National Freight Strategic Plan

The U.S. Department of Transportation provides over $51 billion in surface transportation construction funding each year to build, repair, and operate our Nation’s highways, bridges, and public transportation systems. For every $1 billion in transportation infrastructure investments, 13,000 jobs are projected to be created over the next 10 years. In addition to these hundreds of thousands of jobs that will be created, transportation employers across the main subsectors of trucking, transit, air, highway, rail, and maritime will need to hire up to 4.6 million workers—1.2 times the current transportation workforce—in the next decade, due to the industry’s employment needs that will result from growth, retirements, and turnover. Many of these individuals will require training to meet the skill requirements of transportation employers.

(Following are Excerpts from Draft National Freight Strategic Plan)

Executive Summary

Our nation’s freight transportation system is a vast, complex network of almost seven million miles of highways, local roads, railways, navigable waterways, and pipelines. The components of this network are linked to each other through thousands of seaports, airports, and intermodal facilities. This system accommodates the movement of raw materials and finished products from the entire spectrum of the agricultural, industrial, retail, and service sectors of our economy. More than 3.1 million Americans are employed in operating and supporting the millions of trucks, trains, aircraft, ships, and barges that traverse this network, as well as in businesses that coordinate the logistics of these operations. Collectively, this multimodal network directly supports 44 million jobs and affects the quality of life that every American has come to rely on today. It is a critical force in the world’s largest economy, with United States (U.S.) gross domestic product (GDP) estimated to exceed $17.9 trillion in 2015. Each day, the system moves 55 million tons of goods, worth more than $49 billion; over the course of a year, that’s over 63 tons for each one of us.

Moving local, regional, national, and global products safely, smoothly, and efficiently is critical to the continued growth and success of our nation’s economy. Historically, we have been well served to meet these challenges by one of the world’s best transportation systems. Freight is moved by private sector entities on infrastructure built and operated by a mix of Federal, State, and local governmental agencies and private sector companies. By some calculations, today’s transportation and logistics costs represent only eight percent of GDP, down from 16 percent three decades ago. This is one of the lowest figures in the world, providing the U.S. with a competitive advantage in world commerce.

At the same time, the level of investment in and dedication to addressing freight specific transportation needs has not kept pace with our growing economy, further adding to this strain. Recognizing these increasing challenges, Congress and the Executive Branch have worked closely with States and industry to develop a more sophisticated understanding of our nation’s freight transportation needs.

The most recent surface transportation reauthorization law, the Moving Ahead for Progress in the 21st Century Act (MAP-21), includes freight planning and project delivery provisions. It also establishes a National Freight Policy (NFP) for the first time. The NFP specifies goals to increase economic competitiveness, efficiency, and productivity of the network; reduce congestion; enhance the safety, security, and resilience of freight movement; improve the state of good repair and accountability of operations and maintenance; make greater use of advanced technology and innovation; and reduce environmental impacts. MAP-21 encourages the development of State Freight Advisory Committees and State Freight Plans to improve coordination of freight transportation planning. It also mandates that the U.S. Department of Transportation (U.S. DOT) produce a National Freight Strategic Plan (NFSP, or “Plan”). The NFSP aims to describe the freight transportation system and future demands on it; identify major corridors and gateways; assess physical, institutional, and financial barriers to improvement; and specify best practices for enhancing the system.

Key Trends and Challenges in Freight Transportation

The NFSP discusses six major trends affecting freight transportation and the challenges they present. If our freight transportation system is to continue to enable our way of life and serve as a competitive advantage for the U.S. economy, we must confront these challenges and seize on the resulting opportunities:

  1. Expected Growth in Freight Tonnage. The U.S. economy is expected to double in size over the next 30 years. By 2045, the nation’s population is projected to increase to 389 million people, compared to 321 million in 2015. Americans will increasingly live in congested urban and suburban areas, with fewer than 10 percent living in rural areas by 2040 (compared to 16 percent in 2010 and 23 percent in 1980). To support our projected population and economic growth, freight movements across all modes are expected to grow by roughly 42 percent by the year 2040. For example, container traffic at ports will increase steadily as the volume of imports and exports transported by our freight system more than doubles over this period. Air freight is expected to triple in response to demand for the rapid movement of high-value merchandise, while multimodal shipments are predicted to more than double.

  2. Underinvestment in the Freight System. Numerous studies have identified the need for more and better directed investment in freight infrastructure. Freight projects can be costly to undertake. There are seldom public-sector funds dedicated to them and they do not compete well with non-freight projects because of the manner in which public investments are evaluated. As noted below, they often involve multiple transportation modes, jurisdictions, and stakeholders, each of which may have different objectives or operate under different investment timeframes. There may be adequate private sector financing to invest in privately owned freight railroad and pipeline infrastructure. These private sector investments may not include features to generate public benefits, however, unless the private sector believes its investments in these features will result in compensation through freight rates. Further, there is growing recognition that the workforce needed to build, maintain, and operate the system—including truck drivers, railroad engineers, skilled planners, and others—will be insufficient unless further investment is made in education, recruitment, and training.

B.3. Workforce Investment Challenges

Ensuring the nation has an adequate freight transportation workforce is a challenge for private sector transportation providers, as well as for State and local transportation agencies. For example, it is difficult to recruit and retain individuals with the right skill sets for different freight transportation jobs. Several factors exist that will affect the public and private sectors’ ability to maintain an adequate freight transportation workforce, as described below.

Workforce Replacement

Large numbers of freight transportation employees will soon retire and need to be replaced. U.S. DOT estimates that half of U.S. transportation workers will be eligible to retire over the next 10 years. Almost 55 percent of the current transportation workforce is 45 years or older. Due primarily to projected retirement and high rates of turnover in some transportation jobs (particularly truck drivers), employers will need to hire and train a total of 4.6 million employees from 2012 to 2022, equal to one to one-and-a-half times the current workforce of four million (this total includes non-freight transportation workers). These jobs pay competitive wages and are critical to expanding opportunity more broadly across the entire workforce, beyond simple replacement needs.

Training and Expertise

It is projected that annual job openings are 68 percent larger than the number of students who are completing educational programs for selected transportation occupations. This highlights a significant skills gap that must be addressed to meet expected industry demand. Skilled transportation occupations, such as transportation engineering, aviation inspection, or heavy machine operation, require education and training such as that provided by Career and Technical Education (CTE) and Career Pathways programs. CTE programs, which begin in high school and continue into post-secondary education or apprenticeships, can provide foundational occupational training to prepare individuals for skilled jobs. Similarly, preapprenticeship programs for disadvantaged youth and adults can prepare lower-skilled and under-represented populations for entry into skilled positions.

Many public sector transportation agencies have started to focus more on freight transportation planning issues. This focus reflects both the importance of freight transportation to sustaining economic growth and quality of life, but also a growing emphasis on freight planning in Federal legislation, most recently as a result of MAP-21 incentives for States to establish State Freight Plans and State Freight Advisory Committees. As a result, there is a growing need for public sector employees who are equipped with more advanced freight planning skills. This is true at both the State and local levels, especially in urbanized areas that in many cases are principal freight generators within States.

 Recruitment and Retention

Recruitment and retention of employees are issues both for the public and private sectors. For example, both the public and private sectors have reported difficulties in identifying and attracting candidates with the needed skills and technical experience for a variety of jobs, including planning, operations, maintenance, or management jobs. Highly educated professional engineers and planners are in high demand among several industries and there is fierce competition for skilled professionals. At the same time, many public agencies are dealing with constrained budgets or other issues that undermine their ability to offer competitive compensation and employment terms. Recruiting and retaining travel demand modelers is particularly challenging. There are few people who have the expertise to conduct these types of technical analyses.

The private sector will need to address specific challenges related to recruiting and retaining sufficient numbers of truck drivers and highway construction workers. In fact, the American Trucking Association has identified driver shortages as one of the most critical issues facing the trucking industry. For instance, by 2022 heavy trucking jobs will account for one-third of all projected total job openings of the top 20 transportation occupations. Filling these openings will be difficult: compensation may not be competitive with other occupations, and a life on the road may not appeal to potential applicants.


The top 20 jobs, in order from the most projected job openings to the least: