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By Daniel Niepow, Associate EditorThe face of the workplace is changing, and the rail industry has some catching up to do. Whether in the form of age, sex or race, the demographic profile of the average American worker is vastly different than it was even a decade ago.Those were some of the takeaways from the American Association of Railroad Superintendents’ (AARS) 122nd annual meeting held late last month at the W Lakeshore Hotel in Chicago.The event began July 22, coinciding with the presentation of Progressive Railroading’s Rising Stars awards, which were given to 20 up-and-coming railroaders under the age of 40. The next day, attendees returned to the hotel’s 33rd floor for a series of panel discussions.In his opening remarks on July 23, Canadian Pacific President and Chief Executive Officer Keith Creel set the tone for a frank discussion about changing workforce demographics. He acknowledged that, for a long time, “white men have ruled this industry.”For Creel, creating a “culture of respect” is key to bringing on new railroaders from all walks of life.
“When you come to the railroad, we all treat each other with respect,” he said. “And if we do that, everybody has the same opportunity.”But recruitment is just one piece of the puzzle, of course. To retain workers, it’s important to create strong emotional bonds — a piece of wisdom Creel said he gleaned from the teachings of his former boss E. Hunter Harrison, who died in late 2017.“That emotional connection piece is huge in my mind,” he said. “We can’t just yell and scream our way to success. We’ve got to create emotional connection with people. We’ve got to treat them with respect.”To emphasize that point, Creel recounted a time earlier in his career when he and an assistant cleaned and prepared hotel rooms for crews waiting in the lobby. The hotel was overbooked and understaffed due to a local hot air balloon festival in Battle Creek, Michigan. With the crews waiting, Creel and his assistant asked hotel staff if they could prepare the rooms themselves. So, that’s what they did — for the next two to three hours, he said.“I did that for two reasons: No. 1, it was the right thing to do,” Creel said. “Two, those crews were sitting outside; they’d been on duty — in some cases 12 hours. They wanted to go to bed; they were tired. … I was the superintendent, and I was responsible and felt committed to them. The last thing I wanted them to do was lay on the couch.”Establishing that emotional commitment is one way to retain workers, in Creel’s view.The topic of recruiting and retaining workers was a central theme throughout the AARS conference. Following Creel’s speech, a three-speaker panel took on that very topic. Panelist Kelly Millenbah, who serves as a senior associate dean at Michigan State University, discussed the differences in work styles and preferences between generations of workers.“There is nothing right or wrong about different generations,” said Millenbah, who also serves as director of academic and student affairs at the university’s College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. “We’re just different, and it means trying to understand yourself and what other generations look like.”By 2050, millennials are expected to make up 75 percent of the workforce, she noted. Identified as those born between 1980 and the early 2000s, millennials value a team-oriented workplace, and they’re willing to sacrifice a bigger paycheck to work in areas they feel passionate about, according to Millenbah.But before millennials make up the majority of the workforce, they’ll have to work with the baby boomers and Gen Xers. In the rail industry, the growing retirement of boomers poses a particular challenge, as the other panelists noted.“Our biggest problem now is we have about half the railroad getting ready to retire, and it’s getting tough finding people to take those jobs,” said Brook Hartzog, general manager of Florida East Coast Railway (FEC).To help fill those positions, FEC offers apprenticeships as a way to recruit younger employees. It’s a similar story at Watco Cos. LLC, which has been focusing on community connections to increase its appeal as an employer. The company also has been exploring ways to get high school students interested in railroading.
“We want to sell them on the fact that we’re going to get involved in their communities,” said Cris Hatcher, director of training and development. “A majority of people live within an hour of where they work.”Watco also remains focused on providing comprehensive training for its new workers. For instance, the company has invested in a new safety training center for conductors in Fairfield, Alabama. The center opened in spring 2017. Later in the day, AARS held a panel featuring 2018 Rising Star Amy Rice, who was recently promoted to VP of intermodal at CSX. She was joined by 2016 Rising Star Jeremy Kramer, who serves as director of transportation at the Louisville & Indiana Railroad. The two shared tips for achieving success in the rail industry.Rice said she “didn’t even know what intermodal was” before she started at CSX. She began her career as a business analyst at Deloitte Consulting, followed by several years in the banking industry. Now, she’s at the helm of CSX’s intermodal operations.For his part, Kramer encouraged new railroaders to explore new solutions to operations issues instead of always using the same approach.“If you don’t go out and look for the opportunities to change things, you’re not going to improve. You’re not going to broaden yourself. You’re not going to make a significant impact to the bottom line,” he said.