DOT workforce panel at TRB, left to right: Roger Millar, Mike Patterson, Scott Bennett, and John Schroer.

By Mark Holan, editorial director, ARTBA

Four state transportation department executives discussed workforce development innovations during a Jan. 15 panel at the Transportation Research Board’s 98th Annual meeting in Washington, D.C. Here are highlights from each:

Washington State Department of Transportation Secretary Roger Millar

Millar said he is “sounding the alarm” about a department workforce that is underpaid and aging, including 31 percent of maintenance workers; 40 percent of engineers; and three quarters of ferryboat captains employed by the coastal state agency who are now eligible to retire.

“We are never going to catch up on compensation,” Millar said. “We have to find other ways to be the employer of choice.”

The department offers flextime and 15 percent of the workforce is on telecommute. Childcare programs are popular and “build loyalty with parents.”

The state DOT also works closely with unions. “We don’t see it as a conflict; we see it as a collaboration,” Millar said.

Oklahoma Department of Transportation Executive Director Mike Patterson

The Oklahoma agency is offering nursery rooms and other childcare options in an “effort to be the preferred place to work,” said Patterson, a charter member of WTS International, which works to advance women in the transportation industry.

ARTBA and WTS have signed a memorandum of understanding which includes promoting the transportation infrastructure sector as a rewarding career choice for women.

Patterson also said that it is important for state agencies not to outsource “all of the cool projects” so that the opportunity to become involved in such work becomes a recruitment and retention tool.

Arkansas Department of Transportation Director Scott Bennett

The Arkansas DOT historically focused too much on hiring engineers, Bennett said, “but it takes a lot more than engineers to make an agency like this run.” To attract and retain good workers, the agency offers flextime options; maternity and paternity leave; health and wellness benefits; and online supervisory training.

Bennett said that more technical jobs are easier to fill than entry level positions. His agency is reaching out to the homeless and those just released from incarceration, “a pool almost nobody has looked at,” he said. Some extra work on the front end can pay off with loyal employees, he said.

The agency has a separate job opening Twitter account and uses billboards and its own roadway message boards for recruitment.

Tennessee Department of Transportation Commissioner John Schroer

Schroer said Tennessee emphasizes employee safety “to show we care.” That includes training and investing in the latest equipment.

The agency has developed career path programs so that entry-level workers without college degrees can see they have a way to advance in the department. Much of the training is done by other DOT employees, which fosters a family feeling.

“DOT employees consider themselves family; they want to stay there,” Schroer said. “And even if they do move on, they are more likely to stay in our state and help our state economy.”