The future of transportation is on a collision course with retirements, workforce recruitment and reskilling

​Sammy, the tire shop manager, comes running back into the showroom after checking my vehicle’s tires.

Catching her breath and wiping away a bead of sweat, “Wow! You ran them on wires! I feel a wave of shame imagining the line of other early morning customers standing behind me shaking their heads.

Gazing grimly at his computer kiosk, Sammy mutters, “I’m not sure I have those in stock.” Getting inventory these days is never (expletive) easy.

Looking up from the computer staring at me, he says in disgust, “You know… the supply chain.

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Now we all know. Until recently, no one knew what a supply chain was. It was simply the magic that happened behind the scenes to put products on the shelves or tires on my car. The phrase supply chain has become synonymous in the mind of the roulette wheel consumer – sometimes you win, the products you want are there, sometimes you lose, the products are out of stock and you don’t have luck.

“I got them!” exclaims Sammy, prompting me to say with relief, “Awesome!”

He raises his hand and warns me sharply, “Wait, don’t get upset. I’m not sure I’ll have someone ride them today. I lack technicians.

Feeling that my luck is running out and my tire threads are thinning, I look over his shoulder through the glass and confirm eight empty, virtually untouched repair bays with only two lone techs under rig-mounted vehicles. hoists.

And There you go. The other supply chain issue — the skilled labor talent supply chain. With many industries facing labor shortages, the transportation talent supply chain faces a triple threat of labor shortages that begins with recruitment and retention challenges , aggravated by a wave of imminent retirements and associated with an upcoming technological transition.

Transportation is perhaps the best indicator of the economy. When the roads are congested and the trains and planes are full, people may complain, but those crowded roads, rails and planes mean the economy is buzzing – goods are moving, people are going to work, shopping, enjoying of an evening, to travel. And, because transportation is vital to almost all activities of daily living, any disruption is felt by everyone.

Labor shortages in the airline industry, from pilots to baggage handlers, have turned air travel into a game of blackjack. London’s Heathrow Airport has gone so far as to ask airlines to stop selling tickets this summer to reduce demand for passengers at understaffed facilities.

The shortage of stevedores and drivers has made the endless line of ships waiting off Long Beach, California, iconic. And, just as $1 trillion in federal spending to rebuild the country’s infrastructure is planned, there is a shortage of construction workers to repair crumbling roads, ports and railroads. According to an analysis by the Associated Builders and Contractors, there were 396,000 construction jobs open in March 2022, up 60,000 from the previous year.

Although anemic in recent years, the country’s population continues to grow. Some jobs just don’t seem appealing. The tires I wanted were in there, but the workers to mount them weren’t.

Frustrated, the manager of the tire store complains that he cannot find workers. “I’ve worked with the regional vocational school for years and haven’t been able to recruit a single employee — and we’re paying well!”

The problem of recruitment is further complicated by the realities of retention. According to the National Institute of Automotive Service Excellence Education Foundation, 42% of automotive technology graduates (including high school and post-secondary education) leave the profession within two years of entering the profession.

The talent shortage across the transportation business is also being exacerbated by an upcoming wave of retirements. While pilot shortages have captured the TV news and prompted Congress to consider raising the retirement age for commercial pilots, other sectors of the transportation industry are also going gray.

The average age of many other parts of the transportation workforce is almost a decade older than the average age of workers in the country, which is 41. About one in four transport workers is over the age of 55. Still in short supply, the average trucker is 50, but nearly one in three is over 55.

My colleague at the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics and co-director of the FreightLab, David Correll, aptly noted that “the transport workforce problem is multimodal, and not just limited to jobs appearing in the current news cycle”. — for example, the study of the shortage of truck drivers revealed that there are also similar shortages of people to load and unload trucks.

These people who move are even older, public transport operators are on average 53 years old. And, unlike those of us who drive an office for a living, many transportation jobs require real work, physical labor, making retirement less of a choice and more of a physical reality.

Many people see technology as the answer to the transportation talent supply chain problem. Business strategists and policymakers dismiss demographic realities by dreaming that drivers will be replaced by driverless vehicles. Heavy construction operators will be replaced by stand-alone systems. Ports will need fewer people to unload and load waiting robotic ships. Maybe, but it’s only in science fiction that such transitions happen overnight.

Even as some of these technologies are developed and deployed, there is a shortage of talent to maintain today’s advanced systems. For example, far from the vision of driverless vehicles that many people have in their imaginations, new automobiles already include advanced safety systems that require specially trained technicians. The P&C insurance industry’s CCC Crash Report 2022 estimates that the demands of today’s new technologies, combined with the next wave of retirements, will generate 100,000 automotive technician positions.

The future electrification of the transport system will eventually require a new workforce. This will require transitioning current talent from combustion engines to electric as well as training a new generation of workers to maintain vehicles and robotic systems. In addition, to successfully integrate the country’s electricity infrastructure with the transmission system, it will require a skilled workforce to construct, operate and maintain an electricity generation and distribution system which will also be required to meet unprecedented electricity demands.

The current outlook for manpower to meet this challenge is bleak. In a 2018 policy statement, the IEEE reports that 50% of the energy sector workforce could retire in the next five to ten years. The average electrical and electronics technician is already 49, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, suggesting a less than robust number of young people available to meet the coming demands of building and operating a reliable, integrated national electric transportation system. ​.

The national transportation system is often thought of as physical infrastructure and vehicles. Not wrong, but still just as incomplete. The country’s transportation system includes the millions of workers who build, operate and maintain this infrastructure and these vehicles. The United States Department of Transportation estimates that nearly 10% of the nation’s workforce works in the transportation industry.

Unlike many other industries, however, transportation is solely a public and private enterprise that affects everyone and everything. Its future requires public-private investment today to recruit, retain and reward a robust talent supply chain with the agility to meet the nation’s growing demands while transitioning to tomorrow’s technologies.

Michael A. Bynum