A Resilient Transportation System Needs a Resilient Workforce

The transport systems that move both people and goods are, for better or for worse, a reflection of the nation as a whole. Economists look to the trucking sector for signs of an impending recession. The condition of our roads and bridges is a reminder of what it means to invest in infrastructure but not maintenance.

The nation’s divides are also reflected in our transport systems. Despite technological advancements that make connected and automated vehicles possible, the transit industry still struggles to maintain ridership and serve our vulnerable populations: the elderly and physically disabled needing access to healthcare, tribal community members with limited mobility options to reach educational opportunities, and motivated and qualified urban workers kept underemployed by a lack of transportation services to employment growth centers in exurban areas.

If that weren’t enough, the visibility (and success or failure) of our transport systems makes them targets in both the traditional sense, vulnerable to terrorists and hackers and in the political sense, vulnerable to the decisions of elected officials and pawns in high-stakes games of funding appropriations. It’s not surprising that the Transportation Research Board will be convening an international conference on transportation resilience this fall with a focus on proactive adaptation, resilient recovery, and transformative resilience.

Part of that transformative resilience means changing the way business is done within the agencies that design, build, and manage our mobility systems and the kind of expertise needed to do so. Clifford R. Bragdon, the author of Transportation Security, argues that by 2024 the U.S. will face a serious deficit of more than 200,000 mobility professionals skilled in homeland security and emergency preparedness competencies. Bragdon’s insights are featured in the conclusion of Empowering the New Mobility Workforce, a new book that convenes a national roster of multimodal subject matter experts who call for a more comprehensive and inclusive standard of transportation resiliency. Implementing this new standard for mobility resilience will require new workforce standards that draw from expertise in healthcare, safety, information technology, and strategic communications to ensure the integrity of the systems that move people and goods through communities, across borders, and around the globe.

A new standard for mobility resilience will require new ways of doing business in the educational sector. Traditional lock-step degree programs that are housed, i.e. siloed, in traditional engineering or planning programs won’t meet the needs of new mobility system users or managers. Instead, programs that offer students some foundational knowledge in the overlap between transport and energy systems, between transport operations and cybersecurity, and between economic and systems security are essential in creating a resilient workforce that serves the needs of a resilient and integrated system of systems. If closed transport systems are becoming more open and integrated, then workforce training has to take a more open-source approach as well.

What does that look like? It starts by developing an understanding of the core competencies that match the technical skills needed by the workforce of the future and building them into our educational programs and training offerings. Cross-disciplinary teams engaged in experiential learning opportunities will have an opportunity to develop essential communication, critical thinking, and leadership skills. New mobility professionals will also need emotional intelligence and professional poise to adapt to the fastest rates of technological change in human history.

Adopting a “systems thinking” approach to education also means looking at our relationships, both formal and informal, forward and backward, that connect us to the K-12 and community college sectors and the employers who hire our graduates. Data gathering and sharing across the education and employment continuums will allow us to better understand the impact of demographic changes on our applicant pools. University-based research into HR processes and trends will allow us to respond to the changing nature of work itself and the demands of the workplace.

In turn, expect to see more options offered to students who are already demanding a more menu-driven approach to skills development and to employers seeking a combination of general skills with discipline-specific knowledge. Look for industry-driven certifications to be embedded in traditional degree programs to demonstrate job readiness to potential employers, and continued coordination on K-12 programs that develop not only skills but an awareness of mobility as a path for lifelong learning. And speaking of lifelong learning, the notion of what it means to graduate will also have to change. With workplace skills at all levels becoming obsolete due to the rapid pace of technological change, educational programs will have to become year-round homes for upskilling and reskilling that will require better coordination between the more traditional academic units and what used to be called “extension.”

What can’t change is the role that the education sector plays in developing good citizens. More than the roads, rails, semiconductors, microsensors, blockchains, and any other technology, values above all else will determine the integrity of the systems that will move people and goods in the decades ahead. Values like teamwork, customer service, socioeconomic equality, and environmental stewardship will guide the professionals who will design, develop, operate, and maintain the mobility systems of the future. It is incumbent upon leaders in education, industry, and government to embrace those same values to empower the new mobility workforce.

Tom O'Brien Profile

Dr. O’Brien is a member of the Executive Committee of the Council of University Transportation Centers (CUTC) where he serves as President and is a member of the CUTC Workforce Development Taskforce and Chair of the oversight committee of the National Science Foundation’s National Center for Supply Chain Technology Education. Dr. Thomas O’Brien is the Executive Director of the Center for International Trade and Transportation (CITT) at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB) and the Associate Director of Long Beach Programs for the METRANS Transportation Center, a partnership of CSULB and the University of Southern California. He also serves as the Director of the FHWA Southwest Transportation Workforce Center (SWTWC).

Dr. Tyler Reeb

Dr. Tyler Reeb is the Director of Research for the Center for International Trade and Transportation (CITT) at California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), and the Associate Director of the Federal Highway Administration’s Southwest Transportation Workforce Center housed at CITT. He also serves as the Editor of METRANS NEWS, a tri-quarterly publication that summarizes METRANS research, education, and outreach efforts.

Search Eno Transportation Weekly

Latest Issues

Happening on the Hill