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July 17, 2018

MTWC survey analysis identifies apprenticeship as pathway to highway maintenance workforce

Written By: Kerri Phillips

Results from a statewide survey identify gaps in recruitment, retention, skills and training for a critical segment of the workforce in Wisconsin municipalities.

The Midwest Transportation Workforce Center (MTWC) has published its report on the 2017 Wisconsin Highway Maintenance Workforce Survey. As part of its Highway Maintenance Engineering Career Pathways Initiative, MTWC conducted the survey to capture information about the demand for entry-level workers, hiring issues, training practices and stakeholder outlook in this field. After analyzing the responses, MTWC researchers conclude there is a clear opportunity to put registered apprenticeship to work creating career pathways for this critical sector.

The results help answer questions around the future of highway maintenance occupations. Like in many occupations today, incumbent baby-boomers are retiring in large numbers. At the same time, the skills and competencies required are also changing to keep pace with rapidly advancing technologies like sensors and autonomous vehicles.

Multiple challenges hinder filling the talent pipeline, including creating clear pathways into occupations for young people.

“For starters, students cannot major in highway maintenance at a technical school or university in Wisconsin,” says Teresa Adams, MTWC director and professor of civil engineering at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “But managing and repairing today’s roadway and municipal systems require technical and analytical skills and competencies. Employers need workers to operate advanced equipment in the field and related information systems in the office.”

Apprenticeship can provide a career pathway. Further, apprenticeship programs can earn credits toward an associate’s degree, providing workers with the credentials to advance their education and careers into the future.

Another challenge is the fact that highway maintenance occupations are increasingly technical and specialized. For example, in the Upper Midwest, winter maintenance can be as much art as it is science when communities move to the environmentally friendly option of using beet juice or cheese brine instead of salt to treat icy roads.

Adams says highway maintenance is a great place to start when looking at transportation workforce issues as a whole.

“Highway maintenance has a significant impact on everything from safety and costs over a road’s life cycle to wildlife and the environment,” she says.

Adams also notes that to be successful, roadside managers must be able to troubleshoot and leverage diverse skills and knowledge bases. For example, roadsides managed with pollinators in mind can achieve multiple goals at once, such as stabilizing roadsides, reducing storm water pollution, supporting wildlife, and building public exposure and appreciation for the local landscape.

The survey was part of a two-year endeavor to establish pathways for skilled careers in highway maintenance engineering. The Highway Maintenance Engineering Career Pathways Initiative has identified current and emerging occupations of highest demand and is in the process of developing career pathways for them.

Across the state, MTWC invited 541 employers to take the survey; 143 responded. Responses came from county highway commissioners, directors of public works, street superintendents and others with responsibilities for maintaining the state’s highway infrastructure.