Think lattice, not ladder career development

What should be the career development strategy for technical professionals?

A major challenge facing transport agencies is being able to readily obtain the required skills and expertise to plan, design, implement, operate and maintain smart transport infrastructure and services.

The public sector is still the predominant transport system owner and operator in Australia, although increasingly the private sector is providing infrastructure and contracted services ranging from road maintenance, to provision of bus and train services.

Delivering effective transport requires information and communications technology, or intelligent transport systems, to collate and analyse real time data to improve safety, increase efficiency and reduce environmental impacts.

To effectively deploy intelligent transport systems requires a diverse capability straddling a range of technical specialist disciplines, including transport planning, traffic, human behaviour, vehicle technology, electronics, communications, computing, systems engineering and project management.

Added to this is the need to integrate systems across institutions, jurisdictions and transport modes.

Capability barrier

A major barrier to effective deployment of intelligent transport systems is the dearth of capability. A major concern is the lack of career paths for specialists in government agencies.

Up until the 1990’s transport agencies had substantial specialist technical staff, headed by senior technical specialists, the most senior being chief engineers who were leading experts in their field.

These areas were responsible for research and development of new technology, development of standards, policies, guides and operating procedures, and deploying new infrastructure and services.

A new entrant to the transport industry could expect steady advancement up a career ladder, as they developed experience, knowledge and expertise, resulting in progressively more senior positions, with increased responsibility and remuneration. This was the case for technical specialists and generalists alike. Employees with careers of 40+ years service were not uncommon.

Public sector reform

Then came the era of public sector reform, emphasising accountability, achieving results, managing performance and being more ‘businesslike’. And cost cutting.

Employment decisions were to be based on merit, ensuring reasonable opportunity to eligible applicants and promoting equity. One of the stated aims of the reforms was increased responsiveness by the public service to the elected government.

The upshot of the reforms was restructuring of transport agencies, meaning downsizing of staff numbers, flatter organisational structures, fewer senior managers and outsourcing of non-core services.

It also meant a senior executive service, replacing technical experts in senior positions with managers. Senior ‘tenured’ public servants were replaced with contract positions, resulting in Ministers (elected officials) having more flexibility in hiring and firing (for accountability and performance reasons).

The increased merit and equity emphasis unfortunately resulted in fewer positions with technical and specialist qualification requirements. The end result has been a reduction in technical expertise and knowledge in many public sector transport agencies.

Increased responsiveness to elected governments has meant a greater emphasis on political outcomes, linked to election cycles.

Transport strategy is less about solutions based on sound research and analysis and more on public relations and political ‘spin’.

Think lattice, not ladder

The career development catch cry has become “think lattice, not ladder”.

Progression is achievable via multiple pathways, including lateral moves (lattice), with individuals taking personal responsibility for building their portfolio of broader and/or specialised skills and experience.

In many cases this means that an individual can expect to have a number of shorter duration positions, with different employers, across the public and private sectors and no clear ‘career path’.

The combined impact of all these developments has reduced the incentive for transport technical specialists to want to work in government, because there are limited opportunities for advancement (career path) or ability to focus on a technical specialisation.

New graduates may work in government for a period, but to progress and gain experience in specialist areas usually means moving to the private sector, and often that also means moving overseas. Alternatively it means changing to a more generalist career.

The end result is there is very limited capability available to transport agencies to plan, design, implement and operate transport systems. A renewed focus on transport technology specialist career paths is needed.

What do you think we should be doing to build future technical professional capability?

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