State DOT Panel Examines Workforce Recruitment, Retention Issues

Creating new opportunities for advancement and on-the-job learning for both current and newly recruited employees, along with providing more work-life balance, are becoming key workforce strategies for state departments of transportation now and in the future.

[Above photo by the Ohio DOT]

Furthermore, a panel discussion held during the 2021 virtual spring meeting of the American Association of State Highway and Transportation fleshed out how those strategies are becoming reality.

Jack Marchbanks

Jack Marchbanks, director of the Ohio Department of Transportation, said the process begins with his agency’s “clear and concise” mission statement: “The men and women of the Ohio DOT are dedicated to the safe and efficient movement of people and goods from place to place.”

“We have a mission that inspires, and while I know that sounds Pollyannaish, we are finding young people – Millennials and Gen Z – are inspired by such a mission,” he said. “We’ve had great success hiring younger people and re-purposing mid-career folks due to that mission. That is because the obvious social good well-planned infrastructure provides to society is undeniable.”

Marchbanks noted that all the dimensions of a state’s transportation network – such as roads, railroads, maritime, and aviation – creates an “unlimited palate” of pursuit in terms of infrastructure work opportunities.

“For example, we’re working with NASA on urban air mobility models,” he said. “We’re also involved in environmental and smart mobility projects, too. That diversity of opportunity helps keep the people we have and attracts others to us.”

Marchbanks pointed out that the COVID-19 pandemic opened up teleworking as a new option for the Ohio DOT to pursue as well.

“Before the pandemic, telework was not talked about – it was a ‘request that shall not be named’ as it were,” he said. “Now we know it is viable. It also fits in with our view of work-life balance. Our motto here is that while you work with the Ohio DOT, you work for your family. So it is helping us keep that emphasis on fairness, openness, and personal life priorities.”

William Panos

William Panos, director of the North Dakota Department of Transportation, echoed Marchbanks’ views on how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the workforce strategy of his agency.

“The pandemic put into sharp focus the importance of work-life balance, of taking care of yourself physically and emotionally,” he explained.

“Your balance in your life is front and center for us. It helps us create an environment in which employees want to engage with us – because they have that work-life balance. That is our biggest takeaway from the pandemic,” Panos noted.

He added that the work-from-home needs created by the pandemic forced the North Dakota DOT to expand its use of technology to “points never thought of.” That also helped the agency revamp its training and employee support environment, again all aimed at creating an “engaged employee work environment” that enhances their daily work life while also allowing them to maintain their desired work-life balance.

Amanda Graor

Amanda Graor, chief innovation officer for the Mid-America Regional Council in Kansas City, MO, said those lessons are also critical to making state DOT workforces more diverse as well.

“If the goal is more diversity, state DOTs must create an environment welcoming of a diverse workforce,” she explained. “Returning to the status quo should not be the goal. So, how do we change management styles to reflect more diversity in the workplace? That is the golden question.”

Graor added that “diversity” should not just be viewed by race or gender but by generation as well.

“Things are coming at us a lot faster now – especially where technology is concerned – and that can cause friction and tension in workplace,” she said. “This is where training is crucial to bridging generational divide. Putting ‘new eyes’ on old processes can help create intergenerational relations; a true team environment. It’s about making sure we create an environment where innovation and new ideas are valued from all parts of the workforce.”

It is also about creating a “reality of opportunity” for everyone across the workforce as well.

“There is a tendency to look outside for new skills or talents; meaning we don’t often give existing staff an opportunity to pivot to new roles, deploying institutional knowledge they have,” Graor said. “We need to learn from frontline employees, not just managers. How do we really fully learn what is possible from top to bottom and side to side in the workforce chain? Some of the best ideas will come from people out living experiences with the very processes you are trying to improve.”

Victoria Sheehan

The panel’s moderator Victoria Sheehan – commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Transportation and AASHTO’s 2020-2021 president – noted that those strategies would require changes to some traditional state DOT workforce practices, but not all of them.

“We have to emphasize that all employees at a state DOT are part of the same machine – that the engineers and maintenance crews cannot do their jobs without accountants, administrators, human resource staff, and others,” she said.

“It’s been amazing how resilient our workforce has been in the face of the pandemic and how they’ve leaned on one another,” Sheehan pointed out.

“So going forward we must make sure to create a culture empathetic to balancing what [employees] are facing at home and facing at work,” she noted. “While that may be different from state DOT practices of old, we should still seek to retain the pride and camaraderie associated with our core mission: to build a transportation system that serves all and provides access to opportunity for all.”

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