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Who are the modellers of the future?

At October’s Modelling World conference I chaired a debate on a topic close to my heart: the challenges we face in developing the modellers of the future. Thanks to our expert panel and a highly engaged audience, we were able to develop some great insights into the topic, says Tim Gent

Tim Gent
16 December 2021
Devrim Kara
Director, PTV UK
Devrim Kara Director, PTV UK
Panal Members: Aruna Sivakumar
Centre for Transport Studies and Director, Urban Systems Lab, Imperial College London
Panal Members: Aruna Sivakumar Centre for Transport Studies and Director, Urban Systems Lab, Imperial College London
Fred Ewing
Managing Consultant, Meridian Business Support
Fred Ewing Managing Consultant, Meridian Business Support
Claire Cheriyan
Strategic Analysis Manager, Transport for London
Claire Cheriyan Strategic Analysis Manager, Transport for London
John Parkin
Professor of Transport Engineering, University of the West of England
John Parkin Professor of Transport Engineering, University of the West of England
Sherin Francis
Principal Transport Planner, Jacobs
Sherin Francis Principal Transport Planner, Jacobs

 

Who are our present modellers?

Understanding who modellers are today seemed a good place to start, so we asked our audience and the panel about their experiences using a live polling system (you can see selected responses published on these pages). We were lucky to have a distinguished panel (see profiles to the left), and an equally informed and engaged audience of around 150 delegates, who were all able to give live feedback. 


Take the anonymous Modellers of the Future survey...

Have you got views you would like to share about the modellers of the future? The Modelling World team, working with the Transport Planning Society, are launching a follow-up survey, looking at these issues in more detail. We’d love to hear from you, so please take part, anonymously, here....


We found a good spread of recent entrants to the profession, and fully 50% with less than 10 years’ experience. This seemed a good start: there is clearly new blood still arriving and attending conferences…

In terms of background, engineering dominated with 45% of respondents identifying as engineers, compared with 26% mathematics or computing, and a further 20% from geography, economics or other social science. It was good to see that over a third of participants had some background in transport planning or transport economics.

However, one result illustrated a problem: Only 4% of attendees were aware of transport modelling before university, and nearly half discovered it when job-hunting or after starting work. This reflects an experience I’m sure many attendees have had of trying to persuade poor unsuspecting engineering graduates that they would love to do some modelling.

What do modellers do all day?

We asked about skillsets that delegates feel people in the industry need, what they currently spend time doing, and what they should spend time on in the future. Responses showed the importance of problem-solving and general analysis, ranked highest as skills of use today, and second highest in future. 

Notably, fully 59% of delegates spend a lot of time on demand and multi-modal modelling, beating highway modelling into a fairly distant second place. And the prospects for highway modelling don’t look great, with only 10% seeing it as a major priority for the future.

So how do we attract and retain transport modellers? The lack of applicants for modelling posts is undeniable, with the search for better salaries an underlying cause of this. Competition between firms is clearly contributing to the issue, though one can’t help wondering if that may be helping to raise salaries?

It was no surprise, but also comforting to see, that what motivates modellers is principally interest and belief in the work, but sadly only a quarter felt motivated by their current (or future) role or salary. Most worryingly of all, one in five saw no motivation to remain in modelling. This is a bleak result at the end of a major conference, when we should be seeing modellers at their most motivated and inspired.

The prospects for highway modelling don’t look great, with only 10% seeing it as a major priority for the future

During the debate we produced a ‘word cloud’ of delegates’ thoughts on what transport modelling needs more of, which is presented opposite (after cleaning up a bit to remove the conference in-joke about pizza … you had to be there). 

The discussion highlighted that the modelling community does not reflect the gender, ethnic or social profile of the UK. This limits the pool of talent we recruit from, and means we are less able to reflect and respond to issues affecting different segments. So it wasn’t surprising that diversity was  the most common response, just above innovation. Also highlighted was the need for more diverse approaches, such as systems thinking, and a range of technical and soft skills to expand our toolkit. 

There were also calls for the profession to have a higher profile, with more marketing and ambition, and more money for both salaries and budgets. Another strong theme was the need for context. This referred to bigger picture thinking, pragmatism and greater narratives. 

This has often been highlighted as adding value to modelling, but here the critical point is that it motivates young professionals if they can appreciate the background and purpose behind their work.

So what lessons can we draw?

Aruna Sivakumar and John Parkin highlighted the challenges in educating the modellers of the future, and the need to understand better who we are training, and for what roles. 

Transport planning itself is multi-disciplinary, and needs a diversity of backgrounds in engineering, social sciences and technical approaches. Attracting students from such a range and then catering for their needs is incredibly hard, even more so when transport modelling has such a low profile. 

The debate suggested that universities can, and should, help train transport practitioners to think about the principles and applications of modelling, but there are limits to the hands-on work due to time and complexity. More engagement from the modelling profession to give students insights into the ‘real’ tasks is always helpful. 

Which begs the question, how many modellers regularly assist with training students? We were lucky to have Devrim Kara on the panel, who shared his positive experiences supervising and mentoring dissertations. There appear to no longer be any graduate training programmes specifically aimed at modellers, so perhaps as a profession we need to take on that task together?

Sherin Francis shared her experiences as a recent graduate who spent time in modelling, but has already ‘moved on’ to an appraisal specialism. Sherin feels that more people in transport planning need this appreciation early in their careers. She recommends providing more clarity about the context and uses of models: it helps young professionals appreciate the work, feel involved and contribute.

Given the multi-disciplinary nature of the work, it was suggested that we need more of a common language and understanding of the approaches and applications of modelling, which is accessible to practitioners and clients from diverse backgrounds. 

As featured in the word cloud shown above, there was also much comment about the profile of modelling, and the money available. Modelling is an immensely complex discipline, which underpins activities vital to our lives, the economy, and to tackling climate change. Do we receive the respect, and the investment, we deserve? There is no easy answer to this, but some felt the level of recognition is greater in other countries, though perhaps not the salaries.

As we move towards upskilling in digital methods to support innovation, we are increasingly competing with some of the highest paying careers. If we are unable to compete with technology or finance on salaries, will we have to be realistic about attracting and retaining staff? 

Should we then plan for a high turnover, or work harder to improve the non-salary benefits? One suggestion to make the job more attractive that resonated was the need to improve work/life balance. In the past there has been a culture of late nights spent grappling with stubborn and complex models. Whilst some may revel in the challenge, it should never be an expectation, and is a major barrier for many, particularly those with young families. 

However, if some will only spend a brief time as modellers, can we make this a positive for them and the profession? Fast turnover can drive new thinking, and many ex-modellers play a vital role as transport colleagues or clients of the future.

So what do we do about it?

Attracting, motivating and co-ordinating the multi-disciplinary mix of skills we need is clearly a huge challenge. We need people with a passion for transport, a flair for numerical and technical problems, as well as the ‘softer’ skills of communicating, co-ordinating and collaborating. We can’t expect every transport modeller to do it all, so we need to attract and work with a diversity of approaches and backgrounds.

Innovation will be much needed and also make our profession more attractive. But understanding the context in which the innovations are useful is vital.  We need to equip our modellers for change, and the application of more flexible approaches in future. 

It will be necessary for current practitioners and employers to work with universities, and perhaps schools, to raise the profile of modelling as a profession early on. We need diverse new entrants to see modelling as a long-term career. This session made me optimistic that we can build the future of modelling together, and I’d like to thank all involved for making it happen.

Have you got views you would like to share about the modellers of the future? The Modelling World team, working with the Transport Planning Society, are launching a follow-up survey, looking at these issues in more detail. We’d love to hear from you, so please take part, anonymously, here....


Tim Gent is a Technical Director, leading on Transport Demand Modelling, at Atkins

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