KM Toolbox: Last Lecture on Operations Apprenticeship Program

The NJDOT Knowledge Management Toolbox offers examples of several knowledge sharing practices that have been, or could be, adopted by agency units to retain knowledge in a unit in the face of illness, retirements or transfers to other units at NJDOT.

Highway operations crew members are now trained to do all types of work required.

Highway operations crew members are now trained to do all types of work required.

At the NJ STIC 2nd Quarter meeting, held on June 16, 2021, Michele Shapiro, Director, NJDOT Human Resources, presented on the Operations Apprenticeship Program as it relates to Strategic Workforce Development, an FHWA EDC-6 initiative. Ms. Shapiro retired from NJDOT in 2021 and her presentation serves as a Last Lecture, a knowledge sharing strategy that provides insight on a particular topic from an individual leaving an agency.

The Operations Apprenticeship Program began in 2014 as a way to provide consistent training and job skills among crew members in Highway Operations, and to establish a path to advancement for workers. The program was the brainchild of Andrew Tunnard, Asst. Commissioner, Transportation Operations Systems and Support. Ms. Shapiro worked with Mr. Tunnard to move away from a structure of specialty crews and have all employees trained to do all types of work required. They developed a job title structure and staffing profile for each crew, and identified a training team of Subject Matter Experts within Operations who designed curriculum for both on-the-job and classroom training. Entry-level positions in this program do not require specific education or skill sets. When individuals have proven competency on particular tasks, they are then eligible to apply to the next level. Employees can choose to stop their advancement at any point.

Employees have a path for advancement from entry-level trainee to supervisor.

Employees have a path for advancement from entry-level trainee to supervisor.

Human Resources worked with the NJ Civil Service Commission to allow hiring into entry-level trainee positions and advancement to Highway Operations Technician 1 (HOT 1) without a Civil Service Exam. Within this program, advancement to the HOT 2 level is dependent on a unique Civil Service-approved practical test to be administered by the DOT training team and NJDOT Human Resources staff. Ms. Shapiro offered a number of lessons learned from this ongoing initiative that Human Resources is applying to future efforts. They have received approval for an apprentice title for construction inspectors and will be developing training, and are working on training for the Engineering Technician program to ensure continual growth for these employees within the agency.

Ms. Shapiro's video presentation is available here:


RESOURCES

Knowledge Management Toolbox, Last Lecture. NJDOT Technology Transfer. Website. Retrieved at: https://www.njdottechtransfer.net/wp-content/uploads/2021/06/STIC-Q2-Feature-Presentation-Operations-Apprenticeship-Program.pdf

 

 

 

NJDOT UAS/Drone Procedures Manual and Best Practices for Use in New Jersey

The use of drones at NJDOT has expanded to improve safety and efficiency and save time and money.

The use of drones at NJDOT has expanded to improve safety and efficiency and save time and money.

The NJDOT Knowledge Management Toolbox offers examples of several knowledge sharing practices that have been, or could be, adopted by agency units to retain knowledge in a unit in the face of illness, retirements or transfers to other units at NJDOT.

NJDOT’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Flight Operations Manual (UASFOM) is an example of knowledge sharing through development of a procedures manual that guides practice within the agency. In 2021, Anil Agrawal, PhD., a Professor of Engineering at The City College of CUNY, completed a research study, NJDOT UAS/Drone Procedures Manual and Best Practices for Use in New Jersey, funded through the NJDOT’s Bureau of Research. The study resulted in the UASFOM that standardizes all aspects of UAS operations for NJDOT’s use, and provides guidance to NJDOT personnel, consultants, and contractors for the inspection, operation, and management of UAS. The document emphasizes maintaining a high level of safety standards in daily flight operations while meeting performance targets.

NJDOT’s Bureau of Aeronautics has used drones to video NJDOT dredging operations, among other applications.

NJDOT’s Bureau of Aeronautics has used drones to video NJDOT dredging operations, among other applications.

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), or drones, were promoted by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) as one of the Every Day Counts Round 5 (EDC-5) innovations. In May 2016, the New Jersey Department of Transportation’s Division of Multimodal Services established the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Program as a unit within the Bureau of Aeronautics. Under the direction of NJDOT’s UAS Coordinator, Glenn Stott, NJDOT became a national leader in UAS. Mr. Stott retired from the agency in 2021.

NJDOT Bureau of Aeronautics used several funding grants to build the program and purchase equipment and provide training. Integrating UAS in transportation has been the subject of research and field studies to demonstrate the use case for high-mast light pole inspections, traffic incident management and monitoring, dredging and beach replenishment, photogrammetry, bridge inspection, and watershed management, among other topics. UAS has been shown to improve safety, save time and money and increase efficiency. UAS is considered to be institutionalized within NJDOT.

An example Risk Management Worksheet is one of several forms described in the Procedures Manual.

An example Risk Management Worksheet is one of several forms described in the Procedures Manual.

The procedures manual provides comprehensive guidance for UAS missions from planning to debriefing. The manual presents NJ’s laws and regulations affecting UAS operations, discusses NJDOT’s safety management system and risk management approach, established best practices, the agency’s three-phase training program, and incident reporting. The manual also provides NJDOT’s UAS forms needed for documentation and to ensure compliance with Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations. The manual is intended to be a “living document” to incorporate changes as experience grows with UAS within the agency.

A procedures manual is one way to counter the loss of expertise and institutional knowledge when employees retire or transfer. A manual can build and sustain knowledge within the agency to ensure continuity of operations.

The UASFOM can be found in the Knowledge Management Toolbox. The Final Report and Technical Brief for the Research can be accessed here.

KM Interview: Cross-Training in Construction Services

The NJDOT Knowledge Management Toolbox offers examples of several knowledge sharing practices that have been, or could be, adopted by agency units to retain knowledge in a unit in the face of illness, retirements or transfers to other units at NJDOT.

In early 2020, a survey was distributed to New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) subject matter experts (SMEs) to identify current technology transfer needs, including potential topics for research. The survey also explored the insights and experience of the SMEs related to the challenges of implementing research findings and addressing knowledge gaps within the organization to advance understanding of job responsibilities, policies and procedures.

Subsequently, we followed up with Keith Daniels, Manager, NJDOT Bureau of Construction Services in the Division of Procurement, and Gary Vetro, a Contract Administrator in that unit, to learn about how the unit uses cross-training in practice. 

For both of them, cross-training played a role in their introduction to the unit. Mr. Daniels offered that his earlier experience with cross-training led to his current position as Manager. While working in Equipment Materials and Supplies in Procurement, he had the opportunity to work, and be cross-trained, in several jobs in Construction Services. For several years, and in the absence of a Bureau Manager, he assisted the Director of Procurement in various tasks and functions in the Bureau. Prior to that, he had no experience in the procurement process for construction contracts. The Bureau staff were dedicated to getting the construction contracts out. As a result, he became familiar with every aspect of the unit and learning all the requirements of the Bureau.

Mr. Vetro came to the unit from another area in DOT and was cross-trained to cover for the individual who supervises the contract award process in the event that the individual took an extended leave. He brought his broader experience to the unit.

We interviewed Mr. Daniels and Mr. Vetro to explore any lessons learned, benefits and challenges of cross-training as a knowledge sharing practice.

Q. Can you describe cross-training for us?

Cross-training involves teaching an employee hired for one job responsibility, to perform the functions and skills of other job responsibilities within an organization. Cross-training is not tied to a specific skill set or educational background, but rather requires the desire to learn a new skill and the willingness to participate in new challenges.

Q. What prompted your unit to start cross-training?

There were already some elements of cross-training within the Division of Procurement as the Division Director supported cross-training over the years. Thus, previous experience with this concept has benefited the Division greatly.

In my [Daniels] present role, I inherited an office that formerly had over 25 staff members, and currently has nine (9) individuals, including myself, to perform the same basic functions. We are responsibly for awarding construction contracts for the state at an average of 100 contracts each year totaling $1.0 billion. The awarding of contracts is labor intensive and involves multiple administrative and technical steps. We are also responsible for reviewing and approving the pre-qualification applications of over 300 construction firms applying for renewal or new work type classifications to bid on our construction projects each year.

Although automation has improved the unit’s functioning over time, the staff members are required to learn other jobs and operate out of their sphere in order to provide coverage.  This is not mandatory, but a willingness by the staff to engage in “teamwork”. The staff consists of two (2) financial auditors, three (3) engineers, and four (4) administrative personnel. A new hire who has a background in business administration is assisting everyone in the unit and learning all functions in the Bureau.

Because of this willingness by staff to participate as a team, Construction Services has significantly reduced the need for overtime to the Unit.

Q. Do employees cross-train for a number of positions or just one other position? Are all employees cross-trained to other positions?
There are limitations when there are highly technical skill sets involved. The unit has engineers, and people with administrative and financial backgrounds. Someone with an engineering background could do some of the financial tasks, but would not be signing off on financial documents. Someone in data entry cannot train to do a job that requires engineering expertise. Still, they are able to learn some aspects of any job to assist when needed.

In small units, teamwork is essential and cross-training is a necessity. At times, everyone in our unit has to pull together to get the job done and staff has almost invariably been required to do work outside of their assigned job responsibilities.

Q. What schedule is followed for cross-training? How do people meet and learn? How much of an investment are they making?

The cross-training has been an informal process in the unit and is conducted as needed. At times, the Manager will introduce the idea, but also some staff members will initiate the training. We work as a team to get a big job done and everyone is contributing where they can.

Most training occurs during downtimes for the unit in July and December. Almost every unit has a seasonal cycle, so there is some downtime or slow times available for cross-training. Training involves a combination of direct instruction by the person who does the job, review of written procedures, and perhaps a practice exercise.

The time it takes for training is dependent on the employee, their abilities, how quickly they learn, and the task to be learned. The individual may learn the role in a couple of hours, a couple of days, or it may take longer. In one case, an employee was cross-training for data entry. The person whose position he was to train for was out so he was given the materials and he wrote the outline of job responsibilities and protocols so he can fill in if necessary. One is not training to be a master, just enough to get the job done while someone is out. Refresher training may take a couple of days. We might use a contract that has been completed and have the person training do it again as if they were responsible for it.

Frequency of retraining should be based on how often a backup might need to perform the function and the employee’s long term memory skills. If a person trained as a backup does not have to perform that function more than once or twice in a year, retraining will be more important than for a backup function performed once or twice a month.

Q. How do you prioritize roles for cross-training?

In our unit, every function should have some back-up. In general, you would look at which functions have time constraints or are important for other functions. These functions should be the first on the list for cross-training. You should have enough back-up personnel to keep the function running properly in case of unexpected staff shortfalls.

Consider which functions have only one person designated to perform them. Even if these are not primary functions, they may become a problem if the sole employee is out for an extended time.

Q. How has cross-training been valuable to the unit?

We are a small unit. It is critical for us to be able to continue work when staff is out of work, and especially during prolonged absences. As an example, we must ensure that there is adequate coverage for the contract award process, which accounts for 60 percent of our work.  We must ensure that there is adequate coverage to meet the contract schedules and adhere to state and federal regulations regarding the Department’s contracts.

Furthermore, most of the Bureau staff, both professional and administrative/technical, work out of title just to get the job done.  As a result, they have become proficient in other skills, engineering, financial, etc. that could mean job opportunities in other areas of the Department.

Cross-training can improve morale, increase productivity, and may lead to promotional opportunities. Sharing knowledge of other functions can help staff with attempts to advance and will lead to a greater willingness to cross-train. If someone can cross-train in another role, they may be able to apply for a higher position as they will have more knowledge and could possibly score higher on Civil Service Exams.  As long as there are possibilities, and opportunities for advancement, employees will find cross-training attractive.

It is essential that employees get the necessary tools to go beyond what they do on a day-to-day basis.

Q. What have been some of the challenges to implementing cross-training?

Employees may feel that they are being asked to do extra work without compensation, and some, particularly those coming from the private sector, may believe that they are training their replacement.  There needs to be communication to all employees about the benefits of cross-training to the unit, and the need to have someone who can fill in to meet the work requirements of the Unit.

Employees must be assured that the training is used only to cover for temporary staff shortages.  Staff will be more likely to accept the idea of cross-training if they can trust that their participation will not increase their workload. There may be some people who have a “not my job” attitude and might introduce Civil Service and union constraints. The nature of this program is to have individuals perform tasks beyond their usual work on a temporary basis which should not raise concerns. A more formalized program could address these issues.

Q. Do you think this strategy would be valuable to other units?

Yes. In the case of smaller units, there may be only one person (or if you are lucky, two persons) who know and can perform their job, so cross-training is essential. If the unit is large enough, there may be multiple people doing the same job. However, cross-training would still be of value to improve morale and increase possible promotional opportunities.

Q. Any other observations that you can offer?

Certainly, specific and detailed training procedures must be developed to encourage knowledge sharing within individual units so jobs can be performed successfully when there are worker shortages.  Each bureau or unit’s approach will be different; there is no “one-size-fits-all” way for getting cross-training done.

We recommend some best practices when using cross-training:

  • Ensure an employee’s regular job function is protected in some form
  • Provide clear communication about cross-training opportunities
  • Create a feedback mechanism to let employees know where they stand, obtain employee buy-in, and promote a willingness to participate.
  • Make clear that cross-training is voluntary
  • Work with what may be a select group of those employees willing to learn other tasks
    • Ensure that employee skill sets are commensurate with required skills
    • Establish a performance mechanism. This should be tied to the feedback procedure.
    • Ensure that cross-training is appropriate for the individual’s personal abilities.
  • Incorporate some aspect of mentoring, not necessarily formalized
  • If possible, ensure that whatever the employee is doing, they can do it in another unit. Promotional opportunities may lie elsewhere, so acquired skills should be generalized.

We are required to abide by specific state and federal regulations. We also have a fiduciary responsibility to ensure the health and safety of the public on the state’s roadways. The unit’s relationship with construction firms and awarding and executing contracts is critical to fulfilling that responsibility. We need to ensure that we are doing our job and cross-training has helped us with that mission.


RESOURCES

Several state DOTs are employing cross-training as a tool to improve performance, respond to workforce transitions, and support a culture of innovation. Information about how cross-training and related knowledge management tools are being implemented at other DOTs can be found in the Appendix to National Cooperative Highway Research Project Scan 13-01: Advances in Developing a Cross-Trained Workforce.

Knowledge Management Toolbox, Cross-Training.  NJDOT Technology Transfer. Website. Retrieved at: https://www.njdottechtransfer.net/km-cross-training/

 

Professional Engineering Design Experience Program Launched at NJDOT – Provides Career Opportunities toward Licensure

NJDOT has launched the Professional Engineering Design Experience Program (PEDE) – an innovative initiative providing current NJDOT engineers with the opportunity to gain the required design experience necessary to achieve their professional engineering (PE) licensure. Engineers expressed the desire to remain with NJDOT and needed the ability to obtain a PE license to reach career goals. In launching the initiative, NJDOT recognized the need and responded to employees with the development of The Professional Engineering Design Experience Program (PEDE).

The PEDE program will offer engineering staff that have a bachelor’s degree in engineering from an accredited university, who do not currently have design responsibilities, the opportunity to work alongside a PE-licensed colleague to gain the design experience required to obtain their own PE license while remaining on the job at NJDOT. The PEDE program will build relationships between staff members as mentors and mentees who meet the program requirements as outlined in the PEDE Program Guidebook.

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Mentees will have the opportunity to design projects such as: crash cushions; guiderails; pedestrian improvements such as sidewalks and ADA curb ramps; minor intersections improvements such as turn lanes, minor widening, corner cutbacks, signing and striping; sight distance issues/improvements; and minor drainage improvements through grading and re-profiling.

The program also creates leadership opportunities through mentorship. Having talented,committed leaders as mentors is critical to the success of the program. A good mentor will be a proven team player, have strong communication skills, and be a good instructor that is willing to encourage and support his or her mentee. Other requirements are outlined in the PEDE Program Guidebook. Employees can review the PEDE Program Guidebook on the NJDOT intranet.

Article adapted from the April 2019 Transporter, the NJDOT employee newsletter.

 

Tech Talk! Data Visualization in Transportation: Communicating Transportation Findings and Plans

Communicating Transportation Findings and Plans: Charts, Renderings, and Interactive Visualizations

In November 2018, the NJDOT Bureau of Research hosted a half-day Tech Talk event, Data Visualization in Transportation, that highlighted recent research and examples of innovative data visualization methods used by state DOTs and MPOs.

The NJDOT Bureau of Research hosted a half-day Tech Talk event that highlighted research and featured innovative examples of data visualization methods in use by transportation agencies.  Five speakers discussed tools and resources that they use to create visualizations to connect with target audiences, and to provide information to their constituencies.  Select visualization tools in use by New Jersey's MPOs and innovative best practices being deployed at other State DOTs were featured.  Registration was full for the event which was held in the NJDOT Multipurpose Room on November 29, 2018.

Data visualization includes such applications as modeling, animation, simulation, and virtual reality. In 2006, through draft guidance for implementing provisions in the Safe, Accountable, Flexible, Efficient Transportation Equity Act: a Legacy for Users (SAFETY-LU), FHWA required states and Metropolitan Planning Organizations (MPOs) to use visualization techniques in the development of transportation plans and programs to promote improved understanding on the part of the public, elected and appointed officials, and other stakeholders. Visualization applications allow planners, designers and engineers to communicate complex multidimensional information in a way that is comprehensible to a general audience in order to facilitate collaboration, resulting in more informed decisions, fewer delays, and more buy-in at each step of the design and project implementation processes. Visualizations can also improve understanding of the project among planners, designers, and engineers, improving cost effectiveness.

The first speaker, Nathan Higgins, is the author of Data Visualization Methods for Transportation Agencies, the summary document from his research conducted for the National Cooperative Highway Research Program (NCHRP). Mr. Higgins’ presentation, “Data Visualization in Transportation: NJDOT,” discussed that written report and the associated website that provides guidance for the visualization process. He navigated the website to show examples of visualizations for transportation applications, chart types and software tools available, and data and style resources. He emphasized the importance of each visualization as a critical opportunity to communicate information, and noted that, although intensive work with data requires a specific skill set, visualizations are possible to create without elaborate tools and software.

Nathan Higgins, author of the NCHRP Report, Data Visualization Methods for Transportation Agencies, shared examples of effective visualizations used by state DOTs and other transportation agencies. The project website is an informative resource for transportation professionals interested in honing their skills in communicating ideas to an audience through illustrations and visualizations.

Attendees learned how such tools and best practices can be used to foster more effective involvement with the public and an agency's various customers. In his presentation, “Visualizing Your Project,” Matt Taylor, PE, Alabama DOT described various visualization methods, with an emphasis on reality mesh, renderings, photomatching, and animation to create 3D environments that bring transportation projects to life. He noted that 80 percent of Alabama DOT’s data visualizations are used at public hearings to help stakeholders understand projects and how they will fit into the community. He provided several examples, including one of a Divergent Diamond Interchange which creates a traffic pattern that is unfamiliar to most drivers. He developed a visualization that helped to explain the new traffic flow. He noted that visualizations can provide models for contractors to use in planning, and can be useful for catching design problems. In response to a question, he noted that there are often multiple conceptualizations over the design life of a project, for example, to present all the alternatives for a transportation project, and the details needed to support a preferred alternative, or to model the construction stages.

Nicholas Johnson from Nevada DOT explained how visualizations, including virtual reality simulations, are being used to build awareness and foster support by illustrating how completed projects may function and be experienced by affected communities.

Nick Johnson, PE, PMP, CPM, Nevada DOT presented on “Interactive Visualization,” which he described as an emerging, virtual-reality-based mode for visualizing transportation projects. The Interactive Visualization innovation is a peer-selected focus innovation for the AASHTO Innovation Initiative, which seeks out proven advancements in transportation technology to accelerate adoption by agencies nationwide. Mr. Johnson discussed the value of this technology for assisting interested parties in understanding a transportation project during the public engagement process. His agency’s outreach events have featured simulations and virtual reality. Mr. Johnson gave an example of a Native American community that was concerned that a noise wall would block the rising sun from their view, preventing them from knowing the time for worship. The visualization alleviated the community’s objections by demonstrating that the sunrise would not be blocked by the wall. He emphasized the importance of visual communication to Millennials and GenXers.

In response to questions about the cost of creating visualizations, the speakers responded that cost depends on the project location, complexity, and the detail required to communicate needed information to the target audience. Speakers noted that their agencies have two to three full-time employees to work intensively with data to create databases and visualizations. A small Complete Streets project that is not very complex may take two weeks to finish and larger transportation projects may require multiple visualizations over the course of the planning and construction stages. Mr. Johnson’s public involvement events have offered an opportunity to use a driving simulator and Virtual Reality goggles, available through a contractor, to help immerse stakeholders in the experience of a proposed project.

Representatives from two of New Jersey’s Metropolitan Planning Organizations spoke about the data visualization tools that they have created and made available to local agencies to assist in planning. In his presentation “Web Maps, Open Data, and more!,” Christopher Pollard, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Council, described the data that the MPO has compiled for use in making regional planning decisions. He underscored the importance of accurate and reliable geospatial data as the basis for visualizations, and the MPO’s use of ESRI GIS mapping software to communicate this data. He discussed the datasets and interactive maps available to all the agency’s constituents, and provided detail on Travel Monitoring and Philly Freight Finder. He mentioned that the initial development of the data required a significant investment of time in order to make the data accessible. He added that the MPO will take on a limited number of data visualization projects needed by their constituents.

Gabrielle Fausel, North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority presented on “Data Visualization in Transportation: GIS and Planning Tools at NJTPA,” and discussed NJTPA’s use of five visualization tools: ViZtools illustrates the various factors that support the Regional Transportation Plan; NOTIS shows how state and federal tax dollars are being invested in the transportation system in the NJTPA region; Freight Activity Locator provides an overview of goods movement activity in the region; County Profile Application, a mapping tool, provides county-level demographic data for the region; and Open Data Portal, which supplies publically available geospatial data. Ms. Fausel emphasized that the MPO made use of ESRI software that they had already purchased for other applications.

These speakers noted that they are always working to make the visualization process more efficient and enjoyable for the user. In response to an audience member’s question about how they deal with a tool that has incomplete or fuzzy data, they noted the need to: constantly update the data to look for the most complete information and to identify gaps; assess the data for reasonableness; request user feedback and provide references and disclaimers; and create visualizations of uncertainty in data. Before a tool is released to the public, there is internal testing, and a pilot test with a small external group. This is an iterative process, with trying and testing to develop useful tools.

Please see below for the presentations, as well as several simulation videos and links to data products that were presented during the event.

Resources

AASHTO Innovation Initiative, Interactive Visualization.

Alabama Department of Transportation Visualization Group.

Cambridge Systematics, Inc. Data Visualization Methods for Transportation Agencies.

Presentations

Nathan Higgins, AICP, Cambridge Systematics, Inc., Data Visualization in Transportation

Matt Taylor, PE, Alabama DOT, Visualizing Your Project

Nick Johnson, PE, PMP, CPM, AASHTO, Interactive Visualization

Christopher Pollard, Delaware Valley Regional Planning Council, Web maps, Open Data, and More!

Gabrielle Fausel, North Jersey Transportation Planning Authority, Data Visualization in Transportation: GIS and Planning Tools at NJTPA