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— by Julie Sneider, assistant editor
With Class Is on target to hire at least 15,000 people this year according to American Association of Railroads (AAR) estimates, recruitment of transitioning military service members is high on several large railroads' employment agenda.
Railroads long have been known to provide workplaces conducive to those who have served; some of Union Pacific Railroad's first employees were Civil War veterans. G.I. Jobs magazine routinely recognizes several Class Is on its annual list of "America's Top 100 Military-Friendly Employers." This year, four ranked among the top 25: CSX Corp., which ranked third; BNSF Railway Co., sixth; UP, 12th; and Norfolk Southern Corp., 19th. CN ranked 63rd.
Railroad recruiters like to hire military veterans because their skills, training, discipline and work ethic typically match rail industry job demands. Many roads have instituted military recruitment programs, according to the AAR.
"The qualities that made you successful in the military — diligence, flexibility, integrity — make you a great candidate for the railroad. And there's a good chance that your military training is relevant, too," UP states in a message to job-seeking veterans that's posted on the Class I's website.
Railroads' commitment to hiring transitioning service members couldn't come at a better time. The unemployment rate for post-9/11 U.S. veterans was 13.3 percent in June 2011, which is up from 11.5 percent in June 2010 and compares with a 9.2 percent rate for the overall U.S. workforce, according to the U.S. Labor Department's Bureau of Labor Statistics. And with the Iraq war winding down and troop drawdowns beginning in Afghanistan, veteran unemployment could get even worse over the next year.
To address the problem, President Barack Obama last month proposed a $120 million package of new tax credits for employers that hire U.S. veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Under a new "Returning Heroes Tax Credit," businesses could qualify for a credit of $2,400 or $4,800 for each veteran hired, the amount depending on how long the veteran has been unemployed. Obama called for doubling the amount of tax credits a firm could claim for hiring wounded veterans.
In his Aug. 5 remarks at the Washington Navy Ship Yard, the president also challenged the private sector to hire and/or train 100,000 unemployed veterans or their spouses by the end of 2013.
Class I recruiters, however, don't seem to need much more motivation. For them, hiring military veterans makes good business sense. Many railroad technical jobs mirror similarly technical military positions. Plus, many aspects of military life — such as working outdoors, a 24/7 work week and frequent travel— fit the railroad culture.
"In general, the company is high on military veterans for a number of reasons, but No. 1 is safety," says Steve Toomey, manager of military diversity recruiting at CSX Transportation. "Military people are used to handling high-risk, high-priced items like weapons and ammunition, so they're very safety sensitive. And at CSX, we require safety-sensitive employees."
CSXT, which plans to hire more than 3,000 people this year, has been devoting more resources to recruiting military veterans. Toomey, himself a veteran of the U.S. Navy, currently focuses all his time recruiting former military members or those who are preparing to leave military service. About one in five CSXT employees have military backgrounds — either as veterans or as current service members in the National Guard or Reserves.
In June, CSXT was awarded the 2011 "Secretary of Defense Employer Support Freedom Award" by the U.S. Department of Defense, which recognizes companies that provide "exceptional support for employees serving the Guard and Reserves," according to a CSXT press release, which also states CSXT is the only company ever to win the award twice.
As part of the recruiting process, Toomey attends job fairs on military bases as well as "transition" classes the federal government holds for military personnel making the move to civilian life. At these events, Toomey provides potential job candidates with information about CSXT and its employment opportunities. But he also meets one-on-one with potential candidates, reviewing their resumes and "giving them tips and help with how to go through the hiring process and start thinking like a civilian," he says.
That kind of consulting is critical when it comes to keeping transitioning service members in the job candidate pipeline, Toomey says. One challenge for job seekers fresh out of military service is effectively describing on paper and in job interviews how their military experiences translate into private-sector job skills.
For example, Toomey recently received a call from a veteran who wanted to know why he didn't get hired after applying for a job at CSXT. When Toomey looked into it, he learned the veteran's resumé mostly contained information about his experience being injured in combat; it did not explain — in language a private-sector employer would understand — how the former soldier's military skills, training and experiences fit the skills needed for the job he had applied for.
"He didn't know how to write a resumé that meets the needs of an employer," says Toomey, noting that the scenario is common among transitioning service members.
Another method CSXT and some Class Is are using to get the hiring word out to military service members is the Internet. On its website, CSXT has a separate link to a page specifically designed for job seekers with military experience. Under "career opportunities," CSXT lists military jobs, skills and experiences with their corresponding positions at the railroad. The site also features stories from CSXT employees who made the transition from military service to employment. In one, Tony Arigo, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran from Martinsburg, W. Va., and a CSXT mechanical general foreman, writes that his transition was seamless "due to the many similarities between military and railroad life."
BNSF and UP also feature military recruitment sections on their websites. For example, BNSF's site includes a "Where Do I Fit" section that compares BNSF job categories to military specialties, such as operations, mechanics/machinists, electrician, transportation and communication, law enforcement, supply, administration and leadership. The job seeker also will find a schedule of BNSF's military-recruiting visits, tips on when and how to apply for jobs, and other FAQs. Since 2005, BNSF has hired more than 3,000 U.S. military veterans, according to the website.
UP's website offers "application advice" to military personnel, such as to file an employment application at UP within three months of the soldier's separation date, and to avoid using military acronyms or jargon on his or her application and resumé.
The UP site also includes a link to a video about Keith J., a U.S. Army veteran who made the transition from military life to working as a rail yard manager for the Class I.
With thousands of service men and women seeking to enter the private-sector job market over the next few years, UP's employment recruiters have been sharpening their own skills to encourage more transitioning service members to join the Class I's ranks. In 2009, UP organized an internal task force to determine how it could improve its recruitment of job candidates with military experience.
"We find military veterans have a great sense of purpose and mission, and they understand the importance of teamwork and safety," says Roy Schroer, assistant vice president of human resources at UP, where about 25 percent of the workforce has military experience. "We also find they have a lot of great skills and training in different areas within the various military branches that match up with well skilled positions at UP."
UP's task force educated the company's recruiters in the protocols, language and other ways of the military so they could better communicate with candidates. The Class I recruits at military career fairs, on military bases and at the federal government's Transition Assistance Program classes. UP also provides volunteer assistance to help veterans and soon-to-be-former soldiers with mock interviews, resumé writing and other job-search skills, Schroer says.
The company's efforts have helped attract more applicants with military backgrounds, says Ron Marshall, a UP recruitment manager who spent more than two decades in the National Guard, where he also served as a recruiter. Marshall routinely monitors the military bases with the specific skills UP needs. For example, when recruiting diesel locomotive electricians, Marshall knows he'll find personnel with the necessary knowledge and experience on Marine and Naval bases, where "some of the motors and electrical systems they work on match some of the control systems on our locomotives very closely," he says.
After an employee is hired, the focus shifts to retention. To that end, UP plans to launch an "employee resource group" (ERG) for new employees with military connections. Still in the planning stage, the group would be open to any UP employees with military connections or those who have a "strong desire to support that [military] community within our organization," says Schroer.
One emphasis of the military ERG will be to help new UP employees who've never before worked in the private sector make a smooth transition from military to civilian work, Schroer says. The voluntary group would be similar to UP's other ERGs aimed at recruiting and retaining employees from diverse backgrounds. The ERGs help ensure employees have a peer group through which they can network and share information that could help them to succeed.
In the end, it's that kind of networking between people who share common experiences and interests that so often makes the difference in finding a job. Marshall is an example.
Over the years, he got to know many people who worked for railroads, including UP. When finishing up his active duty for the National Guard, he started thinking about those friends.
"I had kept in contact with many of these fellas, and in 2005, one of them told me about all the hiring going on with UP and the railroads, and he encouraged me to apply," Marshall says.
So, he did. His military experiences, including his work as a National Guard recruiter, helped him land a job as an employment recruiter for UP, where he's been ever since.
"Veterans make a good fit in both our labor and management ranks," says Marshall. "The skill set [veterans] have instilled in them — those core values of being punctual, being able to work outdoors, the ability to do shift work — transition so well with many of our jobs at Union Pacific."
Below are URLs to Class I websites containing career information specifically designed for current or former members of the military.
BNSF Railway Co.
Union Pacific Railroad