This is the third in a series of articles looking at what the recycling industry and the industries it relies on are doing to rebound from labor shortages. Today, Scrap News surveys what the freight railroad industry is doing to build the future workforce.

Running on almost 140,000 route miles, the U.S. freight rail network is widely considered the largest, safest, and most cost-efficient freight system in the world. That said …

Worried about supply chain constraints that are already causing problems for the nation’s economy, President Joe Biden acted on July 15 to prevent a strike by 115,000 U.S. railroad workers from national and regional companies. Since January 2020, two coalitions of 12 unions have been in negotiations for a new contract with companies represented by the National Carriers’ Conference Committee.

The president’s executive order created an emergency board to deliver a report recommending how the dispute should be resolved. This gives the parties a 30-day cooling-off period. A White House statement says, in part, “Keeping supply chains running means keeping America’s railways running.”

According to the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA), the seven largest (Class I) railroads in the U.S. are BNSF Railway Co.; Canadian National Railway (Grand Trunk Corp.); Canadian Pacific (Soo Line Corp.); CSX Transportation, Kansas City Southern Railway Co.; Norfolk Southern Combined Railroad Subsidiaries; and Union Pacific Railroad Co. The combined revenue of Class I railroads equaled $67 billion in 2017, according to the FRA.

No Class I railroads agreed to be interviewed by Scrap News about their recruiting efforts. Some companies accept job applications only through their websites. Others advertise at job fairs and in local media. The Association of American Railroads (AAR) offers links to railroad jobs at its website. Several universities and community colleges offer educational programs leading to railroad careers.

Railroad holding company Genesee & Wyoming Inc. provided Scrap News insight into what it is doing to build the workforce of the future. G&W’s four North American regions serve 43 states and four Canadian provinces and include 113 short-line and regional freight railroads with more than 13,000 track-miles. In addition to its online job postings, G&W is one of many companies supporting American Corporate Partners, a nonprofit focused on helping returning veterans and active-duty spouses find careers through one-on-one mentoring.

“Our ideal candidate will embrace our safety culture, possess a desire to learn the overall rail/transportation industry, and be flexible in the face of unpredictable schedules and all weather/climates,” says Kimberley MacMillan, G&W’s vice president of field human resources. “Our jobs require a collaborative approach but also structured individual contribution. We also seek diversity in our workforce with a goal of resembling the communities we serve and fueling innovation of thought while we drive to continuously improve our business.”

It can take up to one year to train someone to be proficient at railroading, but the industry tends to attract those who are looking for a career versus a job. “Many of today’s railroaders come from long lines of family members who have spent their careers in the industry,” explains Jessica Kahanek, AAR spokesperson. “With generous pay and first-class benefits, railroading remains a career where a high school graduate can support a family and build a secure retirement.”

According to AAR, in 2020, Class I freight rail employee compensation including benefits averaged about $135,700 per year. The average salary for a rail conductor who builds and breaks apart trains is $67,660 and $73,490 for an engineer who operates locomotives, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

G&W’s entry-level new hires experience a combination of classroom training to gain an understanding of safe operations and rules compliance plus field training with a certified peer trainer. “This on-the-job training with a trained co-worker builds confidence and ensures competency,” MacMillan says.

Conductors and engineers require physical and mental stamina to work on heavy equipment, frequently outdoors, oftentimes at night, and on unpredictable surfaces. MacMillan notes another challenge is the unpredictable nature of scheduling. “As a new hire in a seniority-based system, entry-level conductors are often assigned to the Extra Board [workers who are hired to cover for regular employees] with a schedule that changes frequently and little to no notice of days off,” she explains.

Kahanek notes railroaders can expect to be involved in reducing greenhouse gas emissions in rail yards and using alternative-fuel locomotives. Workers will become knowledgeable about Automated Track Inspection (ATI), which uses lasers and cameras mounted onto locomotives or rail cars to inspect track as the train travels across the network—reducing the need for track inspectors to halt or slow down train traffic to visually inspect tracks.

Railroads know service is not at the level customers expect or deserve, Kahanek says, which is why they are taking aggressive action to put the right plans, people, and equipment in place to tackle the challenges. “None of these steps are more important today than hiring and retaining employees,” she says.

Technology is aiding railroads’ growth, Kahanek says. “As customers work toward increasing their [environment, social, and governance] efforts and reducing emissions across their operations, railroads already stand as the most fuel-efficient way to move freight over land. One ton of freight travels nearly 500 miles on a single gallon of fuel,” she notes.

Learn more about how railroads are taking steps to improve service in the face of current supply chain challenges here.

The next article in this series will examine what ISRI is doing to build recycling’s future workforce.


Primary photo courtesy of Storyblocks. Body photo courtesy of Marissa Beletti on Unsplash.

Dan Hockensmith

Dan Hockensmith

I'm a native Ohioan who since 2014 has called Maryland home. My background includes print, broadcast, and digital journalism; government contracting; and marketing communications.