Highway Maintenance Engineering as a Case Study for Growing the Transportation Workforce

Transportation infrastructure in the Midwest encompasses all modes from inland waterways to bike paths. Midwesterners continue to rely on and demand more from their investments in the past.  Keeping up requires innovation and for that we need creative thinkers interested in transportation asset management. As we celebrate National Transportation Week, we have a chance to reflect on what the Midwest can do to develop the transportation talent that we need to meet the needs of this sector moving forward.

The discipline of Highway Maintenance Engineering is an excellent model for exploring how to grow talent in transportation. Like many transportation occupations, jobs responsible for maintenance could be made more attractive with an image makeover. Yes, filling pot holes and removing road kill may be the most visible responsibilities, but we entrust highway maintenance workers with far more.  Highway maintenance workers are responsible for keeping the infrastructure in a state of good repair and at the same time keeping the adjacent air, soil, wildlife, plant life and water clean and healthy.

In order to improve the image of this occupation, there needs to be a change in mindset, both internally within the highway maintenance organizations as well as externally in the eyes of potential employees.

Challenges facing the highway maintenance workforce are the same as those facing transportation occupations across the board, making highway maintenance a good model for piloting strategies to address these challenges. For these reasons, the Midwest Transportation Workforce Center has chosen to focus on Highway Maintenance Engineering as part of the National Transportation Career Pathways Initiative.

The responsibilities of highway maintenance organizations are changing rapidly and finding the workforce with the skills and experience needed to execute these tasks will require a concerted effort.

For various reasons, the majority of attention around roadways has traditionally emphasized new construction, with less attention paid to maintenance. Maintenance jobs incorporated primarily tasks such as mowing and filling pot holes. Accordingly, the image of the average highway maintenance worker is not a glamorous one, to be sure, among the general public.

Today, departments of transportation are changing their mindset from construction thinking to maintenance thinking. They are assessing roadways across the entire lifecycle from construction through the end of its life expectancy. These assessments are including not just the costs of materials to build a new road but also the costs of maintaining the road surface and rights of way as well as well as the harder-to-quantify costs, such as the environmental impacts of all the construction, design, and maintenance practices.

In addition to this mindset change, highway maintenance is seeing an increasing use of new and emerging technologies such as computerization, drones, and geographic information systems (GIS). People entering this discipline will need experience with these technologies. These are some of the exciting things happening in transportation and we need career pathways to tell students about such opportunities.

Another trend affecting highway maintenance is the move toward automated vehicles. While this technology is still very new—it may not be clear exactly what form automation will take over the coming decades—it is undeniable that automation will change how our roadways are used. This will certainly change how we maintain our highways and rights of way.

Trends pushing maintenance thinking to the forefront include an increasing understanding of the environmental impacts and the impacts on human health of transportation. These impacts include road dust (from tire, brake pad, and road surface wear) as well as water runoff. Mitigation of these impacts are increasingly the responsibility of highway maintenance organizations. Whereas, in the past, maintenance considerations may have included driver visibility and safety, today’s maintenance practices must also take into account such things as the welfare of beneficial pollinators or the control of invasive plant species.

As highway maintenance organizations are charged with more responsibilities, the people doing this work will need to be more highly skilled and bring a broader range of technical expertise to the table.

Fortunately, the next generation of employees is excited about environmental sustainability. Aligning the needs of this discipline with the up-and-coming workforce is quite feasible. Young people today are interested in the holistic stewardship that will be required by this profession.

Like so many occupations in transportation Highway Maintenance Engineering careers need to be rebranded to reflect that these jobs are becoming more highly skilled, highly valued, and better compensated. Internally, highway departments will need to adopt a maintenance mindset. Externally, the next generation of transportation workers need to be shown a new image of highway maintenance.

Visit the MTWC Highway Maintenance Engineering Career Pathways Initiative page to keep abreast of this initiative.

To learn more about the National Transportation Career Pathways Initiative, visit the NNTW website.

About the Author

Dr. Adams is a civil and engineering professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has more than 25 years of research experience and is an expert in freight policy research. Dr. Adams also led the 21st Century Workforce Development Summit, one in a series of regional summits used to identify needs, set goals, strategies, and best practices across various transportation career paths. The regional summits culminated in the National Transportation Workforce Summit, which Dr. Adams also co-led in the spring of 2012 in Washington, DC.