ASLRRA Young Professionals Committee helps newbies learn, apply networking skills in rail


By Julie Sneider, Senior Associate Editor 

As a young professional, Chelsea Sweet has experienced firsthand the benefit of being active in an association that builds her network of more experienced professionals who work for railroads, rail suppliers and contractors. 

Sweet knew nothing about railroading when she joined Bowers & Co. CPAs PLLC a little more than a decade ago. But after she started working with one of the firm’s largest clients — a railroad that lost much of its payroll and other records when Hurricane Sandy roared through the East Coast in 2012 — Sweet says she “fell in love” with all things rail. Today, she’s Bowers’ outsourced controller and specializes in rail accounting services with a focus on short lines. 

In those earlier days of her career, Sweet attended training seminars held by the Railroad Retirement Board and later by the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA) to educate herself on the tricks of the trade, as well as build her portfolio of networking contacts. She says she was especially lucky to attend a training session in 2016 just as the ASLRRA was trying to get a committee of young rail professionals (YP) off the ground. 

“The [association’s] leadership decided they wanted a place for younger people to get together, although they made that first meeting at 8 a.m.,” Sweet says, with a chuckle. “It wasn’t well-attended.” 

That first gathering was intended as a way for YPs to connect with potential mentors active in the association, says Amy Krouse, ASLRRA’s vice president-communications. Despite the low attendance at that first get-together, the association’s leadership realized the importance of reaching out to the under-40 crowd early in their rail careers, Krouse says. 

Chelsea Sweet “We try to hold open networking events that anyone can attend and participate in.” — Chelsea Sweet, chair, ASLRRA Young Professionals Committee. Photo courtesy Chelsea Sweet

The association moved those gatherings to happy hour at its seminars and regional meetings. Sweet and a few others in their 20s and 30s who met at industry conferences and the association’s meetings started to keep in contact, sharing references, referrals and ideas for addressing on-the-job challenges.  

“We started to get to know each other personally and professionally,” Sweet recalls. “We came up with the idea of having a webinar to introduce ourselves to the association as [a group] that has a purpose.” 

In 2019, ASLRRA changed its bylaws to make the YP Committee one of its 14 standing committees that guide the association’s work; a YP Committee member serves on the ASLRRA board. The committee is open to all ASLRRA members, both railroads and suppliers. However, the committee’s officers and voting members must be under 40 years of age. Those older than 40 may join the committee as mentors. 

The YP Committee’s mission is to ensure members and mentors can meet, communicate and build skills through training and the guidance of experienced leaders and colleagues, ASLRRA stated in its Aug. 2 edition of its “News and Views” newsletter. 

“The committee’s goal is to help young professionals enhance their skills and develop as leaders for their own companies,” the newsletter states. 

This year, Sweet is chairing the YP Committee, which hosted a meeting at the ASLRRA’s Joint Committee gathering Aug. 21-23 in Anchorage, Alaska. At last count, the committee consisted of 40 to 50 members younger than 40, she says. 

“We try to hold open networking events that anyone can attend and participate in,” says Sweet, who’ll turn 36 in September. “The happy hours at the regional meetings are very well attended.” 

In recent times, the committee has taken on some regular tasks, such as recommending topics of interest to YPs attending the educational sessions at ASLRRA regional and annual meetings. At the association’s 2023 annual meeting held earlier this year in New Orleans, educational sessions covered topics such as, “Jump-Start Your Financial Goals” and “How to Get the Most Out of Your Membership.” 

Also at this year’s annual meeting, the YP Committee hosted a session with Operation Lifesaver (OL) to encourage ASLRRA members to become trained as OL volunteers and presenters in their home states. Sweet was among the about 20 ASLRRA members who took the class, which was so well attended that a similar session will be offered at a future ASLRRA meeting.  

Another role that the YP Committee now fills at meetings is the “First Timers” reception for new members attending their first ASLRRA annual meeting. 

“It’s a national conference and there’s a lot going on,” Sweet says. “It can be a ‘deer-in-the-headlights' kind of thing if you’re attending for the first time.” 

Under Sweet’s tenure as chair, the YP Committee is evaluating how its vision should evolve. But its mission will remain the same. 

“We've had some of the kings and queens in rail come in and speak at our gatherings; these are people who, if you’re new to the industry, you wouldn’t normally just want to walk up to at a big show,” says Sweet. But after those industry leaders speak at the YP Committee’s smaller settings, the younger members can feel more comfortable introducing themselves to those individuals later on, she says. 

Those connections can go a long way to encourage potential up-and-comers to stay in the rail business, says Krouse.  

“I think a lot of people are starting their first job, and railroading seems like a very stodgy industry,” Krouse explains. “And you come and meet these professionals that have been groundbreakers, passionate entrepreneurs who’ve made something out of nothing and you realize you want to stay. You want to be like them. You can get energized by their origin stories, what they’re doing to advance technology and how sophisticated our industry truly is.” 

Sweet says being active in the association and the YP Committee has helped take her career to the next level. 

“Being able to network is not something that accountants are usually known for,” says Sweet. “My interactions with the short-line association and Young Professionals have allowed my strengths to show at my job. Business development is something that’s morphed into my title at the firm, so now I do half accounting and half business development. I couldn’t have done that without my experiences and my involvement with the association.”