Training and retaining a technology-based workforce

Oct. 6, 2020

This article published as "Among the Digital Natives" in October 2020 issue

Transportation is changing fast, with big data, automation, and artificial intelligence making their way into our work alongside paving, striping, and structural considerations.

On top of these major shifts, the transportation workforce is evolving as well. Millennials make up the bulk of entry- and mid-level positions, and are even beginning to take on senior leadership roles. Meanwhile, the baby boomers among us—who are often the most experienced and senior employees—are nearing retirement.

The Utah DOT (UDOT) is experiencing these changes along with the rest of the industry. A large portion of our employee base will retire soon, and we will lose a significant amount of institutional knowledge and real-world experience. At the same time, the new generations joining our team and moving up the ranks have skills and experience that uniquely enable them to thrive in the environment of continuous innovation we see today.

These are the digital natives, who have grown up in the Information Age with computers and technology as an integral part of everyday life. They have a different learning style; they educate themselves at their own pace using online tools, rather than in-person or hands-on instruction methods to which previous generations are accustomed. They are looking for continual development and growth, and they want to be aligned with a cause they can believe in.

Transportation organizations—including UDOT—are now working to evolve their structure, processes, and value system to align with the needs and values of this new generation. This evolution affects the way we attract new employees, how we orient and train them, and what we do to hold onto them once they’re in our ranks.

Attracting Talent

Like all DOTs, we are competing with the private sector for the same labor pool. One of the most significant things we can offer our employees is work that is meaningful. Transportation will probably always include building roads and bridges, but it goes even beyond that. The collective mission of our industry is to improve quality of life by promoting good health, safety, connected communities, and—of course—mobility.

When it comes to attracting talent, that’s one of the best things we have to offer. Millennials and members of Generation Z are looking for a sense of purpose. They want to make a difference in other people’s lives. And our work can offer that. Every time they drive on a highway or ride their bike on a trail they helped plan, design, or build, they can take pride in knowing they left their mark and made the world a little better.

We have also worked hard to define our culture and form it into something that resonates with our employees. Three core pillars of this culture are trust, teamwork, and flexibility. Our employees and leaders trust each other. We get inspired by working together to solve problems. And we stay flexible—with schedules, learning and career development, solving problems, and implementing new ideas. Having a culture with clearly defined values can go a long way toward attracting employees who are looking for this kind of environment.

Welcome Aboard

We want our employees to understand from their first day what matters most to us. New hires spend their first three days in New Employee Orientation, where along with an introduction to safety, payroll, and other typical onboarding processes, we discuss with them the benefits of diversity—including race, gender, generational differences, and working styles.

We give every employee the Gallup Strengths Assessment because we want them to understand that each one brings something unique and valuable to the table. The only way we can really get to where we want to go is by making the most of everyone’s individual contributions.

Another major component of our culture we introduce to new employees is our focus on having a “growth mindset.” We share our goal of creating an environment where people trust that their leaders and coworkers will have their backs when something doesn’t go according to plan. We talk about “failing fast,” and leaning into the upside of mistakes rather than avoiding them altogether. We challenge our employees to learn something new every day and be comfortable with innovating and trying new things.

Jobs in Demand

To develop the skilled employees we need, we have designed comprehensive learning programs to help build the necessary technical competencies. This approach encourages continued advancement and development, which is more appealing to younger workers who want to keep adding to their skills.

For example, the backbone of our workforce is our transportation technicians. We rely on these men and women, who comprise more than half of our 1,700 employees, for our day-to-day work in keeping Utah moving. This group is also where we experience the highest rate of turnover.

We have developed a phased training program for our transportation technicians that begins with classroom training and hands-on instruction, then continues with an online learning component for courses and skills to be taught virtually. As they complete coursework and acquire new skills, they are eligible for pay increases and promotions.

Design engineer is another position within our organization for which we have created a new career ladder. We have supplemented our internal workforce with consultants to design our projects, and we want to bring more of that expertise in-house. To do so, we developed an education/career path where engineers can continue to learn and gain skill enhancements, which are accompanied with salary increases when they achieve certain milestones. Other areas where we have created new career paths and training programs are in our ports of entry, our traffic operations center, and our materials group. 

“Streaming” vs. “Storing”

The world is moving away from a linear model where education and learning happened from childhood through college, followed by work, and then retirement. In this model, information was stored and recalled as needed. Now, because of the continual changes in technology and information, our collective model has shifted to lifelong learning: a streaming model, where new information is consistently sought out, evaluated, and applied to new experiences.

At UDOT we have created an extensive library of more than 2,000 online courses with topics ranging from Excel basics to math to cybersecurity to project management, along with a heavy focus on construction and engineering. These courses are available through our UDOT University, a learning portal open to all employees free of charge. This lets our employees learn as much as they want at a pace they are comfortable with to build existing skills and acquire new ones.

One major program to support our employees’ ongoing efforts to learn and grow in the industry is our UDOT annual conference. We have held this multi-day event for more than 20 years, providing opportunities for continuing education, networking, and sharing knowledge and experience among our statewide workforce. In addition to the on-site presentations, videos of conference sessions are recorded and uploaded to UDOT University for future use. 

Retaining Talent

To hold onto our employees—our most valuable asset—we need to make UDOT a place where they want to build a long career and where we all benefit from the teamwork, knowledge, and experience we gain and share together. We are working to create a structure and processes for managing our institutional knowledge so we can pass it on to the younger generations and our newer employees can pick up where their more-experienced colleagues left off.

Another essential aspect of retaining employees is effective communication. A few years ago, we launched our employee website, which we call YOUDOT, as an online home for resources such as forms, HR information, and shared drives, as well as news and updates from around the department. We publish a newsletter that was originally distributed weekly, then ramped up to daily updates at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic this spring, and is now sent out two or three times a week.

However, to be effective, communication needs to flow both ways. So we have set up programs for employees to share their concerns and ideas with department leaders. We conduct regular UDOT-wide surveys and focus groups among our workforce to understand what is going well and which areas need to be improved. This year, we are using the Gallup Q12 engagement survey to more effectively track, understand our organization, and compare our findings to companies in our industry.

Another critical component for the success of our department and our ability to hold on to quality people is leadership training. Our employees are provided with a number of leadership courses they can participate in, both in-person and online. These are developed by organizations such as the National Transportation Leadership Institute, the Utah Department of Human Resource Management, and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). With the transitions happening in our workforce, we need to make sure we give our future leaders the tools they need to grow and be successful.

Embrace Change

We sometimes forget that transportation is always changing. At one point, we were all the “new generation,” more comfortable with new technologies that were just starting to emerge. I remember early in my career spending time to figure out how to use the new “personal computer” in our office that no one knew what to do with.

That’s the thing about younger employees: They come in with new ideas and are more familiar with (and open to) technology, change, and innovation. They have an intrinsic belief in the importance of collaboration, diversity, and meaning.

The future of transportation is bright. We will always need the next-generation workforce to introduce new ideas while also continuing the legacy of the people who came before them. I feel incredibly optimistic because of these amazingly talented future generations and the mark they are going to leave on our industry. 

To be successful, it will take every one of us focusing less on what sets us apart and more on what we share: a desire to make the world a better place. Regardless of which generation we belong to, we are all standing on the shoulders of giants. From the installation of mile markers in ancient Rome to accelerated bridge construction and 3-D design in recent decades, together we are building a legacy that is bigger than us all. 

About The Author: Braceras is executive director of the Utah DOT.

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