge,” says Brian Deery, senior director in AGC’s Highway & Transportation Division. “Our partners on the [workforce development] side can help us with that. The pilot program shows a lot of promise to change the way we address workforce development in the highway construction industry.”
The partners have selected six cities (Atlanta, GA; Dallas, TX; Denver, CO; Los Angeles, CA; Pittsburgh, PA; and St. Louis, MO) and six States (Alabama, Arizona, Connecticut, Idaho, Rhode Island, and South Dakota) to participate in the pilot. The locations were chosen based on consideration of several factors, including workforce data, a mix of cities and States, union and nonunion operations, State or local association member organization, and established relationships with State or local workforce development boards.
“The highway infrastructure is critical to our way of life, and there are a lot of good jobs in the highway industry,” says Byron Zuidema, deputy assistant secretary for the DOL Employment and Training Administration. “Partnering with the industry to make better use of the publicly funded workforce development system will help job seekers receive the skills and training they need to get placed in those jobs.”
How does the pilot program work? At the local level, contractors identify the high-need job occupations they are struggling to fill. Workforce development boards (WDBs) and other local labor organizations identify available training programs and resources, as well as potential participants. Through the pilot program, individuals learn a skill or build on existing skills to begin or enhance a career in the transportation industry, and employers have a larger, more qualified hiring pool to fill their open jobs and complete projects.
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