by Glenn McRae, the Director of the Northeast Transportation Workforce Center, housed at the University of Vermont’s Transportation Research Center 


Rethinking our mobility needs in light of rapidly evolving environmental, social, and economic changes has led not only to technological innovations driving Smart Cities, Intelligent Transportation Systems, and Climate Adaptation, but also significant changes in how to prepare a transportation workforce that is charged with planning, designing, building, maintaining, and operating the systems and infrastructure of the future.  New competency models need to be developed, new skills sets defined, and new occupations incorporated into the transportation field. The education and training sector will need to be responsive to these needs as both public and private sector organizations will seek to upskill their current workforce and look to hire future workers with non-traditional skills and competencies. NCSE 2018: The Science, Business and Education of Sustainable Infrastructure (January 23-25, 2018, Washington, DC) provides an excellent forum for advancing this discourse.

The Northeast Transportation Workforce Center, at the University of Vermont’s Transportation Research Center, is one of five FHWA designated surface transportation workforce centers. The centers are charged with identifying critical competencies, skills, and occupations emerging in the engineering, planning, environmental, safety, and operations fields of transportation. Their efforts are crafting new career pathways to help guide future sector job seekers, and employers seeking to advance professional development. Finally, the centers serve education and training organizations as they strive to maintain high levels of relevance in their curriculum and credentialing programs.

The USDOT Smart Cities Challenge called on “mid-sized cities across America to develop ideas for an integrated, first-of-its-kind smart transportation system that would use data, applications, and technology to help people and goods move faster, cheaper, and more efficiently.” The 78 applicant cities built on existing ideas and innovative strategies in sustainable urban mobility—including connected vehicles, Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS) and Transit Signal Priority (TSP) to establish multimodal active transportation options.  The applications cite specific efforts to address these challenges, both planned and underway, noting significant public and private investments with corresponding needs for qualified workers and new key skills. Smart Cities/Communities logically integrate Cyberinfrasturcture with Natural, Built and Social Infrastructure in an integrated manner fostering more sustainable communities and enhancing resilience.

ITS (Intelligent Transportation Systems) has emerged as a critical field for investigation, within and the beyond the Smart Cities efforts. Traffic signal management and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) technology works to improve safety and mobility and reduce environmental impacts. While there was a single “winner” — Columbus, OH, proposed investment plans in many municipalities have rapidly advanced leading to new infrastructure and build out of ITS innovations. Further, transit systems more fully integrated with fields such as shared mobility have grown rapidly, leading to increased needs for new workers with new and advanced skills. Cities have become applied laboratories where scientists, businesses, educators, and public administrators work together in advancing innovative practices. In particular the City of Pittsburgh has showcased this collaborative approach.

Our colleagues at ITDP at the University of California Davis project a scenario whereby in 2050 communities will “have ubiquitous private car sharing, increased transit performance—with on-demand availability—and strengthened infrastructure for walking and cycling, allowing maximum shared trip efficiency.” To move us toward such a set of outcomes the Career Pathway Project has begun to surface clusters of key occupations increasing in demand in both public and private sector organizations supporting the transformation of transportation infrastructure. At a recent workshop for the ITS Professional Capacity Building Program of USDOT, our team presented findings on Smart Communities ITS Career Tracks appropriate for development with Community Colleges. ITS field technicians, signal operations engineers, traffic technicians, data management specialists and electronic sensor installers/systems maintainers need an increasingly diverse and interdisciplinary array of credentials, as well as foundational competencies.  At the university level we are finding a similar situation for Traffic Operations Engineers, Transit Planners, Mobility Managers and the new array of Sustainability / Smart City Directors needed for large and small municipalities across the country.

From technicians to planners and designers to leaders in building more resilient transportation systems, education programs need to adapt and remain flexible and responsive to the rapidly changing needs in the field. The old metaphor of building the plane while you fly it is quite appropriate for this context. In our conversations with private sector employers, increased value is being placed on experiential learning. This includes in-school settings, as well as, pre- and post-graduation coops and internships that are not constrained by the semester structure. These can inform learning by the student and provide feedback for the development of current and future curriculum. While the interaction and exchange between employers/practitioners and faculty/classrooms has been long recognized as being critical in providing the best educational outcomes, the intensity of those relationships is rapidly gearing up to meet the emerging needs in building truly resilient future infrastructure. NSCE 2018 will be a rich forum for advancing our understanding of how a sustainable and resilient community infrastructure is built, and the new competencies and skills that will enable the future workforce to take that effort forward. To join the conversation go to www.ncseconference.org.