Why DOTs need more workforce diversity

By Rayla Bellis

Many state DOTs around the country are currently contending with challenging workforce issues, whether attracting and retaining talented workers while competing with the private sector or preserving institutional knowledge amidst a wave of baby boomer retirements. An article in the latest issue of TRB’s bimonthly magazine makes the economic case for addressing another significant workforce issue: improving the notoriously poor gender and racial diversity of the transportation field. The article also makes the case for increasing neurodiversity in the transportation workforce.

The authors note that a host of recent studies have shown that “organizations with the most diverse workforces realize better decision-making and more efficiency, innovation, and profitability than do their less-diverse peers.” For example:

  • Research from McKinsey & Company shows that ethnically and gender-diverse organizations are, respectively, 35 percent and 15 percent more likely to achieve above-average financial returns.
  • A Boston Consulting Group study found that companies with above average levels of diversity in management teams generated 19 percent more innovation revenue than those with average or lower diversity—and that at least 20 percent of an organization’s leadership must be female for diversity to produce those benefits, even with broad gender diversity among employees overall.
  • Research from the Journal of Diversity Management indicates that organizations need a significant critical mass of diverse perspectives—not simply tokenism—to derive benefits.

The article also briefly discusses some of the factors acting as barriers to greater diversity in DOTs, including misconceptions and lack of awareness and about transportation careers, as well as significant structural issues. For example, the article notes that construction and maintenance roles are plagued by barriers to diversity, such as limited exposure among underrepresented groups to specific construction-related skills, hostile work environments, and work schedules that can be incompatible with family responsibilities.

Finally, the authors recommend strategies for improving workplace diversity based on existing research findings. Agency leadership must clearly articulate the value of diversity to staff, not just place emphasis on it. Organizations must examine hiring practices to remove any unintentional bias leading hiring managers to pass over (or underemploy) candidates from underrepresented groups. DOTs must create a workplace culture that supports diversity. Perhaps most importantly, agencies must actually engage and work closely with people of diverse backgrounds to examine current practices through the lens of the individuals they are trying to recruit and retain.

Rayla Bellis is a Program Manager at SSTI.