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Chapter 4.6

Improve the Supply of Engineers


Summary

Both private and public sector employers face a shortage of technical employees. Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) faces both high turnover and difficulty recruiting engineering staff. Private firms offer significantly higher salaries. In order to use staff resources as efficiently as possible, TxDOT should take steps to place non-engineers in jobs currently performed by engineers that do not require engineering expertise and expand its Rapid Hire program. Moreover, the requirement that the executive director be an engineer should be removed.


Background

A robust economy has produced a nationwide shortage of trained technical employees, called an “...unprecedented demand for qualified people at virtually all levels...” by some.[1] This shortage affects both private companies and government agencies, complicating the need to recruit and retain qualified employees. In transportation, some additional factors have contributed to the loss of engineers. First, a nationwide trend towards downsizing state departments of transportation encouraged the retirement of senior staff in the 1990s. Second, the visibility and apparent rewards of information technology jobs are luring technically proficient students away from engineering as a career choice. Third, public agencies have not kept pace with the salaries and career advancement opportunities that engineers enjoy in the private sector.[2]

Private firms, with significant design and engineering work backlogs, are putting tremendous pressure on recruiting and retaining experienced engineers in state DOTs, as noted by transportation expert Steve Lockwood in his treatise on state DOT institutional issues:

  • Strong economic growth nationwide has heightened the competition for retention and recruitment of qualified workforce. It is increasingly difficult to recruit the “best and the brightest” at public agency low entry starting salaries, in competition with the private sector. The more recent growth of the federal aid program has put public agencies in competition with the private sector for the same new and/or experienced work force.
  • The downsizing initiatives [of state DOTs, including TxDOT] have encouraged the retirement of senior staff just at a point where compensation competition with the private sector has intensified. Together these forces combine to present a difficult recruiting and retention challenge.[3]
  • The significant increase in federal funding via the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century (TEA-21) and the resulting flood of transportation projects “...have the potential of crippling design firms with staffing problems.” The search for engineers by the private design firms has intensified and is expected to become more acute since colleges and universities are not producing as many graduates in engineering.[4]


Salary Differences

Private firms often offer salaries that are up to 20 to 30 or more percent higher than comparable TxDOT salaries at all levels.[5] TxDOT has taken various actions over the years in attempts to lessen the disparity. For example, effective September 1, 1993, the executive director added several higher salary levels for starting engineers and newly registered engineers.[6] In 1998, the executive director increased engineer salaries by at least 6.8 percent for positions below Engineer VI (mid-level managers).[7] Additional levels were added for several engineering and specialist job families,[8] and in mid-1999, additional career opportunities were created for non-staff engineering positions, while many engineering staff level positions were reclassified to higher salary levels.[9]

There are limitations, of course, on the nature and extent of incentives that may be made available by TxDOT. On the other hand, private firms, with their greater flexibility, often offer signing bonuses as a hiring inducement. For example, in a 1999 nationwide survey of management compensation by PSMJ Resources, Inc., bonuses for mid-level engineering managers were 7 to 8 percent of salary, with the top quarter averaging over 15 percent of salary.[10] For a salary of $70,000,[11] for example, the signing bonus would thus exceed $10,000. According to PSMJ, “bonuses are on the rise, both in their availability and their size.”[12]

TxDOT has lost 1,081 engineering assistants, engineering technicians, and engineers in the past 35 months for a variety of reasons, including retirement. Further details may be found in the following table.[13]

Reason for Leaving
Number
Percent
Inadequate salary
322
30%
Lack of opportunity
57
5%
Retirement
223
21%
Other (dissatisfied, personal, transfer, dismissed, death)
479
44%
Total
1,081
100%

TxDOT has lost engineering, engineering assistant and technician positions in 17 of its 25 districts and several of its divisions where the average TxDOT tenure of those resignations–based on a sample of 95–is eight years. Young engineers can obtain professional registration and some management experience before leaving for the more lucrative private sector. (These data do not include resignations of employees with over 25 years at TxDOT because it is assumed that this group stayed until they were eligible for retirement benefits. For this group, the average tenure at TxDOT was 32 years.[14])

Not only are salaries for entry-level engineers in state government lower than industry starting salaries, they also do not progress as rapidly as those in private industry, as can be seen from the following median annual salary data: [15]

Years Since Bachelors Degree
Number of Employees
TxDOT Average Yearly Salary
EWC All Industry Average
Dietrich Associates Consulting Engineers
0
14
$33,466
$43,669
$34,379
1
64
$34,059
$46,639
$38,014
2
61
$34,477
$48,986
$40,504
3
51
$36,916
$50,748
$39,939
4
55
$37,090
$52,752
$43,498
5
48
$37,181
$55,040
$45,035
6
44
$39,586
$57,739
$46,780
7
58
$41,031
$60,843
$51,114
8
43
$43,234
$64,225
$52,804
9 - 10
67
$45,486
$68,145
$58,130
11 - 12
88
$50,550
$72,602
$62,076
13 - 16
256
$56,825
$77,499
$67,337
17 - 20
221
$61,534
$81,383
$74,834
21 - 25
120
$59,016
$84,848
$81,556
26 - 30
94
$63,784
$88,042
$83,630
31 - 35
49
$62,625
$90,658
$86,572
36+
49
$57,255
$92,181
$86,572

NOTES: Outside data provided from Engineering Workforce Commission (EWC) Engineers’

Salaries: Special Industry Report 1999 and Dietrich Associates, Inc. 1999 Engineering Salary Survey: Consulting Engineers.

  • Salary data was aged using Bureau of Labor Statistics Employment Cost Index from March 1999 to March 2000 at 4.3 percent.
  • TxDOT data includes salary information on registered professional engineers and engineering assistants for all but 106 employees on which the department did not have information concerning the year of bachelor degree.
  • TxDOT data does not include the executive director, deputy director, assistant executive directors or special assistant to the executive director. It is unknown if the EWC data excludes equivalent highly compensated individuals.

Furthermore, based on EWC data, the difference in salary between public and private sectors at 35 years of service–at which time, if not sooner, public sector employees may draw full retirement benefits–is about 45 percent. From the above data, the difference in total career salary between an average private sector salary and a state engineer over a 35-year career approximates $800,000. In fact, the American Association of Engineering Societies (AAES) Engineering Workforce Commission (EWC), which compiles periodic salary statistics of engineers employed in industry, government and academia, reports that “Engineers working in state government had the lowest median salary [of 24 engineer categories].”[16]

The fact that state engineer salaries do not progress as rapidly as those in private industry contributes to the use of TxDOT as a training ground for entry-level engineers, who sometimes leave after a few years to pursue opportunities primarily in the private sector.


TxDOT Responses to Technical Position Shortages

TxDOT has responded to the shortage of engineers by taking advantage of several programs. The Rapid Hire Program targets entry-level engineers and information technology employees. The program eliminates some of the steps in the traditionally slow hiring process by allowing designated employees to screen, select and make conditional job offers for eligible positions on the spot. Currently, the only eligible “engineer” positions in the Rapid Hire Program are Engineer Assistants I-IV, up to a salary level of a little over $40,000 annually.[17] Since state law requires that the Department competitively post and fill vacancies in salary group 13 and above,[18] the program does not apply to recruiting more experienced civil engineers.

A second program, Temporary Recruitment Program, allows supervisors to hire temporary employees in salary groups B12 and below. Within the first 24 months of employment, these employees may compete for other vacancies in TxDOT.[19] A third initiative—the Texas Pre-freshman Engineering Program (TexPREP)—provides mathematics-based enrichment opportunities primarily for minority and female students during the summer. TxDOT has supported this effort by providing speakers, performing on-site equipment demonstrations, giving facility tours, and offering summer employment opportunities. [20]

Other on-going programs to recruit entry-level civil engineering professionals include College Student Cooperative Education, High School Cooperative Education, College Student Intern, and Conditional Grant (for women and minority students majoring in engineering or computer science). The Department also participates in the national Transportation and Civil Engineering program (TRAC) sponsored by the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials designed to expose high school students to an engineering career path.[21], [22] The Summer Hire Program is yet another initiative to recruit entry-level civil engineering professionals. During summer 2000, TxDOT had 394 individuals in this program.[23]

Although these programs have allowed TxDOT to improve the recruiting of mostly entry level engineers, the Department still faces the problem of enough engineers and engineering technicians producing engineering products to meet its overall workload. Currently, there are 36 engineering and engineering support job vacancies. While this level is not alarming considering normal turnover, TxDOT indicates that a “significant percentage” of employees will be eligible for retirement in the next 2-5 years. Coupled with anticipated federal funding, managers thus believe that TxDOT’s need for engineers will continue to increase.[24]


Engineers in Non-Engineer Positions

The recruiting and retention issue is exacerbated somewhat by the fact that TxDOT has some engineers in positions that do not principally require engineering work. However, these are career decisions made by individual employees and represent a minor proportion of the TxDOT engineering population.[25] At the same time, TxDOT historically has promoted engineers to most leadership positions on the basis of the pivotal, core role engineering plays in the agency’s mission. TxDOT’s position is that engineers in non-engineer positions possess experience and knowledge of operations that benefit the core competencies of the department.[26] For example, a professional engineer heads the Right-of-Way Division, which is a critical link in the project/ development process. Other states have used real estate professionals or other managers in this type of position.[27]

TxDOT data indicate that there are 24 registered professional engineers (PEs) serving in non-engineering jobs, including several division and section directors (Right-of-Way, Information Systems, and Strategic Planning & Programming) and nine as systems analysts.[28] Other TxDOT positions currently held by PEs that may not necessarily require engineering training or professional registration include the following[29]

  • Planning/Programming Section, Bridge Division and several Planning Engineers in the Planning/Programming Section
  • Project Services Section, Design Division and the Assistant to Section Head
  • Director, Transportation Planning and Programming Division (TPP), Deputy Director, Traffic Analyst Section Director, Multimodal Section Director, and Programming/Scheduling Section Director

The six in TPP are “...required to be certified, licensed professional engineers. TPP has a total of eleven professional engineers, of which five are considered to be technical in their field.”[30]

TxDOT has identified various functional duties or responsibilities of some of the above positions that they believe require a PE registration. These duties include developing the annual Transportation Improvement Program; overseeing data collection, analyses, forecasts, and plan development; coordinating urban transportation planning activities, including land use and population inventories, travel demand modeling, drafting and graphics, map preparation and highway performance monitoring; and providing liaison between the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) and the metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs).[31] It is clearly a matter of opinion as to what positions require PEs. Other organizations performing transportation planning activities, for example, use non-engineers for many of these functions. Some state DOTs have “chief planners” who are not PEs.

The issue is not to exclude PEs from holding key TxDOT positions that may be non-engineering by nature, but rather, to indicate that the Department currently has some engineering resources that could be called upon during a period of engineer shortages. TxDOT also may be foregoing a certain workforce richness, diversity of training, background and experience by filling some non-engineering leadership positions with registered professional engineers, if such is indeed the case.


RPE Requirement for Executive Director

The TxDOT culture that has placed upwardly-mobile engineers in a variety of management positions that may not require nor need professional engineering registration may be driven in part by the state law that requires the TxDOT executive director to be a registered professional engineer (RPE).[32]

To manage large public organizations, the trend is to appoint individuals with strong leadership, business management, and high-level administrative skills rather than technical proficiency. Although many state DOTs once had professional engineers as their leaders, today the majority of state DOTs do not. In fact only about 16 of 52 chief executive officers of state DOTs (including the Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico) are engineers.[33]

As is the case with most large agencies and companies, the duties of the TxDOT executive director are primarily managerial, administrative and leadership-related.[34] The statutory requirement that the executive director be a professional engineer places the focus on technical expertise, and by extension and convention, on departmental tenure. The requirement limits the Department’s pool of potential candidates. Removing the requirement would not prohibit the executive director from holding an engineering license, but it would allow appointing an individual with other important perspectives and skills to the job. Criteria could even provide that being an engineer is a preferred qualification for the job.


Recommendations

A. The Texas Transportation Code should be amended to eliminate the requirement that the executive director of TxDOT be a registered professional engineer.

Eliminating the requirement in law would provide TxDOT with a broader pool of candidates and the flexibility to find the best candidate for the position, balancing all the various skills needed to be a successful executive director. TxDOT would still be able to list “registered professional engineer” as a preferred qualification.

B. TxDOT should evaluate certain technical management and staff positions with regard to removing Professional Engineer requirements and aggressively ensure equal access to a broad cross-section of qualified individuals for management positions in which professional engineering registration is not required.

This would provide increased innovation and diversity of leadership experience and skills in some additional management positions. It also would increase the technical capacity, leadership, and productivity of the Department, especially in the mid- and upper-level engineering management positions.

C. The Transportation Code should be changed to allow TxDOT to expand its Rapid Hire Program to include more experienced engineering technicians and engineers.

The Rapid Hire program allows the Department to fill existing, budgeted positions more quickly.


Fiscal Impact

Implementing the above recommendations would have no significant fiscal impact. No new positions would be created and salary levels would not be changed.


Endnotes

[1] “Staff Shortages and Hot Markets Create a Recruiting Feeding Frenzy,” Engineering News-Record, The McGraw Hill Companies (September 13, 1999), p. 57.

[2] National Cooperative Highway Research Program, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, Factors Affecting the Future of State DOTs as Institutions, by Steve Lockwood, (Washington, DC, May 8-10, 2000), p. 11.

[3] National Cooperative Highway Research Program, Transportation Research Board, National Research Council, Factors Affecting the Future of State DOTs as Institutions, by Steve Lockwood, (Washington, DC, May 8-10, 2000), p. 12.

[4] David Kohn, “Federal Dollars Continue to Pour into Project Coffers,” Engineering News-Record (July 2000) p. 58.

[5] Texas Department of Transportation, “Engineer Survey,” Austin, Texas, September 6, 2000. (Computer printout.)

[6] Memorandum from Arnold W. Oliver, executive director, Texas Department of Transportation, to district engineers and division directors, July 9, 1993.

[7] Memorandum from Charles W. Heald, P.E., executive director, Texas Department of Transportation, to administration, district engineers, division engineers and office directors, June 8, 1998.

[8] Memorandum from Diana L. Isabel, director, Human Resources Division, Texas Department of Transportation, to district engineers, division directors and office directors, January 6, 1999.

[9] Memorandum from Diana L. Isabel, director, Human Resources Division, Texas Department of Transportation, to district engineers, division directors and office directors, July 27, 1999.

[10] “Staff Shortages and Hot Markets Create a Recruiting Feeding Frenzy,” Engineering News-Record, The McGraw Hill Companies (September 13, 1999) p. 58.

[11] The median (general) civil engineering annual income in 1998 was $69,300. “Staff Shortages and Hot Markets Create a Recruiting Feeding Frenzy,” Engineering News-Record, The McGraw Hill Companies (September 13, 1999) p. 57. (Drawn from the 1999 comprehensive salary survey by the National Society of Professional Engineers.)

[12] “Staff Shortages and Hot Markets Create a Recruiting Feeding Frenzy,” Engineering News-Record, The McGraw Hill Companies (September 13, 1999) p. 58.

[13] Texas Department of Transportation, “Employees with Business Job Titles in the ‘E’ Series who left Texas Department of Transportation between September 1, 1997 and August 31, 1998; September 1, 1998 and August 31, 1999; and September 1, 1999 and July 31, 2000,” Austin, Texas, September 6, 2000. (Computer printouts.)

[14] Texas Department of Transportation, “Examples of Why Employees are Leaving TxDOT, FY 98 – YTD 2000,” Austin, Texas, August 15, 2000. (Computer printout.)

[15] Letter from Charles W. Heald, P.E., executive director, Texas Department of Transportation, to Clint Winters, Research and Policy Development Division, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, September 25, 2000.

[16] Tammy Beazley, JOM Journal, “AAES Reports the Engineering Salary Trends of 1994,” April 2000, p. 3 (http://www.tms.org/pubs/journals/JOM/9505/Beazley-9505.htm). (Internet document.)

[17] Letter from Cathy J. Williams, assistant executive director for Support Operations, Texas Department of Transportation, to Len Sanderson, North Carolina Department of Transportation, March 9, 2000; and Texas Department of Transportation, “Engineer Survey,” Austin, Texas, September 6, 2000. (Computer printout.)

[18] Letter from Charles W. Heald, P.E., executive director, Texas Department of Transportation, to Clint Winters, Research and Policy Development Division, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, September 25, 2000.

[19] Texas Department of Transportation, “Human Resources Policy Manual, Chapter 1, Section 4 – Recruiting,” Austin, Texas.

[20] E-mail from Jefferson Grimes, manager, State Legislative Affairs, Texas Department of Transportation, to John Cameron, Trans Tech Management, Inc., September 7, 2000.

[21] Texas Department of Transportation, “Human Resources Policy, Chapter 1, Section 4 – Recruiting,” Austin, Texas; and E-mail from Jefferson Grimes, manager, State Legislative Affairs, Texas Department of Transportation, to John Cameron, Trans Tech Management, Inc., September 7, 2000.

[22] American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Special Committee on TRAC, TRAC RECORD, (Washington, D.C., Summer 2000).

[23] Letter from Charles W. Heald, P.E., executive director, Texas Department of Transportation, to Clint Winters, Research and Policy Development Division, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, September 25, 2000.

[24] E-mail from Jefferson Grimes, manager, State Legislative Affairs, Texas Department of Transportation, to John Cameron, Trans Tech Management, Inc., September 7, 2000.

[25] Letter from Charles W. Heald, P.E., executive director, Texas Department of Transportation, to Clint Winters, Research and Policy Development Division, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts, September 25, 2000.

[26] Interview with Texas Department of Transportation personnel and Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts staff, Austin, Texas, October 3, 2000.

[27] For example, the two positions in the Right-of-Way Division, Mississippi Department of Transportation, August 2000; and Texas Department of Transportation, “Non Engineers with RPE License,” Austin, Texas, September 6, 2000.

[28] Texas Department of Transportation, “Non-Engineers with RPE License,” Austin, Texas, September 6, 2000.

[29] Texas Department of Transportation, “Organizational charts for each division and district,” Austin, Texas, May 2000.

[30] E-mail from Ronny McClarron, Transportation Planning and Program Division, Texas Department of Transportation, to Max Proctor, Texas Department of Transportation, April 28, 2000.

[31] Letter from Charles W. Heald, P.E., executive director, Texas Department of Transportation, to Clint Winters, Research and Policy Development Division, Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts. September 25, 2000.

[32] V.T.C.A., Transportation Code §201.301(a).

[33] Interview with Tom Warne, past president, American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials, Salt Lake City, Utah, April 2000.

[34] Texas Public Policy Foundation, “Sundown on Big Government – Department of Transportation,” p. 30 (http://www.TPPF.org/sundown/transpo.htm). (Internet document.)