Transportation Schools: The Infrastructure for Workforce Development

July 18, 2018

While most Americans only consider transportation as a means to get themselves to school and work, some students and adults are heading to transportation schools and infrastructure academies to boost their career opportunities.

The number of transportation and infrastructure jobs is expanding rapidly, currently outpacing today’s available employment pool. A 2017 workforce report from Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy projected that a $1 trillion infrastructure proposal could generate 11.4 million jobs over the next ten years. This would bump up the proportion of infrastructure-related jobs from 12 percent to 14 percent of total U.S. jobs—with 8.7 million projected jobs generated in the transportation, material moving, construction, and extraction occupations.

With new and changing transportation jobs on the horizon, the industry must confront an upcoming shortage of skilled workers. The high average age of the current workforce adds to this concern as a large portion of the current workforce reaches retirement age. According to the Transportation Learning Center and Jobs for the Future, 54.5 percent of the current workforce within the six largest transportation sectors are 45 years or older, 8.7 percent more than the national average. Furthermore, the field is challenged by a lack of diversity. For example, women are underrepresented, and Latinos are overrepresented in below-median-wage construction jobs that require less than a high school degree.

Employers’ collective challenge is to fill millions of jobs with a whole generation of prepared, skilled junior workers in the public and private sectors. Transit systems and logistics companies need more maintenance engineers and truckdrivers in order to operate at full capacity. New roles are emerging from technological innovation such as automated vehicle fleets that will need software engineers. Targeted workplace development interventions—focusing on teenagers for example—aim to bring new faces and diverse populations into well-regarded sustainable careers in the American transportation system that, on average, have lower educational barriers to entry and pay higher wages.

In 1986, a transportation-focused approach to education was established in Brooklyn. New York City’s Transit Tech CTE High School maintains an active relationship with MTA New York City Transit by offering internships, jobs, and work-based learning. Academic tracks range from computer science, advanced electricity, law enforcement/forensics, cyber security, to transit technician work. Students complete a general education and can earn certifications and endorsements during high school to begin apprenticeships immediately after graduation or go on to college.

More cities are beginning to experiment with standalone brick-and-mortar institutions targeting underrepresented citizens and groups.

During its March 2018 opening, the District of Columbia Mayor Muriel Bowser announced the Infrastructure Academy (DCIA) in Anacostia as a “pathway to the middle class.” DCIA, run by the city’s Department of Employment Services, focuses on underemployed and unemployed adult residents (18 years and older) to equip them for career in a wide range of infrastructure jobs including green technology, utilities, and transportation. The facility includes classrooms, computer labs, mechanical training areas, and interview space. The opening’s press release cited a near-half shortage of local infrastructure sector jobs in 2017—leaving close to one thousand jobs paying an average $48.75 hourly wage simply unfilled.

On the West Coast, the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority has a problem: 40 percent of its employees could retire today. In response to its need for a qualified replacement workforce and in part with its other career pathway initiatives, Los Angeles has been gearing up a free public boarding “Transportation School.” A joint project with the County of Los Angeles, the school will likely be built on an empty, blighted lot in its southern region. The school will apply for a charter and could enroll 400 high school students as early as fall 2020. It will be funded by the state on a per-pupil basis, and also rely on philanthropies, grants, and industry donations. Classes will prepare students with science, technology, engineering, arts, and math skills either equipping them for transit jobs upon graduation or college where they can further their transportation studies.

These schools and academies spur mutually beneficial partnerships among various stakeholders. For example, during DCIA’s first five years, Pepco and Washington Gas, the two main area public utility companies and major employers, will contribute cash, in-kind materials, and human resources. DC Water, WMATA, and the University of the District of Columbia are also involved as partners. As for Los Angeles, officials will also work with the public school district, community colleges, and social service agencies to approach underserved populations more purposefully.

These diverse coalitions formed to keep major cities and regions moving by investing in the next wave of transportation workers are fundamental and easy for the public to support. Ideally, specialized vocational education will succeed in developing a steady pipeline of workers toward sustainable, high-paying careers in a skilled transportation workforce.

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