Comments on DOT strategic plan for FY 2018-2022 by John K. Clark, Executive Director, TLC

Posted November 2017

Let me begin by thanking Secretary Chao and the entire Department of Transportation staff for developing this strategic plan and submitting it for public comment. 

The four major strategic goals of safety, infrastructure, accountability and innovation provide a solid framework for developing policy for the entire transportation system over the next five years.

My own work focuses primarily on the public transportation system and therefore under the provisions of the FAST Act. The Transportation Learning Center does work with commuter railroads and has some contact with and knowledge of other sectors in transportation. The comments that follow will be broadly applicable across modes.
Under infrastructure, the DOT plan includes workforce, specifically under Strategic Objective 4. The language there places emphasis on preparing the future workforce and meeting workforce challenges.

While it represents progress for a discussion of infrastructure to include workforce at all, the discussion is far too narrow and self-limiting. To cite just one example, nowhere does the plan include a discussion of registered apprenticeship. Apprenticeship has received strong bipartisan support in Congress. The current Administration, like the Administration that preceded it, has made apprenticeship a centerpiece of its workforce development and economic development strategies. Registered apprenticeship already plays a large role in transportation construction; it is a tested system that delivers highly qualified workers on projects to build highways, rail and transit systems, and to expand and improve ports and all transportation infrastructure. At a minimum, DOT’s strategic plans, with its strong emphasis on new infrastructure, should be citing the success of and looking to strengthen the industry partnerships that support construction apprenticeship.

Beyond construction, apprenticeship can be and is a growing and promising strategy for workforce development in transportation maintenance and operations. Currently, the Transportation Learning Center is working in industry partnerships in more than forty locations across the country to establish apprenticeships covering five transit occupations (bus mechanic, rail car tech, signals maintainer, transit elevator-escalator repair tech, transit coach operator). In looking ahead, DOT can and should include consideration of apprenticeship as a key workforce-and economic-development strategy.

At its core, apprenticeship recognizes that effective learning for many technical occupations needs to occur primarily on the job. Current workers represent a vast pool of skill and knowledge. Working in partnership with the workforce to develop good training and stable apprenticeship systems to pass on that knowledge represents the most reliable way to ensure that transportation can meet its ongoing workforce challenges. In organizations that prize on the job learning and recognize the resource represented by current workers, learning becomes an ongoing process so that new technologies, which are pervasive in most modes of transportation, become not a threat to existing workers, but an opportunity to master new skills.

The theme of partnership between labor and management can and should be broadened in DOT’s planning. Safety culture is addressed in Goal 1. There is passing reference to a sound safety culture needing top-down support, a statement that is necessary, but not sufficient. Safety must take priority over competing priorities, as DOT’s plan states, and that can only happen if top management decides to make safety the number one priority. It is important to note that a significant body of literature on the subject of safety culture demonstrates that a robust safety culture requires both a top-down and a bottom-up commitment. A robust safety culture requires more than following orders on the priority of safety; operators and maintenance workers need to make safety a habit of mind in their daily routines. That can only happen if there is an active and engaged partnership between top and middle managers and their workers. Transportation has a much higher union density than the general economy, and that will mean formal partnerships with unions to ensure safety for workers and for the vast numbers of riders who use our transportation systems daily.

Similarly, Goal 2 discusses state of good repair as a major objective. That, too, will be achieved most effectively where frontline workers are involved in developing and carrying out the plans for state of good repair. An engaged and skilled workforce will discover methods to maintain equipment most effectively.

In virtually every area covered in the Plan, transportation can function more effectively if labor and management can develop deep partnerships that address their mutual interests. This is a lesson we have learned at the Center through our decade-and-a-half experience with labor-management consortia, consortia at the core of the development of frontline worker training recognized by DOL, FTA and industry experts around the country as meeting the highest level of industry standards.

The DOT strategic plan has the virtue of being concise. In the interests of keeping my comments on it concise, let me end there. If FTA or DOT staff would like a further elaboration on any of the points raised here, I would be glad to meet or to correspond.
Again, thank you for the opportunity to comment.

To review the strategic plan and provide comments, please click here.

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