“It's vital to encourage more newcomers into ITS from a broad range of backgrounds”

The intelligent transportation industry has a need for young people and the structured learning and practical experience of apprenticeships might help attract them, thinks Alistair Gollop, founder of ITS Now
November 27, 2023
© Opolja | Dreamstime.com
ITS: the next generation (© Opolja | Dreamstime.com)

Within ITS, we see an ongoing skills shortage, in an area where the demand for these technologies is seeing an unprecedented level of growth, with the sector worth a reported value of £15bn a year to the UK’s economy. 

The field of ITS is constantly evolving due to the way in which technology is being ever more closely intertwined with mobility, and the implications that advances in technology applications, such as connected and automated vehicles (C/AV), will have on ITS infrastructure generally. Because of this, the demand for ITS skills is growing rapidly. 

In the past, many entrants to ITS have tended to come either from an electrical/electronic background, or from graduates in civil engineering or transport planning. However, the ageing demographic of many of those working in the sector is causing an issue for many companies and organisations, as experienced ITS practitioners retire. 

To overcome this, and to fill the additional resourcing required, it is vitally important that we encourage more newcomers into ITS from a broad range of backgrounds. 

Tackling the stigma

To achieve this, it is vitally important that we tackle the stigma that engineering often suffers from, especially with school pupils, before they get to an age where they start to choose career options. Factors which tend to deter young people from choosing careers in ITS and other engineering disciplines include the misconception that engineering is dirty, boring, requires long anti-social hours and is all about heavy machinery and construction. 

In fact, there are many varied and exciting opportunities across diverse roles and disciplines even within what appears to be a narrow sector such as ITS. Other common negative stereotypes that can deter young people are that engineering is still seen as a male-dominated field, and this can discourage women from pursuing a career within it. 

A perception of a lack of diversity can also often put off members of minority groups, where some of these issues may be caused by a lack of engineering role models within family and community groups. There is not always a lot of support for young people who are interested in pursuing technical careers; many schools still concentrate on academic qualifications over vocational training. Another mistaken belief is the need for high-level qualifications in science, technology and maths, but there are actually many different options to start working in engineering disciplines. 

To tackle some of these negative perceptions, and to enthuse young people about how exciting careers in sectors such as ITS can be, many organisations and companies have been engaging with schools to facilitate science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) events. 

Free resources

There are a wide range of resources available across different topic areas. As an example, the Institute of Engineering and Technology (IET) provides extensive free resources for primary and secondary school pupils. It is critical that pupils experience these types of events on a regular basis throughout their education, if we stand a chance of them going on to pursue technical careers or further education options after they leave school. Companies have been undertaking careers visits to secondary schools to complement STEM activities and to build up relationships, with some success in recruiting individuals consequently. 

After school, many young people will want to go on to pursue full-time education, many going on to university. However, the costs associated with undertaking a degree are putting off increasing numbers. This has seen a welcome resurgence of apprenticeship opportunities across many engineering sectors, including ITS. 


“The ageing demographic … is causing an issue for many companies and organisations, as experienced ITS practitioners retire”


There are many advantages for those undertaking an apprenticeship route: as well as structured learning (such as day release to college) they tend to offer a more practical learning experience while working in the field. This can give participants a significant advantage over graduates who have only learned about ITS in a theoretical setting. 

Apprenticeships also give the opportunity to work with experienced practitioners in the sector, allowing apprentices to learn from them and to build a network of contacts of their own within the sector. This can be invaluable throughout their career. 

"I'm really enjoying my ITS apprenticeship,” said James Brown, an ITS apprentice at Transport for London. “I'm learning so much about how to make our transport system more efficient, reliable, and sustainable. I'm also getting to work on some really exciting projects, like developing new traffic management systems and testing autonomous vehicles. It's a great way to start my career in engineering”. 

What are the benefits of ITS apprenticeships?

Apprenticeships also receive a salary while learning, instead of accruing the high costs associated with a degree. In addition, apprentices who complete their apprenticeships benefit from having built a relationship with their employer, so that they are often seen as invaluable members of the team and offered full-time jobs. This can lead to a higher salary compared with graduates who have to start their careers at entry-level positions and pay back student loans. 

The ITS work environment is highly collaborative, it is very common in the sector for engineers to work across different disciplines - and often organisations - to solve the many and varied complex problems ITS applications are used to solve. This provides an excellent opportunity to see the diverse range of different ITS roles that exist, before young people start to specialise in particular areas of the sector. Although many engineers may end up specialising in a particular segment of the sector, such as traffic signals, the breadth of roles is huge, including design, specification, installation, maintenance, mechanical, electrical, electronic, software, consultancy and client roles. 


“It is vitally important that we encourage more newcomers into ITS from a broad range of backgrounds”


Because of the issues which intelligent transport systems are used to deal with, there are also lots of opportunities to work within the sector across the world. Although the actual solutions may vary in different countries, many of the technologies and underlying issues these are being used to resolve are very similar around the globe, so this provides prospects to work and learn from these different solutions. 
Another aspect of working in the ITS sector that many people will not be aware of is the level of ongoing training and professional development which many organisations provide to their staff. 

Many employers will assist staff to attain their Incorporated or Chartered Engineering status, but it is important to understand how different organisations, such as the Institute of Highway Engineers (IHE), have the ability to support this process for those specialising in ITS disciplines. 

Similar solutions

This level of investment in staff ensures that employees’ capabilities not only remain relevant in a fast-changing environment, but also provides a mechanism for personal progression within the industry. This type of professional support framework results in many people staying in the sector for their entire career.

As well as in-house training, there are also a range of training opportunities that exist around the sector. A good place to start is the IHE (www.theihe.org) where apprentices and students can join for free. This will then give them access to a broad range of support and professional development opportunities, with learning pathways which are relevant throughout their career. Additionally, there are also online resources, such as my @ITSNow YouTube channel, which cover a diverse range of topic areas (www.itsnow.org).

One of the really satisfying things that comes from working in the ITS sector is the fact that you can see the tangible benefits that your work has on both the transport network directly, but also on communities around these.  

So, to answer the original question: How should we attract young people to join the ITS sector? There really is a need to not only make young people aware of what the ITS sector is, but also to ensure that we show the exciting opportunities that exist across a spectrum of different roles, to make a real difference in the world, working on cutting-edge technologies whilst earning a good salary, in a sector with long-term prospects and plenty of opportunities to work worldwide.

Alistair Gollop is founder of ITS Now 
www.itsnow.org  |  YouTube.com/@ITSNow