Recruiting Tomorrow's Workforce
FHWA's National Summer Transportation Institute celebrates 25 years of introducing students to college life and sparking their interest in careers in transportation.
The transportation industry faces a significant gap between the number of skilled positions needed in the workforce and the number of people qualified to fill those positions. The projected annual job openings in the transportation field through 2022 are about 68 percent greater than the number of people completing transportation-related education and training programs, according to Strengthening Skills Training and Career Pathways Across the Transportation Industry, a joint report from the U.S. Departments of Transportation, Education, and Labor. Without enough qualified workers, the industry grapples with a growing challenge to develop, operate, and maintain a safe and efficient transportation system.
One way the Federal Highway Administration is working to narrow the workforce gap is by encouraging young people to explore the opportunities awaiting them in transportation. Many middle and high school students are unaware that a transportation career can involve a variety of disciplines—from engineering to planning and design to safety and supply chain management. Conducted in partnership with State departments of transportation and academic institutions, the National Summer Transportation Institute (NSTI) is an FHWA program that expands the awareness of career opportunities in transportation and helps address future needs for a capable and diverse workforce.
In 2018, NSTI celebrated 25 years of educating students about transportation and piquing their interest in college-level studies and career opportunities in the field.
Administered by FHWA’s Center for Transportation Workforce Development, NSTI promotes science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) disciplines among middle and high school students and encourages them to pursue transportation-related studies at the college and university level. Open to middle and high school students throughout the United States and its territories, NSTI enables teenagers to experience campus life and get a preview of transportation-related studies at accredited colleges and universities. All are welcome to apply, with a focus on underserved students, including minorities, women, socially and economically disadvantaged individuals, at-risk youth, and students with disabilities.
Introducing Transportation Opportunities
Daniel Davalos knew little about the transportation field, but he was intrigued when his high school engineering teacher distributed flyers on NSTI because it offered hands-on experience in STEM.
“I applied to this program because it would help me focus my education and career decisions in the STEM disciplines,” he says.
In addition to inspiring Davalos to study electrical engineering at California State University, Los Angeles, the NSTI session he attended in 2014 gave him insight into the types of careers people could have in transportation. As a result, he says, “I am planning to use my knowledge in electrical engineering in the transportation industry.”
Over the years, NSTI has benefited more than 25,000 students. In 2017, 1,446 students, including 21 with disabilities, attended programs at 62 host sites in 48 States.
To broaden access to the NSTI experience, FHWA instituted an exchange program in 2012 for students living in U.S. territories. The pilot program enabled four students to travel to the U.S. mainland to stay on a college campus and participate in a session. By 2018, about 40 students from U.S. territories had attended NSTI sessions, an average of 8 to 10 students per year.
Each year, State departments of transportation ask accredited colleges and universities (potential NSTI host sites) to develop proposals for NSTI programs on their campuses that meet FHWA’s curriculum guidelines. State DOTs recommend one or more applications from potential NSTI host sites to their State’s FHWA division, which reviews the applications and provides feedback and assistance on the proposed programs.
Providing Hands-On Experience
A typical NSTI program lasts 2 to 4 weeks. Host institutions offer day or residential programs that include room and board for students. Each institution targets its program to students in either high school or middle school. High school programs emphasize activities to improve STEM skills, prepare participants for post-secondary education, and encourage them to pursue transportation-related careers. Middle school programs focus on career exploration.
Designed to provide a stimulating introduction to the transportation industry and career opportunities, typical NSTI programs feature exposure to land, air, and water transportation modes, as well as safety. The curriculum includes an introduction to each transportation mode taught by college or university instructors, presentations from industry professionals, and field trips to transportation and transit facilities and government agencies. Students also learn from hands-on activities, such as laboratory exercises, computer programming tasks, and competitions to design bridges, gliders, solar cars, or mass transit projects.
Land transportation topics included in a typical program include highway design, transportation planning, traffic signal timing, transportation logistics, and public transit. Water transportation covers topics such as deep sea freight and passenger transportation, intercoastal waterways, towing and tugboat services, and marine cargo handling. Air transportation focuses on flight theories, aircraft performance, flight instruments, and air navigation. Safety is an integral part of the curriculum, including safe transportation infrastructure; improving safety and communication; analyzing and forecasting safety trends; and pedestrian, bicycle, vehicle, and air travel safety.
Programs also introduce methods and activities that improve study habits, promote academic achievement, and foster self-awareness. Topics include time management, critical thinking, problem solving, research techniques, and internet and library use, as well as preparation for standardized college admission tests. Students learn teamwork and sportsmanship through sports and recreation activities.
Partnership Takes Flight
Some host institutions partner with the National Flight Academy in Pensacola, FL, which offers an immersive program to inspire students to pursue STEM studies and careers. At the conclusion of their campus programs, these host institutions select students to attend a weeklong course at the academy, where they live in a simulated aircraft carrier environment and get hands-on experience learning about flight control, aircraft safety, piloting, and other technical operations associated with aviation.
Each day, academy students participate in “missions” that challenge their mental agility, preparedness, and communication skills while demonstrating the value of teamwork and goal completion. Through simulator experience and role play, students learn firsthand how those in naval aviation respond to real-life situations and emergencies. At the end of the week, students participate in a graduation ceremony to celebrate their accomplishments.
Student Perspectives On NSTI
Many former participants in NSTI programs consider their experience as key to their decision to pursue STEM-related studies in college and apply their education in the transportation and engineering fields. Many also express appreciation for the opportunity to get a taste of life on a college campus.
Dr. Makoloa Abdullah. Dr. Abdullah, Virginia State University president, was a junior in high school when his mother told him about the NSTI program at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “She thought it was a program I should be a part of. We all know mothers know best,” he says.
“I applied because I thought it would be wonderful to have the experience of staying on a college campus while still being a high school student. It provided me with the opportunity to spread my wings,” Abdullah says. “Most importantly, I had a strong interest in the STEM field, particularly in engineering.”
After interning the following summer at the Illinois Department of Transportation, Abdullah earned a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering from Howard University and master’s and doctorate degrees in civil engineering from Northwestern University. Early in his career, he worked at a civil engineering firm in Chicago. Later, he served as a college professor, dean of engineering, and university provost.
“Throughout my career, I have always wanted to play an integral part in educating the next generation of global leaders,” Abdullah says. In 2016, he became president of Virginia State University, which hosts a Summer Transportation Institute to encourage students to take advantage of transportation career opportunities.
“When individuals are equipped with the necessary tools and skill sets and possess the willingness to do the work, they will have the opportunity to make a difference not only in their life but also in the lives of individuals in their communities and the world,” Abdullah says.
Samuel Bethea Jr. Bethea, a demand forecast analyst for an apparel company in Greensboro, NC, participated in an NSTI program at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University (N.C. A&T State University) in 2004. He was familiar with the NSTI program because his sister, Lynnia Bethea, attended in 1998 and later graduated from N.C. A&T State University with a transportation/logistics degree.
“I applied to the NSTI program to gain a better understanding of the transportation field and the career opportunities that were offered,” Bethea says. “It was after I attended the NSTI program that I decided to attend N.C. A&T State University and major in transportation/logistics.”
Bethea applies his transportation, logistics and supply chain management background as a member of his company’s mass marketing team, working with the merchandising, operations, and sales teams to develop rolling forecasts for national retail accounts so that products can be transported in an efficient, cost-effective way. “It is a field that is growing exponentially, and companies now realize the importance of acquiring strong talent as markets across the board become more global,” he says.
Juan Alonso. Alonso participated in the NSTI program in 2013 after learning about it from his high school’s Mathematics, Engineering, Science Achievement program and hearing positive reviews from a friend who had attended the summer before. Alonso did not know anyone who worked in transportation, but he was interested in the Los Angeles County Metropolitan Transportation Authority and its transit-related construction projects. “At the time, I was interested in being a mechanical engineer,” he says. “After the program, my heart was set on civil engineering.”
Alonso earned a bachelor’s degree in structural civil engineering from the University of California, Irvine, and interned with an engineering firm in Los Angeles in 2018, assisting project engineers with roadway and bridge design. “Follow your passion and the opportunities will [come] when you least expect them,” he says.
Expanding the Transportation Workforce
NSTI is a program with a quarter century of success in encouraging middle and high school students to consider transportation-related studies at the college and university level. By partnering with State DOTs and colleges and universities on NSTI programs, FHWA enhances awareness among youths of what they can achieve through education.
“It is important now more than ever that we as a society expose our young people to the multitude of careers and resources available to ensure they will become our next generation of engineers, educators, scholars, technologists, scientists, and mathematicians,” says Abdullah.
By fostering early interest in transportation, NSTI creates a pathway to FHWA’s post-secondary education programs to expand a qualified workforce. Other FHWA resources help students continue on their learning journey. The Dwight David Eisenhower Transportation Fellowship Program awards fellowships to students pursuing transportation-related degrees. The Summer Transportation Internship Program for Diverse Groups provides college and university students—with a focus on women, persons with disabilities, and historically underrepresented members of diverse groups—with on-the-job experience while working on transportation-related topics.
“The NSTI program plays an important role in cultivating interest and expertise that will lead to today’s students pursuing tomorrow’s transportation careers,” says Virginia Tsu, M.Ed., director of FHWA’s Center for Transportation Workforce Development. “It endeavors to address future transportation workforce needs by ensuring that the transportation industry has a workforce that is expertly trained, capable, and diverse.”
Joyce Gottlieb is the NSTI program manager with the FHWA Center for Transportation Workforce Development. Gottlieb has a master’s degree in education and human development from The George Washington University and a bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary disciplines from Mercy College.
Will McClure is the program manager for civil rights with the FHWA California Division, where he serves as the division’s field representative on matters pertaining to civil rights and equal opportunity. A retired U.S. Army first sergeant, McClure earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in business administration from Touro University.
For more information on NSTI programs, contact your State transportation department’s Civil Rights Division or State FHWA Division office.