Transportation Department needs skilled workforce to meet automation needs

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Automation is steadily gaining control over every mode of transportation especially cars, trains and airplanes. That raises the question of whether employees at the Transportation Department have the skills to deal with and oversee these modes. The Government Accountability Office found DOT has some work to do in workforce planning and recruitment. Heather Krause, GAO’s director of physical infrastructure issues, had more details on Federal Drive with Tom Temin.

Interview transcript:

Tom Temin: Ms. Krause, good to have you on.

Heather Krause: Thanks for having me.

Tom Temin: This is more of a human resources skilling story than really isn’t it than a transportation issue for DOT. Correct?

Heather Krause: Automated technology is in many modes of transportation now. You see it in some of your vehicles that you may be driving, cars and trucks have some lane assist, and other technologies that help stop or slow vehicles during an accident. There’s also technologies being developed to really increase automation greatly. So things like drones that would carry passengers and other technologies. So really, all modes of transportation are moving ahead with automated technologies. And what we were tasked to look at is really see a DOT position to oversee the safety of those technologies.

Tom Temin: Yes, because even some of the places where you have a high level of expertise, and I’m thinking of the FAA, had trouble grappling with that system on that airliner that made the nose go down or up, whatever it was. And it was a couple years till people could figure out the answer there. And so that’s the kind of thing you mean, is the workforce up to the technical challenges of understanding these things?

Heather Krause: Yeah. What we had looked at is the extent to which DOT has identified the skills that its workforce needs to respond to automated technologies, as well as assessed the skill gaps that may exist between what their workforce has and what they might need. And then another component of our work was looking at the strategies that they’re taking to address some of those skill gaps. In the area of looking at identifying and assessing skills and skill gaps, we found that they are taking some steps to do that, but that they haven’t fully assessed whether their workforce has those key skills. We talked to some stakeholders and others to find out what do they see as the key skills that DOT should have in overseeing automated technologies, and they highlighted four main areas. One being regulatory expertise. DOT’s workforce is going to need to look at its regulations and determine what needs to be modified, amended, or possibly new regulations in order to address automated technologies and transportation. And then technical skills in the areas of engineering, cybersecurity, and data analytics are really key for DOT.

Tom Temin: Yes. In fact, one of those areas engineering, you mentioned, mechanical systems are increasingly being replaced with electronic and computerized systems. That’s true of trains where they just finished the automatic train control system on thousand and thousands of miles of tracks mandated many years ago by Congress, that project is over the line now. But you’ve got to have people that understand how it works to maintain it, make sure the railroads maintain it and so on.

Heather Krause: Yeah, that’s an example. I mean, and also, there’s work underway to look at fully automated trains. So it would be taking automation and expanding it out. But as these companies in the industries evolve, it is important that DOT has the works workforce to be able to respond.

Tom Temin: Well, I’ll let somebody else be the first passenger on a fully automated train and see how that goes for a few years before boarding one myself. And then of course, cybersecurity and data analysis always go with automated systems.

Heather Krause: Yeah, I mean, cybersecurity obviously is really key because you need analysts and others to be able to assess potential vulnerabilities in the systems and make sure that those are being addressed as these technologies are being developed. Data analytics is key because a lot of these automated systems are producing substantial amounts of data, which provide an opportunity, but also a challenge in terms of being able to have the skills to assess and manage those datasets and understand what are the potential safety risks and how might they be addressed.

Tom Temin: And looking at the workforce planning and recruiting practices of DOT — what did you generally find and what are your recommendations for them to kind of get around this problem?

Heather Krause: What we found is in the areas of identifying and assessing skills and skill gaps, we found that they are taking some steps but they haven’t fully assessed whether their workforce has the skills that they need. So, for example, we found they’re assessing their workforce skills through a survey that they conduct every three to four years and really determining whether the workforce has the skills or where there might be gaps that need to be filled in. And they did identify some gaps, but they didn’t include some key occupations that would also be involved in automated technology in terms of strategies to address We found that they do have efforts underway in terms of recruiting and hiring strategies, but there are other opportunities for them to really assess whether some of those strategies are effective in addressing gaps, as well as tracking the progress. Things like training that they may need their workforce to take, tracking the progress of employees completing that training.

Tom Temin: So I guess they agreed pretty much with those comments.

Heather Krause: Yeah, they concurred. We had four recommendations, they generally agreed with the recommendations. There was one recommendation, we ended up clarifying slightly to make it clear that we are looking for them to assess the strategies that they are taking to address the gaps, but they are looking to move forward in addressing our recommendations,

Tom Temin: It strikes me that this general issue, having a workforce that is keeping up with all of the technologies that are coming into a given domain, in this case, transportation probably applies across the government, because almost every mission area of the government is looking or dealing with an industry or a private sector function, which is changing because of automation, and the infusion of large data sets and all of that.

Heather Krause: Yeah, that is certainly — there are broader, as you point out, federal government workforce challenges both in keeping pace with the changes of technology, and then also the large number of pending retirements in the federal sector and being able to replace that expertise going forward. Those do cut across many federal agencies.

Tom Temin: And this is a little bit probably outside of your report. But if a given agency needs data analysts, say Transportation needs data analysts, and they have 20 positions open, typically they might get 100 or 1,000 or even more applicants for a given set of positions. And if they hire 20 of them, then they’ve got 980 leftover, whatever it is — is there some way those could be shared across the government? Because whether it’s transportation data or health data or acoustics data, you name it, it’s still data. And in many ways the analytical skills are without regard to the specific domain.

Heather Krause: Yeah, our report didn’t get into the ability to kind of share across. I mean, I think the one thing though, that we did find is especially in areas like data analytics, DOT in particular faces challenges with the private sector and being able to recruit some of those skill sets. The private sector can obviously hire folks, the federal process can take some time. The private sector can offer higher wages and salaries. So that is something that they face and why we feel it’s really important for DOT to be assessing what’s effective in terms of the strategies they’re using to recruit those kind of high valued positions.

Tom Temin: And was this issue true for the National Transportation Safety Board, which is pretty mission driven, dedicated group of people that look at wrecks that happen as a result? Is that an agency that also needs these types of skills to keep it up to date?

Heather Krause: NTSB, they as well, that is something that are the types of skills that they need to help support and safety. That wasn’t part of our review to dive in and see where they’re at in terms of the status of their efforts. But certainly, they would need the skills as well to oversee these and inform the reviews and audits they’re doing of accidents and incidents.

Tom Temin: Heather Krause is director of physical infrastructure issues at the Government Accountability Office. Thanks so much.

Heather Krause: Thank you, Tom.

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