Every Innovation Starts With A Conversation

Data science is critical to modern transport. Utah and Washington explain how they’re adapting to compete for talent.  

By Robyn Griggs Lawrence 

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As baby boomers retire in droves and state transportation agencies take on more technologically driven functions, DOTs across the nation are scrambling to hire tech workers—and keep them happy.  

“We’re growing like crazy, and growth is a challenge,” said Carlos Braceras, executive director for the Utah DOT. “Our challenge has been attracting, retaining and developing the workforce we need to be able to address that growth. We need great people. We need great engineers, technicians, data scientists.” 

The Utah DOT’s role has evolved over the past decade, Braceras said, from building roads and interstates to operating multiple transit systems in real-time. “We’re still going to have civil engineers, but we need people now who are operators of a transportation system—and that’s a different mindset, a different skillset. It requires a different technical training than planning, design, construction and maintenance.” 

Braceras’ goal is to turn the massive amounts of data the Utah DOT is generating into knowledge that can inform real-time operational awareness and better decision-making about project capacity and safety measures.  

“This whole idea of data analysts in the back room grinding away on data that happened a year ago, three years ago, even a month ago—that’s not where I want to be,” he said. “I want that grinding of data to be happening right now in front of us so it’s actionable right now. And we’re moving there much too slowly, in my opinion.” 

The Utah DOT is constantly recruiting tech workers, but “you can’t touch a data scientist on a state salary,” Braceras said. To fill some of the gaps, the agency is hiring college students and allowing them to work around their school schedules. “Oh my gosh, some of the stuff these folks come up with is just amazing,” he added. 

Unable to compete with the private sector on salary, the Utah DOT emphasizes its supportive culture, which provides ample career development opportunities, training, and work-life balance, in its recruiting efforts. “One of the things I’ve found is that if you’re in an organization that doesn’t have the ability to respond with pay as quickly as the private sector, you need to focus on making sure employees feel they have some ability to make decisions about their own lives and recognizing that employees are people with lives and all the things that come with that,” Braceras said. 

The Washington DOT is doing the same, addressing the tech worker shortage by “giving our own workforce opportunities to expand their skillsets,” said Matt Modarelli, the agency’s chief information officer. This includes providing developmental training programs and opportunities to earn industry certifications. Technical staff are encouraged to spend time developing skills within job areas outside their own so they can apply for jobs that open up in those areas.  

IT departments across all industries, public and private, are in desperate need of workers in project management, business analysis, cybersecurity, and cloud and solution architecture, Modarelli said, and those positions can be nearly impossible to fill. “You have to be really creative because it’s a competitive market. There are just constant opportunities to go and do other things in the IT field, for sure, and so you really have to try to keep them here.” 

The Washington DOT’s Human Resources Department has helped Modarelli’s division create a program that allows workers who have the foundational skills to spend six months to a year filling vacant jobs. During this time, workers learn job specifics and determine whether they want to take them on long-term.   

The variety of jobs and diversity of work at the Washington DOT often draws younger workers, said Jeff Pelton, the agency’s director of human resources and safety. “That may be something that some of the smaller firms in the private sector, even in the technology realm, can’t offer.” 

In addition to the variety of jobs and diversity of work, “Really what keeps people at Washington DOT is the culture,” Modarelli said. “They want to work here. There’s stability and a real sense of purpose to the mission here.” 

Modarelli and Pelton both have military backgrounds, and Pelton said the public service element of working for a DOT was appealing to them. He believes many others feel the same. “People come here because they grew up looking at roads and bridges and the work that was happening here, and they want to be part of that solution. We have an impact on society. And I think people see that, which is huge,” he said. 

Braceras agrees. “You know what? Everyone needs to make money,” he said. “But I believe that fundamental to the core of people is wanting to do something to help other people. And people need to know that when you work at a public agency like this, any Department of Transportation in this country, you’re doing things that save lives. It’s so meaningful to every citizen. And it’s meaningful to feel like you’re part of something that’s bigger than you.”