During the past two years, the Covid-19 pandemic has given many workers a lot more time at home. It’s been a boom time for DIY and home improvement services because time at home has made people more aware of changes they would like and a flexible schedule that facilitates DIY or working with professionals. But it has also made homeowners more aware of the labor shortage in construction as renovation crews and supply chains are stretched thin by the number of requests and the limited labor supply.
The labor situation doesn’t just apply at the homeowner level. Construction at all levels, up to and including massive public works projects, have been affected by the labor shortage, resulting in delays in all project phases, from getting projects underway to completing them. It would be easy to blame the shortage on the pandemic, but the truth is this situation has been getting worse for some time – the pandemic made it worse and more public.
Beginning in April 2021 and lasting through the late summer of that year, a record number of American workers quit their jobs in what economists came to call “The Great Resignation.” The Pew Foundation asked workers why they were resigning, and the top four responses were that pay was too low, there were no opportunities for advancement, felt disrespected at work, and child care issues. Other issues included work hour flexibility, benefits, relocation, and too many or not enough work hours. Young adults and lower income workers were the most likely to quit their jobs and look for something new.
Transportation has felt this shortage keenly. As aging U.S. infrastructure is in serious need of repair and patterns of growth demand new infrastructure and new transportation technologies require updates and installation, the number of workers has fallen short of the work needed. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, almost all sectors of transportation employment have fallen in recent years – couriers and warehousing have seen increases as a consequence of the serious increase in Internet purchasing.
Not only is transportation infrastructure aging, so is the transportation workforce. The average age of construction workers and transportation workers has increased faster than the average age for workers overall. This indicates that younger workers are entering these occupations at a lower rate. There is a hidden challenge here. Many jobs in construction and transportation require skilled laborers. These skills are usually acquired on the job as workers enter as unskilled and begin to specialize, and this takes several years. Add to this the changing transportation landscape in which – as with many areas of life these days – new and changing technologies require workers to have a stronger skills base and flexibility to adopt to new and evolving technologies.
This situation has not gone unnoticed. The U.S Department of Transportation (US DOT) has announced that workforce development is a priority, and several initiatives have been funded in recent years, notably the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, passed in November 2021. This bill will bring over $100 billion in new funding to several areas, many of which are transportation related and address the three areas mentioned above: infrastructure in need of repair, new infrastructure and transportation needs, and new transportation technologies.
The University of Florida Transportation Institute (UFTI) has prioritized workforce development for a number of years and is engaged in many initiatives to solve problems in this area. UFTI’s research program directly addresses many important cutting-edge issues in transportation as the more than 100 faculty affiliates of UFTI address today’s problems and anticipate tomorrow’s needs. Current areas of UFTI research include:
- Artificial intelligence and big data analytics
- Autonomous & connected vehicles
- Human factors
- Materials and infrastructure
- Resilience and sustainability
- Transit and micromobility
- Transportation equity.
Through its affiliates, UFTI reaches across disciplines into many other areas, such as Economics, Logistics, Traffic Operations, and Planning and Policy.
On the frontlines of UFTI’s workforce development effort is its Technology Transfer (T2) Center. UFTI-T2’s workforce development program includes training, technical assistance, and evaluation projects.
UFTI-T2’s training program has a long history of supporting the local, state, and national workforce through a diverse training curriculum and certification program. UFTI-T2 training programs embrace workers at all levels from entry level to professional development to enrichment courses that feature the latest research in the areas mentioned above.
UFTI-T2 has been engaged in training for 40 years and has established an impressive statewide reputation as well as an impressive number of students now serving Florida transportation in many areas. Working closely with the Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) over four decades, UFTI-T2 helped lay the foundation for required state and federal training programs. Many course offerings were exclusively available through UFTI-T2 by arrangement with the FDOT, but once established, were opened up to other providers, thus expanding the educational opportunities for Floridians to seek employment in transportation, which, compared to many occupations, has good pay, good benefits, and excellent opportunities for advancement.
UFTI-T2 offers over a hundred class sessions each year, which are taken by hundreds of students. Entry level courses regularly offered by UFTI-T2 include Pilot-Escort and Flagging and all levels of Temporary Traffic Control (formerly Maintenance of Traffic; includes online refresher courses in English and Spanish). Examples of advanced topics for professional development include:
- Fundamentals of Data Analytics and AI for Engineers
- Road Safety 365
- Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices 2022 Update
- Plans Reading Fundamentals
- Transit Equity Certification
- Fundamentals of Roadway Design
- Designing Roads for Pedestrian and Bicyclist Safety
- Ethics: Knowing Yourself and Navigating with Care
- Transportation Asset Management
More topics for professional development are being created and added regularly to our course offerings. Join the UFTI-T2 mailing list (https://lp.constantcontact.com/su/7nXQq90) to learn when topics of interest become available.
In addition to its regular training courses, UFTI-T2 has worked with FDOT to create special ongoing training materials. For example, FDOT asked UFTI-T2 to create an online course about distracted driving that would be targeted to teenagers. Working with specialists in UF’s Occupational Therapy department and driving instructors, UFTI-T2 delivered Teen Focus on Distracted Driving: Distractions and Teen Crashes (https://prevent-tdd.ce.ufl.edu/), a 30-to-40-minute self-paced activity that informs teens – the age group at highest risk for distracted driving crashes – about how these crashes happen and how to prevent them.
UFTI-T2 is currently engaged in development of similar self-paced training to certify volunteers in the Safe Routes to School program, in which volunteers work with local schools, law enforcement, and communities to promote walking and biking to school. Volunteers also use nationally developed materials to conduct training for parents, teachers, and students about walking and biking safely. Safe Routes to Schools volunteers work both sides of the issue, motivating and training on one side and working with communities to make infrastructure safer for children’s trips to and from school.
As part of its work with FDOT and the Safe Routes to School program, UFTI-T2 is bringing its training and curriculum expertise to bear in helping to create a framework and masterplan to take Safe Routes to Schools to the next level, making it more widely available and helping to bring the many benefits of the program to more Floridians. For example, did you know that children who walk or bike to school have better attendance and higher grades?
As part of UFTI, UFTI-T2 is also engaged in evaluating and testing emerging transportation technologies. In recent efforts, UFTI-T2 worked with the City of Gainesville and its Regional Transit System to test new technology that aids bus drivers in detecting pedestrians, bicyclists, and other vehicles – even when navigating through crowds of students on the busy University of Florida campus! In another project, UFTI-T2 worked with a Florida technology company to evaluate a system in which a driverless truck follows a leader truck to provide protection for work zones. Work is currently underway to test other remotely controlled vehicles which can remove drivers from hazardous situations.
And there’s more. Through its Transportation Safety Center (TSC), UFTI-T2 provides safety consulting to rural Florida counties, bringing high tech and specialized tools to counties that cannot normally afford these services. UFTI-T2 works with local administrators and staff to identify crash hotspots through a novel analysis and then to provide recommendations for safety treatments to reduce crashes at those locations. Most of Florida’s fatal crashes take place on its rural roads – despite its image, most of Florida is still rural – so these services perform a critical step in reducing injuries and fatalities on Florida’s rural roads.
There’s a lot to say about UFTI-T2 and its programs, but let’s return to UFTI and how it is engaged in building the transportation workforce of the future.
First, UFTI is member of the Council of University Transportation Centers (CUTC) and host of the U.S. Department of Transportation Regional (Southeast) University Transportation Center (the Southeastern Transportation Research, Innovation, Development and Education, known as STRIDE), which includes UFTI and nine partners across the region: Auburn University, The Citadel, Florida International University, Georgia Institute of Technology, Jackson State University, North Carolina State University, Tennessee Technological University, University of Alabama at Birmingham, and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. In addition to a very active research program across all these universities, several STRIDE members cooperate on a major K–12 Workforce Development project that “seeks to engage young students in the transportation profession by harnessing their curiosity through engaging, hands-on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) activities. K–12 programs include school visits, Girls Engaged in Engineering events, demonstrations and activities at community events, summer camps focused on transportation and engineering, and teacher workshops.” Hands-on activities like working with Lego robots allow children to see one of the most fun aspects of STEM: using creativity and insight to solve problems.
Second, one of the three elements of UFTI’s vision is to “educate the next generation of transportation leaders.” To achieve this vision, UFTI educates, advises, and mentors university students at the undergraduate and graduate levels to help develop the next generation of transportation professionals – and that includes transportation educator-researchers. Between 40 and 50 graduate students are active in UFTI programs at any one time, equipping a steady stream of students with master’s and doctoral degrees and sending them out to help lead the transportation engineering profession into the future. Many of these students will participate with the hundreds of professionals who take UFTI’s continuing education courses to help advance their skills and maintain their professional certifications. More recently, the UFTI/STRIDE Center was awarded a grant by CUTC under the organization’s New Initiatives Program to create a 1-credit, semester-long course targeted at freshmen and sophomore students to encourage them to consider a career in transportation. The class will include a variety of guest speakers working in transportation-related jobs with backgrounds not only in engineering and planning, but also in political science, communications, advocacy, occupational therapy, wildlife ecology, business, and more.
Last is The McTrans transportation software center – last, but not least because McTrans is author and maintainer of the Highway Capacity Software (HCS), the most widely used transportation software in the world, with over 15,000 users. Using HCS, engineers are able to bring the Transportation Research Board’s Highway Capacity Manual, a standard used worldwide for the design of roadways. Not one to rest on its laurels, McTrans is also at the forefront of highway safety, with its Highway Safety Software (HSS), and of traffic simulation, with the software TSIS-CORSIM. McTrans constantly updates these software packages to keep them current with standards and practices. McTrans operates its own training program to help users advance their skills and bring the latest in analysis and design to their countries and communities, wherever they are.
Through all these means, virtually every aspect of workforce development – from kindergarten through a professional career – are touched by UFTI and T2 programs. Make transportation your career choice. The future is bright, and we’re here to help!