How to Foster the Next Generation of Transportation Professionals

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The success of the transportation industry – and, by extension, the lifesaving work industry professionals do – depends on a consistent pipeline of fresh talent and perspectives.

Unfortunately, the transportation industry is approaching a demographic cliff as the industry expands, Baby Boomers retire and the pool of young professionals interested in the industry dwindles.

It doesn’t help that rapid technological advances require professionals with increasingly data-driven skill sets, creating a skills gap that narrows the pool further.

Of course, unfilled transportation positions mean struggling businesses and less efficient transportation.

According to a report by Elsevier, a publishing and analytics firm, “To prevent that scenario, thought leaders in industry, government, and education must develop innovative ways to bridge the gap between the skills job seekers bring and skills that employers need while developing new local, state, and national policy initiatives that support those goals.”

While that may seem intimidating, there are some practical steps you can take right now to ensure your organization attracts and fosters top talent for years to come.

Engage with Youth in STEM Extracurriculars

The myriad of STEM-related teams, clubs and leagues available to students, starting in middle school or even earlier, also present a valuable opportunity. Students in these organizations have a demonstrated interest in technology, but they are often unaware of careers in transportation.

By coaching a team, being a speaker or presenter at tournaments, becoming a sponsor or even creating your own club, you engage kids and teens with the skillsets in high demand in the transportation industry who have already demonstrated initiative at a young age.

In 2019, Technical Service Manager Brian Scharles Sr. and Design Engineer Brian Scharles Jr. talked with a Tennessee elementary school's FIRST® LEGO® team about engineering careers and their overheight bridge LEGO and robotics project.

For example, the FIRST® LEGO® league aims to inspire kids and teens through fun, hands-on STEM learning, providing “real-world problem-solving experience through a guided, global robotics program.”

TAPCO’s Technical Service Manager, Brian Scharles Sr., has been involved in the program for 17 years as a coach and mentor.

“It is very important for kids to get exposure to real-life challenges and technology and, of course, have fun along the way,” he says.

“The FIRST program mixes realistic challenges with kids creating innovative solutions, ultimately providing them with the confidence to go into a STEM-related field. My daughter and son both credit becoming engineers to their involvement in the FIRST program.”

For more clubs and programs to consider engaging with, click below.

Create Internships and Apprenticeships

There are never enough hands-on, practical internships and apprenticeships to go around, but there should be. This type of workplace learning, sometimes part of employer-educator partnerships and sometimes not, minimizes the aforementioned skills gap and brings energy and new insights to workplaces. It also pulls young people into an industry they may never have previously considered and shows them what it has to offer.

An Urban Institute study involving an impressive 900 organizations with apprenticeship programs even found that about 90 percent of organizations would highly recommend such programs.

A great place to start is with a few internships and apprenticeships offered during winter and summer college breaks, then adjust and expand from there.

Get Involved in Career Fairs and Career Days

Many agencies and organizations sporadically involve themselves in Career Fairs and Career Days at high schools and colleges, but those efforts could be taken to the next level by:

  • Focusing on what a transportation career can truly do for the student, not simply what the student can do for the industry
  • Showcasing the diverse range of careers offered in the industry, covering virtually every skillset and aptitude
  • Highlighting the crucial role students who are part of communities underserved by and underrepresented in the industry can play in building a better, more equitable future

That last point is especially important given the shrinking pool of up-and-coming transportation professionals. The nation’s demographics are changing, and the transportation industry must change with it.

For example, women made up 47 percent of the U.S. workforce in 2015, but only 20 percent of the transportation industry. And while people of color make up a significant amount of the industry overall, many continue to face prejudice that restricts them as they try to climb the ranks.

Ensure the Career Fairs and Days your organization is participating in are at schools with proportional amounts of women, students of color and other communities underrepresented in the industry.

Consider asking more female and non-white coworkers to attend these events and speak to their personal experiences, including how they got into the industry and what skills are required.

To learn more, read the “Attracting, Retaining, and Advancing Women in Transit” report and the “Racial and Gender Diversity in State DOTs and Transit Agencies” report done by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, the Transportation Research Board (TRB) and other groups.

Partner with Local Universities for Help

Another way to engage with students in higher education is by giving them the opportunity to provide input on transportation-related projects.

For example, the Los Angeles-based Information Technology Agency created the Data Science Federation, a coalition of academics that “acts as a conduit for the city to deliver problem statements and project proposals to local university talent.” Graduate students and professors both have the chance to respond with ideas and insight. If selected, they work with the city government on the project and receive monetary compensation or academic credit.

The graduate students are a fresh set of eyes on challenges facing Los Angeles and eager to help and gain experience. Replicate this win-win situation by reaching out to the engineering or urban planning department at a nearby university to discuss setting up a similar program.

For long-term viability and growth, transportation organizations – from private businesses to every level of government – must continuously invest in their employee talent pipeline, especially given the rising demand for young professionals with data-driven skill sets. If you don’t attract and develop the best, another organization certainly will.

Dive deeper into this pressing topic with Elsevier's "Empowering the New Mobility Workforce" report >


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