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Transport modelling: we need to understand the supply and the demand

Tim Gent
02 February 2018
Tim Gent
Tim Gent

 

“There’s more demand for transport modelling than ever before!” 

“There just aren’t enough experienced modellers to do it!”

I would be surprised if there are any transport professionals who have not had this conversation over the last few years. For transport modellers it’s almost an everyday occurrence, with each new piece of work prompting hard thinking about how to marshal stretched resources to keep up with demand. Fred Ewing’s piece (LTT 5 Jan) rightly draws attention to the problem and the impact it is having. It’s good that this can be recognised openly and talked about. 

In this article, I’d like to take that a step further by identifying one of the key issues necessary to address the long-term skills challenge facing the modelling world: the fundamentals of supply and demand. 

The supply question asks how many transport modellers we have, and how many there will be in five or ten years. On the demand side, we need to quantify the need for transport modelling, and better understand how that will change going forward. Without wider collaboration or a single industry group, this data is far harder to extract than the simplicity of the questions would suggest. 

Based on Fred’s approximation that we have 235 strategic modellers in the South East, we could estimate that there may be only 1,000 modellers in the UK. Within that group are highly specialised disciplines comprising of micro and macro-highway modellers, appraisal specialists, demand modellers, and even a few land use modellers, each with their own niche skills. Though many modellers have skills in more than one specialism, very few people come near mastering all of them. So we are a very small profession made up of varied and equally necessary subgroups. 

Though there is some public sector recruitment, to the best of my knowledge, most modellers are originally recruited by large consultancies. If Atkins is anything to go by, graduate recruitment in transport is stronger than ever right now. However, most graduates are recruited for transport planning or engineering roles. Only a small number of these will have specifically applied for, or even heard of, transport modelling and fewer still arrive with specialist training. For this reason, most modellers are picked by consultancies from the more numerate graduates and postgraduates who apply, and are encouraged to give modelling a try. 

I have seen some fantastically gifted and enthusiastic modellers recruited and trained by this approach. However, it is hit-and-miss, and there is a high rate of attrition due to the steep learning curve, which many understandably find daunting. Many recruits prefer to stick with transport planning, or are tempted by entirely different careers. After a few years, only a small proportion of those who enter the modelling profession will remain to become career transport modellers. 

Those who remain in transport modelling beyond five years, however, do frequently stay in the field their whole careers. Eventually this means that there is a larger pool of experienced project managers, but a shortage of trained staff for them to manage. Worryingly, this process suggests that the often-mentioned shortage of senior/principal modellers is not just due to the recruitment freezes of the recession. It’s ‘baked in’ to a profession with poor early career rewards, a steep learning curve and a high level of specialism.

It’s also clear that there is a very long lead time if we want to increase the supply of transport modellers, as well as to restore balance in the profession. Currently, there is little overall coordination as the major consultancies (and some public sector bodies) carry out their recruitment and training in isolation.

Large private firms will be keen to play their part, but with such a long-term investment required will clearly adopt a cautious approach unless there is a clear future demand for modelling. 

This illustrates the other issue in transport modelling: that measuring present and future demand is very hard. Though large public bodies such as Highways England and Transport for London will likely have some handle on this, a large amount of work is commissioned by local authorities and other small bodies so that there is no unified view of the demand for modelling. Consultants themselves have a limited view of forward workload, with most projects running for three to six months with little firm idea of requirements ahead of that. 

Ultimately the requirement for modelling is dependent on Government policy on investment and appraisal. Technological change also often leads to suggestions that modelling will change; modelling will be less relevant or require different skills due to big data, faster computers or new software. I expect it’s true that aspects of modelling will continue to evolve and improve, which is one of its strengths. However, it does add to the sense that the requirements for transport modelling are a moving target, with both the volume of work and skills required seemingly in flux.

To summarise, we have a very small and diverse discipline, with a low profile in degree courses and poor retention in early years, which leads to a mid-career skills gap. This is creating a salary bubble, and even recruiting a few dozen new modellers seems beyond our reach. 

This should be of great concern to anyone involved in developing (or indeed using) transport in this country. Transport modelling plays a vital role in designing and approving every piece of transport investment in the UK. Across the country there are hundreds of small and large schemes which have been enabled by modelling, and even a few white elephants which we have helped to avoid. 

Recruitment from abroad or from other disciplines could fill the immediate skills gap but to truly tackle the long-term skills shortage we need clarity on whether the high demand for transport modelling is here to stay. If it is, then we need to commit meaningful investment in training, recruitment and career development with commissioning bodies, professional bodies, consultancy firms and the education sector working in close co-operation. We’ve seen glimpses of this happening for example at the Institute for Transport Studies at the University of Leeds who collaborated with employers to develop a Masters degree in mathematical modelling for transport. It’s a welcome move in the right direction but the challenge is too big for any single player acting in isolation. We need to work together as a community to promote transport modelling as a vital, interesting, rewarding and, yes, perhaps ‘sexy’ occupation.

This is a tough challenge, but I am optimistic for a number of reasons. First, my own experience has been that, though transport modelling has some ‘hard grind’, it is always interesting and rewarding. I believe the benefits of having skilled transport modellers is clear, and will be increasingly recognised, as so much major infrastructure investment depends on it. Finally, from recent recruitment experience, it’s clear to me that the next generation of bright graduates are out there. They are numerate, technically literate and looking for ‘real world’ challenges to apply themselves to. 

It’s up to all of us to ensure that transport modelling is the career they are looking for, and that they hear about it. 

Tim Gent is technical director, transportation, in SNC-Lavalin’s Atkins business.

 
 
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