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Working on the Railway

If you want a career riding the rails, read on.

If you work in the rail industry, you can feel good about being in an Earth-friendly industry. You'll also receive great on-the-job training and the chance to develop your career within the industry.

"We are the most eco-friendly mode of transportation out there," says Greg Holsworth. He's the manager of the employment centre for a railway.

"Compared to trucks, we can haul a heck of a lot more freight," says Holsworth. "There are efficiencies of scale that the trucking industry just can't compete with."

More rail means lower greenhouse gas emissions and less highway congestion.

Unfortunately, the slow economy has hurt the rail industry. Hiring has either slowed down or stopped completely in recent years at many rail companies.

"They're not hiring nearly as much right now," says Dan Keen. He's a policy analyst with the Association of American Railroads (AAR). The AAR represents railways in the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

"It's a tough time for everybody -- it's a tough time for the railroads as well," says Keen. "The bottom line is [that] railroads have been hurt a great deal by the economy. Traffic went down and therefore employment went down."

But keep reading -- there are great job opportunities coming up! There are two types of freight railroads, Class Ones and Short Lines. There are seven big Class Ones, and about 550 Short Lines.

In 2010, Class Ones had about 151,000 employees. That increased to 158,000 in 2011.

The Short Lines probably have about 18,000 employees, according to Keen.

Employment with railroads peaked in the early 20th century. There were more than 1.5 million railroad employees at that time. But that number slowly went down. "It was a long downhill slide that ended with the railroads around 2004, when the industry started gaining jobs on net once more," says Keen.

According to the AAR, there are still a variety of jobs available. You can start as a brakeman, for instance. Later, you can train to become a conductor and then an engineer.

What kinds of positions are open?

"Everything -- conductors, mechanics, customer service," says Holsworth. "Engineering services is hiring not only seasonal laborers, but also the more specialized crews, such as signals and communications."

Think you're cut out for a career in this field? Conductors and engineers, along with most operation positions, are required to be available around the clock. These careers require 12-hour shifts and long stretches without a day off. New employees have to adjust to irregular sleep patterns, holidays on the job, working outside in lousy weather and time away from home.

"It's unionized, so you start at the bottom of the totem pole," says Holsworth. "Most likely, at the beginning you'll be working evenings and weekends. Conductors, rail traffic controllers, folks in engineering services and mechanical services aren't necessarily 24/7, but they're on-call weekends and evenings [in case] there are any incidents."

Train crews help move the trains. They make sure freight and passengers are delivered safely and on schedule.

A common entry-level job is switchperson or brakeperson. This involves on-the-ground traffic control. These people do things like operate track switches, board trains and inspect them, and communicate via radio to direct train movement.

Rail companies provide all training necessary for these positions. "For the majority of our positions, we offer training," says Holsworth. "That's why we don't insist that you have a degree."

Training is typically three to six months, and you're paid during the training period.

Railway jobs pay very well, especially considering that most positions don't require a degree. Freight railroad workers in the U.S. earned an average of $108,900 in 2011, according to the AAR. This includes base salary as well as overtime and other compensation.

Working as a switchperson or brakeperson often leads to becoming a conductor or locomotive engineer. A conductor is like the captain of a ship. He or she is responsible for the train, crew and freight (and passengers, if any). The locomotive engineer, meanwhile, actually operates the train.

Rail companies also employ many office workers, such as managers, accountants, marketers and human resources personnel. They often start out in customer service. For these positions, some post-secondary education is helpful.

"We ask for a degree most times (for customer service positions) because we find that they lead to areas such as marketing, sales, human resources and so on," says Holsworth. He started out in customer service and now manages the rail company's employment center.

Training for an operations position requires technical mechanical skills that you can get through institutions and colleges across North America. The more skills you develop, the more options you have for travel and excellent pay.

Although rail companies do a lot of on-the-job training, railroad institutions and community colleges have worked together to create courses for many rail industry positions.

Rail companies often support their employees' career development. The diverse range of jobs means you don't have to leave the company to get fresh challenges.

"People say you'll have five careers in your lifetime, on average," says Holsworth. "We like to think you can have all five careers at one company... because we have that breadth. We encourage cross-department moves because you bring a wealth of knowledge."

Keen says rail companies offer opportunities for people of all education levels. Certain aspects of the rail industry are extremely high tech. Computers are everywhere.

"On the other hand," he says, "traditionally the rail industry has been a great place for people who are skilled but not necessarily book-skilled. You don't necessarily need a college degree. So it's a great industry -- generally high paying, but difficult."

Sarah Nghiem has worked with a railway for six years. Her current role is manager of shipment planning.

Nghiem started as a customer service account representative. She has also been an equipment coordinator and logistics specialist.

"I like that my work is fast paced and challenging," says Nghiem. "I also like the fact that I interact with a lot of people, the business is interesting, and I have good co-workers."

Nghiem's job involves a lot of conference calls with other staff and managers, and with customers. She manages supply and demand, working with customers and operations to plan and run unit trains. She also plans lifts for the trains' loads when they are released.

Unit trains are also called block trains. They're trains that aren't split up en route. All of the train's cars are sent to the same destination. This saves time, money and trouble. Assembling and disassembling trains is a big job!

Nghiem has plenty of activities to keep her busy. Railroad work involves lots of problem solving. A big portion of Nghiem’s workload is ensuring that there are enough empty cars to meet the demand, but not too many that the yards or customers cannot operate.

"Dealing with time management and time-sensitive deadlines can be a challenging part of the job," says Nghiem. "Also, the work is always changing and it can be challenging if you don't receive information in a timely fashion. Another challenge is determining who to contact for a certain area that I am unfamiliar with."

Making the trains run on time involves a lot of coordination with others. It's definitely not a one-person job!

"I use communication skills a lot in my job, both written and oral," says Nghiem. "Time management and decision-making skills are also very important, as is teamwork."

Demographics are a big reason that rail companies will soon be hiring again. "The typical rail industry employee is much older than the typical U.S. employee," says Keen.

"We trend old," he adds. "What that means is that 10 years from now a lot of the people who are working will be retired and they have to be replaced."

Holsworth sees this already happening. "The demographic bubble that's going to hit the rest of the economy, we're already facing, which is one of the reasons we're so busy," he says. "We have such a large number of our staff who are eligible to retire and who are exercising that option."

As you can see, building a career on the rails is a very real option. Working in the rail industry is a great way to get your career on track!

"At this minute, it's a tough time," says Keen. "[But] everyone believes that in the long-term rail traffic will come back and rail transportation will continue to grow."


Association of American Railroads
Represents the major freight railroads of the U.S., Canada and Mexico

Cyberspace World Railroad
A fun and informative site

Railway Age
Lots of links available here

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