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by Julie Sneider
Following an era of employment streamlining that lasted from the mid-1990s through the early 2000s, freight railroads now are contending with the industry's biggest hiring demand in decades as workers reach retirement age in big numbers. How big? Try tens of thousands big.
To fill the vacancies, Class I recruiters continue to rely in part on such time-tested methods as promoting from within, encouraging employee word-of-mouth referrals, increasing campus recruitment tours, attending job fairs and appealing to U.S. military veterans, whose skill sets and experience are a good match for the railroad work culture.
But replacing boomer-age retirees is not merely a matter of filling vacancies. It's also about replacing career railroaders' skills, abilities and experience — and, along the way, projecting the skills and abilities that'll be needed in the years ahead.
"There's a huge amount of turnover coming in the industry — it's just started and will continue over the next five years," said Patsy Crisafi, a third-generation railroader and co-founder of Roadway Worker Training Inc., which provides training and consulting services to the rail industry. "For me, the issue is about the transfer of knowledge to the new generation of railroaders."
To address the talent drain, Class Is are stepping it up on a variety of training and education fronts.
In addition to contracting with firms like Crisafi's to provide training services, railroads also are broadening existing relationships and forging new partnerships with community colleges, technical schools and four-year universities. And increasingly, they are putting their money where their collective mouth is by providing financial support for existing or soon-to-be-developed rail engineering and management/leadership programs.
Not that they haven't partnered with institutions of higher rail learning in the past. Some rail-educational institution collaborations have been in place for years. One prime example is the National Academy of Railroad Sciences (NARS), a partnership between Johnson County Community College (JCCC) in Overland Park, Kan., and BNSF Railway Co.
Founded in 1988, NARS serves as BNSF's technical training center and is one of the largest railroad training centers in North America. The academy comprises 130,000 square feet of classroom, lab and multimedia space on the JCCC campus. The academy offers training sessions for new and potential rail employees in a range of crafts, including locomotive engineer, mechanical and electrical, conductor, freight car, signal systems and welding, according to NARS' website.
NARS also provides training services for more than 200 American Short Line and Regional Railroad Association member railroads. A 2007 Federal Railroad Administration study cited the JCCC-BNSF partnership as one the industry's successes in recruiting a new generation of railroad workers.
Four-year academic and research universities and their railroad partners and/or financial backers are working on success stories of their own.
During the past decade or so, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC) has been "rejuvenating" its century-old railroad engineering program, both in terms of academic research and education, according to UIUC's website.
Under the direction of Christopher Barkan, the rail curriculum has grown from one to six courses — including a high-speed rail engineering course developed this year — since 1998. In 2007, the program added a second rail engineering faculty member thanks to "generous funding" from CN, CSX Transportation, Hanson Professional Services and the George Krambles Foundation, according to UIUC's website. CN has contributed more than $1 million to the program since 2002, including a $325,000 donation in July.
CN has funded other academic institutions, as well. The Class I's $250,000 donation to Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich., led to the February opening of the CN Rail Transportation Education Center.
The center is part of Michigan Tech's Rail Transportation Program, which started with a 2004 "summer in Finland" studies program for which CSXT and Union Pacific Railroad provided financial backing. So far, the rail industry has contributed $500,000 to Michigan Tech's program, says program director Pasi Lautala. The latest contribution was announced last month — a $33,000 donation from UP, the railroad's fourth donation toward the program.
"We've gotten some really good hires from [Michigan Tech's] program," said Sharyn Crawford-Jones, UP recruitment manager, in an Oct. 11 press release announcing the donation, adding that the program offers "great academics and excellent hands-on experience."
The Michigan Tech program currently offers three rail-oriented classes covering basic railroading, track engineering and design, and public transit planning and engineering. The program also sponsors a "very active" Railroad Engineering and Activities Club on campus with about 40 students involved from various academic disciplines, Lautala says.
While the Michigan Tech program targets college-age students for future careers in railroads, Michigan State University (MSU) offers a four-week certificate program for railway managers. An MSU College of Business offering, the program is designed to educate the industry's next generation of leaders, says Dennis Neilson, MSU director of railway management programs. The coursework was developed with input from rail education and training professionals, as well as industry associations. About 80 people have completed the program since it began in 2008.
Other institutions of higher learning plan to offer rail-oriented programs, as well. For example, Pennsylvania State University at Altoona is developing a four-year rail and transit engineering bachelor's degree with support from the Norfolk Southern Foundation, which a year ago gave $100,000 toward its creation. The program will combine existing civil engineering courses with customized courses in rail business, mechanical systems, track, operations, communications and regulations. The objective: to prepare college graduates who will "quickly acclimate to the rail industry and its suppliers," according to a prepared statement.
In an article by Sherry Sullivan in the winter 2010 edition of Penn State Altoona's "Ivy Leaf" magazine, UIUC's Barkan endorsed the program launch: "I would like to see 10 or 20 other universities doing the same thing."
If the Class Is' financial support in recent years is any indication, Michigan Tech's Lautala and Michigan State's Neilson say more four-year colleges and universities will be doing just that. Whether colleges and universities do so in greater numbers will depend in part on whether the rail industry changes its historic hiring cycles in which there's a "big bang every 20 years and then they're not hiring for a long time," Lautala says. In the meantime, it'd help if more college students knew that rail represents a legitimate career option, he adds.
Rail recruiters certainly are aware of the awareness gap. Class Is need to do a better job of raising the railroad industry's profile as a high-tech and green industry to attract Generation Y and new Millennial job seekers, Class I human resource executives say.
To encourage young people to explore career opportunities in rail, UP has been increasing the number of internship opportunities. This year, the Class I has attracted about 140 interns and likely will offer that many internships again in 2011, says Roy Schroer, UP assistant vice president of human resources.
"Internships can serve as an extended interview — it gives us an opportunity to get to know the interns, and they can get to know us," he says. "We are finding that we are converting a good number of interns into full-time hires once they graduate."
UP also benefits when student interns return to campus, where they share their experiences with other students and spread the word about the rail industry's career opportunities, Schroer says.
For recruits who've set their sights on management roles, UP offers a number of avenues to help them get there, including tuition assistance of up to $3,500 a year toward a college degree or to pursue graduate education. UP also provides a formal leadership development training program.
"We feel pretty good that we're on top of this demographic challenge," Schroer says, adding that so far, turnover related to boomer retirements has been a "manageable number."
NS hiring officials believe they're on top of it, too. These days, they're targeting would-be management trainees — the Millennial generation, in particular — by taking the direct-recruitment route at about a dozen colleges and universities. And when it comes to engineering students, NS has a history of recruiting from Virginia Tech and Georgia Tech universities, says Vice President of Human Resources Cindy Earhart, adding that the Class I also will be working with Penn State Altoona.
Other schools NS targets for engineering talent include the universities of Kentucky, Illinois and Pittsburgh, as well as Michigan Tech and Michigan State. The Class I sends employees into the classroom to interact with future college graduates on senior projects with a rail-industry focus.
Ultimately, finding a "healthy mix" of generations entering the railroad industry is key, says Earhart. To that end, NS recruiters will continue to reach out to "first-generation" railroad workers — that is, candidates who would be the first in his or her family to work for a railroad — as well as second- and third-generation railroaders.
Finding and then connecting with Millennials who fall in the "no family ties to railroading" category means working with a new communications toolbox. At NS, recruiters are going the social networking route, sending its message out on Facebook, Twitter and Flickr.
Every little bit helps, awareness-wise.
"You're starting to see an increase in this effort to communicate to the public how beneficial the railroad partnership with the American economy is," says Greg Deibler, executive director of the Railroad Management Association, a non-profit organization that serves as a networking and information resource for rail industry employees. "[Rail recruiters] understand ... that there is a lack of a perception out there of what the industry is and does."
Julie Sneider is a Waukesha, Wis.-based free-lance writer.
Below is a sampling of U.S. academic institutions offering rail-specific education programs.
Note: Gateway Community College, New Haven, Conn., plans to offer a new associate degree in railroad engineering in spring. Students will study electromechanical or communications and signaling (C&S) specialty. The electromechanical track will focus on rail-car repair and maintenance; the C&S track, communication and signaling systems repair and maintenance.
Source: College and university websites