Just last year, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) announced five newly-established Centers designated to lead and coordinate transportation workforce development efforts in and across each of the country’s five major geographic regions. This was the latest—and perhaps most monumental—move by the FHWA as part of a historic push to enrich and vitalize the U.S. transportation workforce. The Regional Surface Transportation Workforce Development Centers will be one-stop-shops for transportation workforce development in their respective regions, with each Center supplying the people, planning, resources, and coordination necessary to address priorities unique to its region; together, the Centers will work as a coordinated, national network to achieve workforce-related objectives that impact the country as a whole.
“FHWA has made really strategic and important investments in thinking about and trying to advance workforce development,” said Glenn McRae, Director of the Northeast Center located at the University of Vermont, one of five academic institutions to be competitively awarded the distinction. “These programs have been working, but in very kind of isolated ways. I think we now have the opportunity to take a lot of those investments, both FHWA’s and the rest of the industry, and bring them together in a really new and unique way so that we can be a one-stop-shop for agency-level thinking about this.”
“The Centers,” said McRae, are really established both to serve those who employ people in the [transportation] sector, but also to provide resources for those looking both to enter the sector in jobs and to advance their careers, and also those organizations who do all the support work to get people there—the education and labor organizations that really provide the training, that open the doors.”
A priority for the Centers in year one, according to Tom O’Brien, Director of the Southwest Center at the California State University, Long Beach (CSULB), is to examine future workforce needs and current gaps as they relate to the transportation sector, followed by instituting best practices to fill those gaps.
“Needs are changing, new job functions are coming online,” said O’Brien. “Helping continue the momentum is part of what the Centers are going to be doing. And that’s what’s really exciting to me.”
Another year one task is to take inventory of existing transportation workforce development programs, stakeholders, educators, and employers in each region, so as to form a supportive network of people and resources that can then be connected on a national level.
“The mission is really to act as a broker,” said West Center Director Steve Albert at Montana State University. “To bring together organizations and to add value to what they are doing in their workforce development initiatives.”
“Our goal is ultimately to be a resource for the stakeholders in our region, including education partners as well as the public and private sectors,” said Stephanie Ivey, Director of the Southeast Center located at the University of Memphis. “So if there are any of these types of organizations that have a need—they have skills gaps, they’re looking for training programs, they’re trying to discover successful or best practice programs that they could replicate—we would be happy to work with them to connect them to the resources they need, and if not available, to figure out how those resources might be developed.”
“We’re connectors,” said O’Brien. “One of the things the Centers are going to be doing is acting as a clearinghouse of information and an ongoing forum to share ideas among people who are already doing the work on the ground.”
Each Center also brings to the table a list of region-specific focuses and objectives it hopes to impact over the next four years. Two focus objectives of the University of Vermont, for example, include disadvantaged youth and climate change. Taken separately, the Centers will address opportunities and concerns affecting their individual regions. As a whole they will combine to address a national picture of the needs and strengths of an industry.
“All of these Centers are looking at areas of specialization because every Center can’t do everything,” said McRae. “There’s an opportunity here to really share, nationally, among specializations.”
An additional focus for each of the Centers is on enhancing opportunities and resources for educators, employers, and students seeking information or assistance.
“If you’re in the industry and you have opportunities for students within your organization,” said Teresa Adams, Director of the Midwest Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, “if you’re an educator and you want materials to help you introduce transportation in your courses … Or if you’re a student and you want to find out about transportation careers—contact us.”
Clark Martin with the FHWA Office of Technical Services manages the Regional Workforce Centers program for the Federal Highway Administration. Martin commented on the benefit and potential for the Regional Centers.
"There are any number of transportation education and workforce programs available, but there really isn't the communication and coordination across the transportation, education, labor, and workforce investment communities for improved transportation workforce development. The Centers will provide a focus for collaboration to leverage workforce interests and resources for the current workforce and for the next generation of transportation workers. The success of the Centers will depend in large measure on the engagement of the private and public sectors in working with the Centers to identify and implement successful workforce programs and activities."
Individuals or organizations wishing to learn more or to connect with the Centers today can contact them directly. Additional information on the Centers, including contact information and areas of national focus, is provided below.