Public agencies face a genuine workforce crisis. The competition for technically strong, management-oriented staff is increasing as technology companies and other sectors outside of transportation seek the same skills in their employees. The current low unemployment rate increases competition for quality staff at all levels, and public agencies are often unable to compete with the private sector in terms of compensation. State DOTs will need to give serious consideration to the factors that make them a preferred work environment in order to continue to attract and retain talent, since a positive work environment is a major factor in the decision to join or stay at an organization.
Shifting cultural demographics require state DOTs to demonstrate a strong sensitivity to and appreciation of the differences inherent in their workforce, which is becoming increasingly as diverse as the communities the DOTs serve. Many state DOTs work hard to value diversity, and Civil Service rules enforce that notion. Growing numbers of women, people of color, people with disabilities, or people from other ethnic backgrounds may bring new management styles with them, or a new sensitivity for aspects of transportation that may have been overlooked in the past. In the future, diversity in the DOT workforce, and how those different points of view are respected and valued, even encouraged, may be an important tool for recruiting new talent.
Changing age demographics may present one of the greatest and most predictable challenges to the state DOT, as experienced workers retire and new generations with different core values assume their workload. The popular descriptions of the generations predominant in the workforce today may not precisely describe every staff person in those cohorts, but they help in a general way to describe the shifting attitudes to be expected in the workforce of the future:
- Baby Boomers(born in the years between WWII and the early 1960s): Many Boomers are now retiring, leaving behind an experience gap. They tend to be long-time employees, loyal to the agency. Even in retirement, they may still have skills to offer the DOT that will require new and creative arrangements outside full-time employment. The retirement of senior staff creates opportunities for the agency to reorganize, working and thinking in new ways.
- Gen Xers(those born in the late 60s and 70s): Gen Xers are generally hard-working, independent, resourceful, skeptical of authority, and tend to avoid undue attention. Their entrepreneurial tendencies and desire for work/life balance may challenge organizational norms created in the Interstate era after WWII. Many may be reluctant to take on management authority. Many may even be reluctant to see themselves characterized in this way.
- Millennials(born in the 80s and early 90s): The Millennials are now the largest cohort in the general workforce. They tend to be highly tech-savvy and collaborative, and value work flexibility and work/life balance. They are motivated by purpose-driven work, which makes them a good fit for public service, if they can adjust to the rules and regulations inherent in government. They are highly competent and ambitious, and eager for greater responsibility. They tend not to stay in one organization for their entire careers, and may question those who do.
- Gen Z or Zoomers(born in the late 90s and 2000s): It’s too soon to know much about the work ethic of the newest cohort entering the workforce, but their preferred characterization of Zoomer is a reference to their fast-paced upbringing, resulting from rapid advances in technology, their exposure to global culture, and their reliance on internet-connected smart phones and social media. It is likely that they too will value flexibility, work/life balance, and early responsibility, but time will tell.
The vacancies created by these shifting age demographics require new approaches. Younger staff bring new expectations for upward mobility and seek greater clarity and transparency about how to advance within the organization. State DOTs need to develop creative ways to attract them, and may need to adjust their organizational approach in order to keep them. Greater workforce mobility also requires the DOT to develop systematic approaches to build and transfer institutional knowledge.