Help Wanted: Smart People; Transportation Industry Addresses Workforce Expansion and Diversification
Bentley Education partners with the National Society of Black Engineers to engage with talented engineering students.
The $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA) is a generational investment, promising impactful progress in rebuilding and modernizing America’s aging infrastructure, tackling the climate crisis, improving road safety, and more. Infrastructure owners are actively launching “shovel-worthy” projects for designers and contractors to deliver on IIJA’s promise, leveraging advanced digital technologies.
At this critical juncture, we can’t afford to ignore the staggering shortage in engineering talent that plagues the transportation industry. Without enough skilled labor to keep up with project demands, efforts to strengthen our nation’s highways, bridges and public transit are at risk.
Departments of Transportation (DOTs) as well as engineering and construction employers struggle to find the qualified workers needed to fill in-demand infrastructure jobs, as not enough young people are entering careers in these fields. Concerns about the so-called “silver tsunami” rise as the large wave of baby boomers retire from the infrastructure workforce, taking with them years of technical and institutional expertise.
Data and Analytics Evolve as a Core Competency
At the core of emerging technologies is the data and ability for advanced analytics that deliver optimized outcomes for all stakeholders. The way we design, build and operate our transportation infrastructure has evolved along with how decisions are made, increasing and improving the possible outcomes.
Owners can promote equity, sustainability and resilience by making infrastructure greener and more accessible for underserved communities. The move from paper standards in 2D to CAD, with reliance on drawings and reports, has long-since been underway. In the journey to 3D and 4D modeling, we saw BIM standards and processes improve to deliver productivity and quality improvements. Engineers now are rapidly advancing techniques to include 5D, where cost and carbon calculations are an integral part of the decision-making process.
Organizations now can visually immerse their teams in the decision-making process, run all manner of analytics to predict and produce different outcomes, and, importantly, track and manage the constant change seen not just across the delivery of a project, but also throughout an asset’s operational life using digital twins.
Fostering Inclusive Workspaces
A powerful advocate for advancing women in transportation leadership, Paula Hammond is the National Transportation Market Leader for WSP USA. She dedicated her 34-year public-service career to improving transportation systems in Washington state and served as WA Secretary of Transportation from 2007-2013. For the last eight years, Hammond has been a national leader with WSP, and works to support the U.S. transformation to a 21st century transportation system. With a passion for transportation, she has provided leadership on numerous AASHTO committees, the TRB Executive Board, ARTBA Board of Trustees and WTS International Board of Directors.
“Technology will play a key in building both the infrastructure our nation needs and scaling a workforce to deliver it,” notes Hammond. “It has leveled the playing field in many ways.
“In this new approach of hybrid work, people can work from wherever they are, opening tremendous opportunities to work in an area they don’t live in or perhaps work part-time vs. full-time,” she adds. “The younger generation is more technologically adept than ever, and we can harness that dynamic to show young women and minority candidates how they can thrive in a transportation career with modern delivery techniques and tools.”
IIJA critics worry that the bill doesn’t do enough to draw sufficient talent into infrastructure fields, especially historically underrepresented talent groups such as women and people of color. Dynamic associations, such as Women in Transportation International (WTS International), and global industry leaders, such as Bentley Systems, are working diligently to address those concerns. Admirable efforts encouraging a diverse influx of young people to move into engineering careers—ready to put the newest technology to work—are well underway.
Associations Lead Effective Change
Since 1977, WTS International has actively collaborated with corporations, public agencies, associations and learning institutions to realize its mission to attract, sustain, connect and advance women’s careers to strengthen the transportation industry. As president and CEO, Sara Stickler empowers WTS chapters, members and key industry stakeholders to realize its mission of supporting the next generation of transportation professionals.
Today, WTS International is a vibrant and essential part of an industry of more than 40,000 transportation professionals with more than 8,500 members and 65 professional chapters. “Advancing women in transportation is key to advancing transportation and ensuring a diverse, inclusive and equitable workforce,” says Stickler. “It’s important that women can see themselves in places of leadership.”
WTS International conducts a national mentoring program, while each of its 65 chapters has created mentoring programs for varying audiences and career levels, allowing women to not only see, but also meet and connect with industry newcomers, recent graduates, emerging leaders and executive leaders. MyWTS Communities amplifies those efforts by connecting mentors with mentees throughout North America based on self-selected demographics in a virtual mentoring program.
Engaging Students Early Is Key
“As a former second-grade teacher, I saw how soon our education system puts students on one path or another,” Stickler notes. “As early as 6 or 7 years old, students are steered on a path that may or may not lead them into an eventual STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) career.
“We must connect with younger students, girls especially, to ignite their STEM passions and show women how they can make a positive impact in the world by choosing a career in transportation,” adds Stickler.
To inspire students earlier, the WTS Foundation’s Transportation YOU Program provides mentorship for young female students throughout their education career, exposing them to transportation to spark the interest of young people and encourage them to take STEM courses. Transportation YOU connects students of different ages, abilities, ethnicities, races, religions and socioeconomic statuses to create an environment that welcomes and celebrates every student.
Mentors Play a Key Role
According to Hammond, “The approach we’re taking at WTS is to have a mentoring element in everything we do.” She recalled growing up in the industry when there weren’t many women even studying engineering—just eight out of 120 in her civil engineering class were women.
“I started my career back in 1979, and the possibilities now are so much broader than when I first became an engineer,” she notes. “Women can now develop, build, operate and maintain any part of our nation’s critical infrastructure. At WTS, we’re trying to make contributions in transportation relatable to people and therefore desirable as a career.”
With so many stakeholders in the transportation industry, leveraging each other’s efforts is a force-multiplier. Hammond reflects, “Be it school-age recruitment, creating networking opportunities or mentoring engagements, at WTS, we know we need to further lean into efforts with our partners like AASHTO, TRB, ARTBA, APTA and our other industry allies to make better progress. We need to advance private- and public-sector career opportunities together. We can harness the energy we currently have in silos and together create something to make a real dent on the talent gaps we face.”
Student Programs Develop the Next Generation
Partnering with industry associations is key to helping reach students earlier in their education to ignite their passion in a career in civil engineering. AASHTO is a nonprofit, nonpartisan association representing highway and transportation departments in the 50 states, the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Its primary goal is to foster the development, operation and maintenance of an integrated national transportation system.
Investing in youth outreach, Bentley has been a long-time cosponsor of the AASHTO National Bridge and Structure TRAC Competition, which includes students from seventh to 12th grade who have designed innovative bridge projects using the latest applications. Event cosponsors include HDR, Headlight, HNTB, Michael Baker International, TopoDOT and WSP. Bentley Education works with various DOTs that have adopted TRAC and RIDES programs in their respective states to assist participating middle and high schools.
According to Julia Smith, AASHTO TRAC program manager, AASHTO designed the program for use in STEM classes to introduce students to transportation and civil engineering. “America’s transportation industry has a huge demand for well-qualified civil engineers,” she notes. “TRAC’s goal is to get middle and high school students exposed to and excited about a career in civil engineering. We see TRAC as an investment in today’s youth to ensure America has the highly skilled workforce it’s going to need for years to come.”
This year, 84 teams submitted projects, and the nine teams selected as finalists virtually presented their projects to an industry panel, demonstrating how they designed the bridges as well as how they built models of their designs with balsa wood.
Natalie Crespo-Montano is the advisor at Chesapeake Math and IT Academy North Middle School in Laurel, Md. Their eighth-grade team, Tiger Construction Inc., won the middle-school category.
“The TRAC program attracts students who may or may not have considered a career in civil engineering,” explains Crespo-Montano. “The aspects of the program that inspire students to move forward in the engineering field are the experiences of designing, building and testing their bridge. These parts of the engineering process gave students the opportunity to act and feel like an engineer, where they learned the importance of planning, creating, testing and improving. I believe these experiences and challenges changed their mind about pursuing a career in engineering.”
Creating a Global Talent Pipeline
Modernizing its Academic Program, Bentley Education aims to inspire students to make infrastructure engineering their career of choice. Students develop engineering skills that will serve them in the real world using on-demand tools to help build and enhance their digital design skills. Importantly, the program connects students and educators with peers and potential mentors to scaffold their learning along with complimentary access to learning licenses.
DOTs as well as engineering and construction firms have made the plea: they can’t find young engineers who have an adequate digital technology foundation. Associations, industry and technology vendors are actively working to close this skill gap and increase diversity in the engineering industry. Bentley has begun working directly with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), pioneering the FOCUS (Fostering Opportunities for Colleges and Universities in STEM) program alongside Jacobs Engineering to support institutions developing diverse minds within the civil engineering community. This collaboration among the civil professional community and academics allows students to gain real-world experience within the classroom setting.
Under Bentley’s FOCUS initiative at Howard University’s College of Engineering and Architecture in District of Columbia, partners Jacobs Engineering and Prince Georges County Department of Public Works and Transportation teamed to provide 16 laptops, technology, software, a real project and mentor advisors for their senior design course. This project provided all these students with a comprehensive learning experience that previously had been reserved for students who secured actual internships.
Industry and Alumni Mentors Join Forces
Dr. Stephen A. Arhin is the interim chairperson and associate professor in the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department at Howard University. He also is the director of the university’s Transportation Research Center. As the current president-elect of the DC Society of Professional Engineers, he’s passionate about inspiring students in all facets of traffic and transportation engineering.
“The engagement of alumni and active engineers excites our students, and they are generally inspired by the opportunities that the FOCUS project presents,” explains Arhin. “With the hands-on support of mentors, our students realize they can emulate these engineers and become successful in their future careers.”
In the FOCUS project, senior students work on an RFP for a parcel with Prince Georges County, Md., and are tasked with taking the plans to 30-percent design using the latest digital engineering technology. The RFP contains parameters related to structural, transportation, traffic and environmental engineering design. At the end of the project, students get accreditation and badging from Bentley and are able to meet their fullest potential with the goal of being “industry-ready” as they graduate. Importantly, students graduate with inspirational relationships with mentors and advocates that they can leverage for support as they begin their careers in civil engineering.
Equipping the Next Generation with Real-World Experience
During the project, software applications were integrated into the course curriculum, and the class was divided into two firms with seven students per firm. Each firm represented four civil disciplines: environment, traffic, roadway and structural. Kayla Cash, a 23-year-old senior majoring in civil engineering at Howard, represented her firm as project manager of traffic and roadway design.
“The opportunity to learn to use advanced software on the Howard Park Parcel Development project allowed me to hone my technical skills utilizing a variety of cutting-edge techniques,” says Cash. “As a Civil Engineering major, I knew I wanted to focus on transportation as I plan to start my career in traffic engineering. It has been a great benefit to me to have the knowledge-base and experience with different design technologies through the FOCUS experience. Brianna Gamble has been a great mentor to myself and the entire class in helping to navigate new software for the project deliverables.”
Actively developing a relationship with National Society of Black Engineers college chapters, the FOCUS program will expand to HBCUs and Predominately White Institutions (PWIs). The long-term goal is to use the FOCUS program as a model for industry stakeholders to emulate to increase diversity in STEM within all underrepresented groups within the engineering industry at large.
“In the process of solving problems, there is a need to have diverse opinions and perspectives critical for developing strong solutions,” notes Arhin. “People of color in modern engineering professions bring different social, ethnic and cultural perspectives to enable equitable participation in the development of engineering solutions.”
The Challenge Falls to All Stakeholders
Industry and associations are rising to the challenge of promoting diversity and inclusion while encouraging young people to move into engineering careers. Together, they’re recruiting, mentoring and training the workforce of tomorrow that will deliver on the IIJA promise.
“I’m ‘all in’ on what the IIJA investment programs intend with a focus on protecting our environment, providing mobility and access to all, and making investments that enhance our community’s quality of life and economic vitality,” says Hammond. “This requires us to be more inclusive in how we make decisions and engage with communities we may not have talked to before. Bottom line: if we don’t have people who look like the communities we serve, we’re not going to be successful.”