Automated technologies in planes, trains, and passenger vehicles can perform tasks without the need for human operators—like crash avoidance systems that automatically slow cars down to avoid a collision, or positive train control which is designed to automatically slow or stop a train in certain cases where it is not being operated safely. Automated technologies can also facilitate the transfer and loading of freight at commercial ports. Furthermore, the increased use of unmanned aerial systems, or drones, as well as the emergence of urban air mobility, bring a new wave of automation that needs to be safe and could even be targeted by bad actors.
Consequently, the Department of Transportation (DOT) needs a workforce with skills related to these technologies in order to ensure the technologies are safe to use. But the Department’s workforce faces challenges related to overseeing the safety of automated technologies, including the rapid pace of technological advancement and the large number of staff eligible to retire in the near future.
A Government Accountability Office (GAO) review has found that DOT has made some progress hiring people with these skills but hasn’t evaluated its recruitment strategies. The watchdog also found that officials also haven’t fully assessed whether current staff in key areas like cybersecurity have the skills they need.
Stakeholders GAO interviewed said that federal oversight of automated technologies requires regulatory expertise as well as engineering, data analysis, and cybersecurity skills. Stakeholders also stated that as automated systems become more common across transportation modes, overseeing them will require understanding in vehicle operating systems, software code, and the vast amounts of data produced by these systems to ensure their safety.
GAO’s review found that DOT’s Departmental Office of Human Resources Management has identified most skills DOT needs to oversee automated technologies, but it has not fully assessed whether its workforce has these skills. Through its workforce planning efforts, DOT identified many of the skills cited by stakeholders as important for overseeing automated technologies—regulatory expertise, engineering, and data analysis. In 2016 and 2020, DOT surveyed staff in related positions and identified gaps in some of these skills, including regulatory expertise. However, DOT did not survey staff or assess skill gaps in data analysis or cybersecurity positions important to automated technology oversight. As a result, GAO concluded that DOT lacks the critical information needed to identify skill gaps and ensure key relevant staff are equipped to oversee the safety of these technologies now and in the future.
DOT has developed strategies to address some but not all gaps in skills needed to oversee automated technologies. For example, DOT implemented some recruiting strategies and established hiring goals as a means of closing gaps identified in the 2016 survey and plans to continue these efforts in light of the 2020 survey. However, DOT has not tracked the progress of strategies implemented to close skill gaps since the 2016 survey, nor has it implemented training strategies. Accordingly, some skill gaps related to overseeing the safety of automated technologies will likely persist in DOT’s workforce.
GAO’s December 18 report makes four recommendations:
- Complete efforts to identify all cybersecurity occupations across the agency, and incorporate those related to overseeing the cybersecurity of automated technologies into its workforce planning efforts.
- Assess skill gaps in key occupations that are involved in overseeing the safety of automated technologies.
- Regularly measure the progress of strategies implemented to close skill gaps—such as on an annual basis—and ensure modal administrations offer training to close those gaps.
- Collect and analyze information on the effectiveness of recruiting strategies, such as special payment authorities, in attracting staff to occupations that oversee the safety of automated technologies, and share effective strategies with modal administrations.
DOT agreed with three of the four recommendations and stated that having a workforce with the skills and competencies to meet the challenges of the future is a priority for the agency. DOT partially concurred with GAO’s fourth recommendation, stating that due to the labor-intensive nature of effectively and accurately measuring skill gap closures, conducting a comprehensive assessment every three years—rather than on an annual basis—is sufficient.