Recruiting Tomorrow’s Workforce

The transportation industry faces a significant gap between the number of skilled positions needed in the workforce and the number of people qualified to fill those positions. The projected annual job openings in the transportation field through 2022 are about 68 percent greater than the number of people completing transportation-related education and training programs, according to Strengthening Skills Training and Career Pathways Across the Transportation Industry, a joint report from the U.S. Departments of Transportation, Education, and Labor. Without enough qualified workers, the industry grapples with a growing challenge to develop, operate, and maintain a safe and efficient transportation system.

One way the Federal Highway Administration is working to narrow the workforce gap is by encouraging young people to explore the opportunities awaiting them in transportation. Many middle and high school students are unaware that a transportation career can involve a variety of disciplines—from engineering to planning and design to safety and supply chain management. Conducted in partnership with State departments of transportation and academic institutions, the National Summer Transportation Institute (NSTI) is an FHWA program that expands the awareness of career opportunities in transportation and helps address future needs for a capable and diverse workforce.

In 2018, NSTI celebrated 25 years of educating students about transportation and piquing their interest in college-level studies and career opportunities in the field.

Administered by FHWA’s Center for Transportation Workforce Development, NSTI promotes science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines among middle and high school students and encourages them to pursue transportation-related studies at the college and university level. Open to middle and high school students throughout the United States and its territories, NSTI enables teenagers to experience campus life and get a preview of transportation-related studies at accredited colleges and universities. All are welcome to apply, with a focus on underserved students, including minorities, women, socially and economically disadvantaged individuals, at-risk youth, and students with disabilities.

Introducing Transportation Opportunities

Daniel Davalos knew little about the transportation field, but he was intrigued when his high school engineering teacher distributed flyers on NSTI because it offered hands-on experience in STEM.

“I applied to this program because it would help me focus my education and career decisions in the STEM disciplines,” he says.

In addition to inspiring Davalos to study electrical engineering at California State University, Los Angeles, the NSTI session he attended in 2014 gave him insight into the types of careers people could have in transportation. As a result, he says, “I am planning to use my knowledge in electrical engineering in the transportation industry.”

Over the years, NSTI has benefited more than 25,000 students. In 2017, 1,446 students, including 21 with disabilities, attended programs at 62 host sites in 48 States.

To broaden access to the NSTI experience, FHWA instituted an exchange program in 2012 for students living in U.S. territories. The pilot program enabled four students to travel to the U.S. mainland to stay on a college campus and participate in a session. By 2018, about 40 students from U.S. territories had attended NSTI sessions, an average of 8 to 10 students per year.

Each year, State departments of transportation ask accredited colleges and universities (potential NSTI host sites) to develop proposals for NSTI programs on their campuses that meet FHWA’s curriculum guidelines. State DOTs recommend one or more applications from potential NSTI host sites to their State’s FHWA division, which reviews the applications and provides feedback and assistance on the proposed programs.

Providing Hands-On Experience

A typical NSTI program lasts 2 to 4 weeks. Host institutions offer day or residential programs that include room and board for students. Each institution targets its program to students in either high school or middle school. High school programs emphasize activities to improve STEM skills, prepare participants for post-secondary education, and encourage them to pursue transportation-related careers. Middle school programs focus on career exploration.

Designed to provide a stimulating introduction to the transportation industry and career opportunities, typical NSTI programs feature exposure to land, air, and water transportation modes, as well as safety. The curriculum includes an introduction to each transportation mode taught by college or university instructors, presentations from industry professionals, and field trips to transportation and transit facilities and government agencies. Students also learn from hands-on activities, such as laboratory exercises, computer programming tasks, and competitions to design bridges, gliders, solar cars, or mass transit projects.

Land transportation topics included in a typical program include highway design, transportation planning, traffic signal timing, transportation logistics, and public transit. Water transportation covers topics such as deep sea freight and passenger transportation, intercoastal waterways, towing and tugboat services, and marine cargo handling. Air transportation focuses on flight theories, aircraft performance, flight instruments, and air navigation. Safety is an integral part of the curriculum, including safe transportation infrastructure; improving safety and communication; analyzing and forecasting safety trends; and pedestrian, bicycle, vehicle, and air travel safety.

Programs also introduce methods and activities that improve study habits, promote academic achievement, and foster self-awareness. Topics include time management, critical thinking, problem solving, research techniques, and internet and library use, as well as preparation for standardized college admission tests. Students learn teamwork and sportsmanship through sports and recreation activities.

Partnership Takes Flight

Some host institutions partner with the National Flight Academy in Pensacola, FL, which offers an immersive program to inspire students to pursue STEM studies and careers. At the conclusion of their campus programs, these host institutions select students to attend a weeklong course at the academy, where they live in a simulated aircraft carrier environment and get hands-on experience learning about flight control, aircraft safety, piloting, and other technical operations associated with aviation.

Each day, academy students participate in “missions” that challenge their mental agility, preparedness, and communication skills while demonstrating the value of teamwork and goal completion. Through simulator experience and role play, students learn firsthand how those in naval aviation respond to real-life situations and emergencies. At the end of the week, students participate in a graduation ceremony to celebrate their accomplishments.

Student Perspectives On NSTI

Many former participants in NSTI programs consider their experience as key to their decision to pursue STEM-related studies in college and apply their education in the transportation and engineering fields. Many also express appreciation for the opportunity to get a taste of life on a college campus.

Dr. Makoloa Abdullah. Dr. Abdullah, Virginia State University president, was a junior in high school when his mother told him about the NSTI program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “She thought it was a program I should be a part of. We all know mothers know best,” he says.

“I applied because I thought it would be wonderful to have the experience of staying on a college campus while still being a high school student. It provided me with the opportunity to spread my wings,” Abdullah says. “Most importantly, I had a strong interest in the STEM field, particularly in engineering.”

After interning the following summer at the Illinois Department of Transportation, Abdullah earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Howard University and master’s and doctorate degrees in civil engineering from Northwestern University. Early in his career, he worked at a civil engineering firm in Chicago. Later, he served as a college professor, dean of engineering, and university provost.

Read the full article on FHWA Public Roads Magazine

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