A Perfect Storm Hits the Transportation Infrastructure Workforce

In his bestselling book titled The Perfect Storm, author Sebastian Junger describes how an unusual combination of unrelated circumstances can combine to dramatically amplify an event. The Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority (Metro)—and the transportation industry at large—is experiencing a perfect storm right now in our workforce. Specifically, that storm is the growing shortage of qualified, skilled professionals that we need to keep building and operating America’s transportation infrastructure.

Three factors are feeding this storm. First, here in L.A. County, there is a building boom taking place. A red-hot economy has led to massive commercial construction, and the demand for skilled workers is outstripping supply by a wide margin – which drives up costs and slows progress. Metro has to compete for those workers. Second, with the passage of our 2016 ballot initiative, Measure M, Metro is in the middle of our own building boom, which amounts to the largest public works program in America. We desperately need a skilled workforce to build out our ambitious vision. And third, while the demand for a skilled workforce has never been higher, half of all Metro employees will be eligible for retirement over the next four to five years. Nationally, half of all transportation workers will be eligible for retirement in the next ten years. In other words, just as demand is the highest, our supply is shrinking.

They say necessity is the mother of invention. At Metro, we’ve taken it upon ourselves to solve this workforce shortage through a number of innovative approaches. These include efforts to recruit new workers into transportation, as well as programs to better train and develop our existing workforce.

First, we created an innovative and progressive training model that we call our Career Pathways Program to develop tomorrow’s transportation leaders. From entry-level programs, through employee development, middle management/leadership development, to transportation executive/senior leadership programs, we are developing and cultivating the most important asset we have–our people. The Career Pathways Program demonstrates our values in creating a learning environment that is geared toward attracting, developing, motivating and retaining a world-class workforce. Our objective is to set the tone for developing our human capital, and our industry, in a way that best leverages resources, maximizes benefit, rewards learning and sharing of knowledge, and fosters success–now and in the future.

Second, we launched the Metro E3 Youth Initiative. E3 stands for expose, educate, and employ the next generation. This program is designed to expose LA County youth ages sixteen to nineteen to the wide variety of careers in transportation, as well as teaching them transferable STEAM industry skills. Students in the program can take advantage of internships, a learning resource library, tours and field trips, and our innovative mobile education program. E3 offerings are open to all LA County youth, with a particular focus on serving Young Opportunity Youth—which includes young people who are currently receiving services from, or at risk of entering, the county’s child welfare system, probation department/juvenile justice system, or homeless services.

Third, we are the only transit system to launch our own dedicated transit school. Metro is partnering with the county to design and build the SEED School of Los Angeles County. This state-of-the-art college preparatory academy and boarding school will provide students in grades nine through twelve a curriculum that will prepare them for careers in the global transportation infrastructure industry. We have already secured funding, purchased the land, hired a consultant, and we break ground next year.

Fourth, we’re reaching out to teachers and educators to help them get their students excited about transportation. Metro’s Teacher Externship is a pilot program that allows teachers to connect theory and practice by aligning classroom content to workplace practices and policies within the transportation industry. This six-week paid externship will provide 10 selected teachers within LA County schools an opportunity to learn about the transportation infrastructure industry and develop a project-based learning experience for their middle or high school students.

Through these programs, and many others, Metro is weathering the perfect storm currently hitting the transportation infrastructure workforce. We are happy to share our ideas and programs with the broader transportation industry, and we would love to hear about some of the best practices for hiring and recruiting that are working in agencies around the country. We’re all in this together, so let’s collaborate on ideas and innovations that can elevate the entire transportation industry.

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