According to the Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN) more than half a million Michigan workers – about 13 percent – are involved in transportation safety, from civil engineers to public safety officers.

Hiring managers and recruiters across are scrambling to locate the next generation of traffic safety professionals, a workforce that merges old-school engineers into the same lanes as public safety, software developers and a host of other fields.

It only makes sense that they’re not taking the usual roads to find them.

“This is an issue that cuts across all the occupations,” said Lisa Molnar, associate director of the Center for Advanced Transportation Leadership and Safety (ATLAS) at the University of Michigan’s Transportation Research Center (UMTRI). “It’s being driven by advances in technology, and employers need people with certain skills.”

Careers that were previously the domain of planners and engineers have branched out far beyond traditional Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) foundations that once dominated the field. According to the Workforce Intelligence Network (WIN) more than half a million Michigan workers – about 13 percent – are involved in transportation safety, from civil engineers to public safety officers.

The Jobs Report is part of a series of stories telling the story of job trends in metro Detroit.
Read more from the Workforce Intelligence Network.

Keeping the talent pipeline filled will first require an understanding of the work to be done.

“We’re working to identify where the gaps are and where the efforts need to be,” said Molnar. “It’s not just engineers and designers.” ATLAS is one of about three dozen research centers funded by the U.S. Dept. of Transportation tasked with researching education and talent recruitment, including a project partnership with WIN in Michigan.

It’s a two-fold problem, Molnar said. On one end is the challenge of bringing young people to “old school” career paths such as commercial driving; the other side of the pipeline includes older, soon-to-retire workers who struggle to keep pace with technology.

According to WIN, 20 percent of today’s transportation safety workers are 55 years or older; only 9 percent of the current workforce is under 24. More than 112,000 will need to be replaced in the next 10 years and the challenge is to drive the interest. ATLAS programs include a partnership with the Texas A & M Transportation Institute to offer competitions, mentoring programs and other hands-on curriculum from across the disciplines.

Molnar, a behavioral scientist by trade, said that connected and automated vehicles are among the factors that will shape the field in the not-too-distant future.

“That has huge implications for a workforce,” Molnar said. “Traditionally the focus has been on STEM fields, but there are opportunities for people from the social sciences as well.”

The next generation of transportation safety won’t necessarily have to create a safe infrastructure as much as refine what exists.

“We’re not building a lot of new roads,” said Brad Wieferich, Design Engineer for the Michigan Department of Transportation. “We have to take what we have and run them more efficiently. We’re shifting from a project focus to an operational focus.”

Doing so will, Wieferich said, require new and innovative solutions that require and make use of new technologies.

“Twenty years ago we’d worry about programming and building projects,” Wieferich said. “We still do that but there’s a different focus now. We’ll always need engineers to design roads and infrastructure, but now we need a wide variety of backgrounds and skills.”

Wieferich said that MDOT and other agencies are reshaping recruiting strategies designed to shake off outdated perceptions of road-dust covered crews pouring over blueprints.

“It’s not the same department that it was 20 years ago,” Wieferich said. “We’ll need a lot more people that understand the technologies behind the infrastructure. Not only at MDOT but in all the firms we work with. At the end of the day our facilities are used by people.”

By James Mitchell

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