‘We’re hiring’: Railroads dive into a tight labor market

Hardest-to-fill jobs right now are that of conductor and locomotive engineer, railroad officials say.

The U.S. freight-rail industry hasn’t gone unscathed when it comes to the nation’s labor shortage. A number of railroads report they’re actively recruiting new workers as the economy continues to recover from the pandemic — and for some positions, they’re competing with other industries for top-notch talent. 

Hardest-to-fill jobs right now are conductors and locomotive engineers, railroad officials say. Employees with skill sets that are also in high demand across industry sectors include electricians, mechanics, welders, software engineers and communications technicians.  

One indication of the labor shortage is the number of “We’re hiring” announcements posted on railroads’ web and social media sites. Last month, Union Pacific Railroad reported on its website that a “high uptick in volume” prompted the company to solicit job applicants for key roles across its network. 

“Hard-to-fill skill sets include diesel electricians, diesel mechanics, conductors and locomotive engineers,” said Robynn Tysver, communications manager for UP, in an email. 

James Foote “The good news is we’ve seen sequential improvements in our new hire rates.” — James Foote, president and CEO, CSX

The Class I is also soliciting applicants for train crew employees in Boone, Iowa; North Platte, Nebraska; Hermiston and Portland, Oregon; St. Paul, Minnesota; Los Angeles; and Denver. 

To compete in this labor market, UP is taking a different approach to how it identifies new recruits and has streamlined its hiring and onboarding process to get new employees on the job faster, Tysver said. 

“It can take weeks of classroom study and on-the-job training for some of our new hires to be ready to start work, including train crews,” she added. 

To attract recruits’ attention, UP is promoting its competitive benefits such as a free college education — including online and in-person offerings — through UP’s partnership with the University of Nebraska at Omaha. 

“We believe our team is an attractive option for job seekers,” said Tysver. 

Conductors = gumption + tenacity 

Meanwhile, CSX has posted links to more than 90 job openings available this month on its website. 

“Tenacity, gumption and a strong work ethic — that’s what it takes to be a CSX train conductor,” the railroad recently announced on the CSX LinkedIn page. 

In a letter sent Nov. 2, 2021, to the Surface Transportation Board (STB), CSX President and CEO James Foote described the company’s efforts to recruit and retain T&E transportation workers, especially in a tight labor market and as the COVID-19 pandemic wears on. 

To bring on additional conductors, Foote wrote that CSX has redesigned its recruiting process to shorten the time between application and hiring; increased conductor pay in the training phase to nearly $25 per hour; established a multimedia advertising campaign that promoted job openings; increased the size and frequency of conductor classes; and created incentives to reward “great attendance” with stock awards, cash prizes, truck giveaways and a vacation buyback program. 

“We have been undertaking these efforts despite substantial headwinds,” Foote wrote. “The good news is we’ve seen sequential improvements in our new hire rates. In fact, our new hire pipeline increased by almost 300% since July. These efforts will continue through the remainder of the year and into 2022.” 

Alan Shaw “We are dramatically expanding conductor training class sizes and will be starting new classes every week beginning Jan. 3, 2022.” — Alan Shaw, president, Norfolk Southern Railway

Norfolk Southern Railway ramped up hiring last year after reducing its headcount in the pandemic’s early months due to a drop in customer demand, NS President Alan Shaw wrote in a Dec. 10, 2021, letter to the STB. The Class I recalled furloughed employees and increased the number of people enrolled in conductor training. As of Dec. 6, 2021, NS had 285 employees in conductor training — the highest-level year to date — with plans to bring in even more trainees during first-quarter 2022, Shaw said. NS had another 939 prospective employees in the “pre-employment stage” last month. 

“We are dramatically expanding conductor training class sizes and will be starting new classes every week beginning Jan. 3, 2022,” Shaw wrote. 

To beef up recruitment and retention, NS is offering bonuses and various incentives to entice more job-seekers to apply and encourage current employees to stay. 

Class Is aren’t the only railroads experiencing a competitive labor market: Short lines are feeling it, too, according to the American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association (ASLRRA). In response to an informal survey late last month, ASLRRA members said the most challenging job openings to fill at their businesses are for engineers, conductors and maintenance-of-way employees. Seventy-five percent of respondents said it’s been more difficult to fill those posts than it was a year ago. 

Smaller railroads are using online tools like Indeed.com, hiring agencies and employee referrals to get the word out about their need for new recruits, said ASLRRA spokeswoman Amy Krouse. 

“Short lines have the benefit of being ‘local’, so they are able to sell going home every night and [while] working in the community,” Krouse said in an email. “This also makes it easier than a larger company to recruit locally through word-of-mouth referrals and local papers.” 

Uncertainty ahead? 

The overall employment of railroad workers is projected to grow 5% from 2020 to 2030, slower than the average for all occupations, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). 

And even though many railroads today are advertising for new recruits, the most recent hiring surge follows a period of job cuts. The rail transportation industry shed 40,000 jobs between November 2018 and December 2020, BLS officials reported in their October 2021 “Monthly Labor Review.” 

BLS cited three primary reasons for those employment cuts: the decline of the reliance on coal as a natural resource; an uncertain trade environment; and implementation of precision scheduled railroading. The COVID-19 pandemic further exacerbated the industry’s job losses in 2020. 

“Employment in rail transportation declined consistently throughout 2019 and into the beginning of 2020, accelerated in April and May of that year, and then leveled off through December,” the report states. It concludes: 

“Although we can acknowledge what led to the large declines in rail transportation employment over this period, the future of the industry’s employment remains uncertain.”