Webinar recap: How TDOT is attracting and retaining staff

By Rayla Bellis

Many state DOTs around the country are currently grappling with the question of how to attract and retain a talented workforce. On the one hand, they are facing an upcoming wave of retirements that could mean a major loss of institutional knowledge. At that same time, they are struggling to compete with the private sector in recruiting standout employees, facing hurdles like uncompetitive pay scales as well as perceived lack of flexibility, opportunities for advancement, and workforce diversity. On top of these challenges, many DOTs are also being directed to reduce the size of their staff in order to demonstrate efficiency to legislators and the public.

The Tennessee Department of Transportation has taken an innovative approach to address some of these hurdles and build a talented and engaged workforce. TDOT Commissioner John Schroer and Chief Financial Officer Joe Galbato joined us to discuss TDOT’s workforce development strategies and results earlier this month on SSTI’s September webinar. A recording of the webinar is available on our website.

Commissioner Schroer, who has a background in commercial real estate in the private sector and currently serves as the president of AASHTO, has seen a number of state DOTs encountering challenges that he faced when he began his term with TDOT, particularly the expectation that DOTs reduce the size of their staff. Schroer quickly saw that cutting staff does not necessarily increase efficiency or even reduce costs. In fact, in TDOT’s case it was doing the opposite.

Schroer noted:

“We started seeing a pattern of huge increases in the usage of consultants that was directly proportional to the decrease in employees. What I quickly realized is that we were using consultants to replace employees. In my position at AASHTO I see that happening all the time.” Schroer added that this frequently meant using consultants who were former employees enticed to the private sector by higher pay, often meeting the same needs at three-to-four times the cost to TDOT. “The cost of that just got to be ridiculous.”

With support from the Governor, TDOT embarked on an effort to identify its major workforce issues and implement strategies to attract and retain good workers, increase expertise, and improve morale. Some of TDOT’s approaches included:

  • Making TDOT’s IT positions more attractive by creating a flexible workplace culture and providing opportunities to work on innovative development projects.
  • Merging TDOT’s Construction and Maintenance divisions to balance workloads between summer and winter, and helping staff obtain GEDs and other certifications in order to give them broader responsibilities within the new combined division.
  • Raising the minimum annual salary from $18,000 to $31,000.
  • Recruiting at colleges and establishing a student intern program focused on a range of academic areas beyond engineering, from environmental studies to finance.
  • Providing skill-based certification programs that also count as credits toward undergraduate and graduate degrees through partnerships with Tennessee universities.
  • Partnering with TDOT’s prime contractors and the Department of Corrections to provide construction training and field experience to inmates, and hiring those individuals as contractors after they made parole.

TDOT has seen impressive results from these initiatives. They have been able to hire back 200 employees, which has substantially reduced TDOT’s need for consultants and resulted in net savings of $42 million. Turnover has dropped from 14 percent to 10 percent.

The salary increases and other changes have also had a notable impact on staff morale. Joe Galbato noted in his presentation:

“This has gotten people much more excited about working. They don’t have to work a second job. In fact, the Commissioner has received several calls from people saying ‘the first thing I’m going to do is call whoever I work for at night, and stop that and go to my kid’s baseball games.’ We had operations staff who had left before because they couldn’t make a livable wage, but they are coming back.”

While TDOT faces its own specific workforce challenges, many of their successes and lessons could apply in other states. Several other DOT leaders have also spoken recently about their workforce challenges and the strategies they are trying. For example, WSDOT Secretary Roger Millar has discussed the difficulty of competing with cities and local employers like Microsoft for talented employees. WSDOT is offering flexible work schedules and internships in response, as well as implementing inclusive hiring practices to increase diversity. Meanwhile ODOT Director Matt Garrett has raised the need to create an adaptive and flexible culture, work structure, and learning platforms in response to technological change. Workforce development was also a major topic of discussion at SSTI’s recent CEO Community of Practice meeting in July.

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.