Navigating the Transportation Industry Workforce Shortage and Leadership Gap – The Solution is Hiding in Plain Sight.

Transformation is imminent in the transportation industry due to a combination of issues that headline our collective consciousness. These include the emergence of disruptive technologies, funding and safety concerns, aging infrastructure, and, not the least of which, workforce shortages.

The path to the successful future we envision relies on attracting, developing, advancing and retaining the workforce needed to effectively navigate the industry challenges and opportunities. Nearly half of the workforce employed in transportation-related jobs either are or will be eligible for retirement in the next ten years. This loss of experienced workforce and leadership, combined with the existing workforce shortage, the growing need for highly specialized and changing expertise, and the loss of talent through attrition, will cause increased competition for leadership, innovative talent and skilled labor. Competition will drive costs up and, if workforce needs are not adequately satisfied, will slow progress.

The transportation industry represents over 8 percent of gross domestic product and the transportation system itself serves as the backbone of the U.S. economy. Since all sectors of the economy rely on a fully functioning transportation system, the economic impact of the deepening workforce shortage, as well as the gap in leadership due to retirements, is predicted to cause wide-reaching national effects. These issues transcend the U.S. economy as the transportation industry workforce shortages have global impacts as well.

The economic impact of a shrinking workforce has the potential to accelerate a positive cultural shift toward fewer workforce biases and changes in other norms that limit women and other minorities’ acceptance within the industry.  This sociological change will be propelled forward out of economic necessity based on the opportunity cost of maintaining the status quo.

Women and other minorities are historically the underrepresented workers in the transportation industry and yet make up a large percentage of the U.S. labor force. Currently, according to U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2018, women made up 46.7 percent of the U.S. workforce but based on a recent study by the Mineta Transportation Institute, women only account for 15 percent of the U.S. transportation industry workforce. This varies across sectors and job type with 42 percent of the workforce being female in air transportation and 7 percent in the rail sector according to BLS. Given that 57 percent of college graduates are women, transportation fields are falling behind in attracting women to join the transportation industry workforce and further, many leave the transportation industry due to conditions that are unsuitable for career satisfaction.

Although quantifying other minorities’ workforce participation is complex and participation varies across sectors, in broad terms BLS reports that up to 85 percent of the transportation workforce in the rail sector are classified as white and about 55 percent are classified as white in the urban transit/bus. Today, 60 percent of the U.S. population is white but by 2045, the U.S. non-white population will reach 51 percent making the white population the minority. This changing demographic will further advance the cultural shift toward an integrated and diverse workforce.  Given these statistics, there is a significant opportunity to advance meaningful change to attract women and other minorities to careers in transportation to appropriately reflect the diversity of the U.S. population.

The USDOT and other state and local agencies, industry associations and universities programs focus on professional development and policies to promote equal opportunity, equity and advocacy for women and minorities in the industry for many years. Associations such as Women’s Transportation Seminars, (WTS) and Conference of Minority Transportation Officials (COMTO) share the common goal of promoting workplace equity. WTS’s vision is equity and access to opportunity for women in transportation and COMTO’s vision is to see the diverse faces of America equally reflected in all levels of the transportation industry.

While industry progress toward workforce equity is notable, it is slow and focused on providing professional development opportunities for those that are impacted and engaging people that are supportive of the initiatives. In recent years, large industry associations such as the American Public Transportation Association, Transportation Research Board and others, have increasingly focused on diversity and inclusion in the workforce. The challenge is translating these well-placed ideals into the industry workforce such that women and other minorities feel integrated, accepted and ultimately, a sense of belonging (being valued and heard).

Many studies have addressed the soft issues around workforce equity and the benefits of a diverse workforce in fostering prosperity and effectiveness; however, those that are in the best position to lead meaningful change are those already in leadership positions. According to a study by Harvard Business Review, the tendency to be drawn to people like oneself leads many in leadership to promote and hire those individuals that are a reflection of themselves.

Based on the demographics and workforce needs, there is tremendous opportunity to fill the ranks of the transportation industry with a fully diverse workforce. Attracting and encouraging women and other minorities to seek out positions and advancement within the industry will take a focused effort on the part of public and private sector industry leaders to affect a cultural shift. Attention to the opportunities and cost of apathy can be brought into focus by quantifying the projected growth per industry sector; the establishing current and future workforce requirements and measuring the projected loss of the workforce due to retirements and attrition and identifying the resulting economic cost of an undersized/diminished workforce. This approach will get the attention and commitment of those in leadership who might not otherwise be motivated to lead change toward a fully integrated diverse workforce.

Diane Woodend Jones, AIA, AICP is the Chairman of the Board and Principal of Lea+Elliott, Inc. Diane has served in the management of the operations as well as on the firm’s Board of Directors for almost two decades. While serving on the Board of Directors, Diane spearheaded and currently continues to lead the firm’s strategic planning initiatives. During her tenure, the company has grown into an international practice.
Diane is the Chair of the Women’s Transportation Seminar’s International Board of Directors. Diane also serves as a Trustee on the Mineta Transportation Institute Board and Vice-Chair of the UTA CAPPA Advisory Board. In addition, Diane is a National Association of Corporate Directors Governance Fellow. Through her active memberships in many philanthropic and professional organizations, Diane frequently travels across the country to be a guest speaker.

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