WASHINGTON – As the nation is coming out of its job slump, freight railroads are expected to hire more than 80,000 new workers over the next six years, the American Association of Railroads predicts.
"The railroad provides good career opportunities," said 37-year-old Donavan "Chris" White, an assistant general foreman for mechanical operations at CSX Transportation. "I’ve been with the railroad over five years. I came up through the ranks and then went to management, where I moved up quite fast. There’s the potential to rise through the ranks as far as you want to go."
Thousands of employees have already been hired due to the growing economy, sharp increase in business for railroads and higher-than-expected retirements, with thousands more hire expected this year and over the next six years.
"With the innovative, technical advances that railroads are making, I thought a career with the rail industry would provide huge growth opportunities down the road," said Reena Ramakrishnan, a 30-year-old intermodal business manager for marketing and sales at Union Pacific Railroad in Omaha, Nebraska.
Railroads offer competitive salaries – with Class I employees earning an annual average salary of $61,895 in 2003. Personnel who maintain locomotives and freight cars typically earn $48,853, while conductors – who are particularly in demand – earn an average of $67,128 and locomotive engineers earn an average of $75,162, peaking at about $110,000. On top of high salaries, employees receive annual benefits packages averaging $22,986.
"The rail industry offers exciting jobs for the class of 2004 and those looking for careers with strong growth opportunities," said Edward R. Hamberger, president and CEO of the Association of American Railroads (AAR). "We seek to employ ‘go-getters’ who want to work with powerful locomotive engines and gain an understanding of today’s sophisticated technology. With freight demand expected to jump 67 percent by 2020, the rail industry offers stability, with fantastic opportunities for a long-term career path. We’re preparing for a bright future."
The major rail hubs of Chicago, Kansas City, Seattle, Los Angeles, Memphis, St. Louis and Atlanta have among the highest number of openings. More rural areas also have hiring needs, including Alliance, Nebraska; Clovis, New Mexico; Havre, Montana; Gillette, Wyoming; Galesburg, Illinois and Springfield, Missouri.
"Led by intermodal service – freight trains carrying consumer goods in truck trailers – railroads are proving to be a growth industry again," said Anthony B. Hatch, an independent Wall Street analyst. "Railroads also are moving increased volumes of automobiles, building materials, grain, plastics chemicals and coal. We expect railroads to play an ever larger role in American industry and worldwide distribution."
The rail industry employed 221,000 workers at the end of 2003. The Railroad Retirement Board projects that more than 80,000 new workers will enter the industry in the next six years – and 140,000 over the next 10 years. With continued strong traffic growth, railroads may need even more workers.
The surge in retirements has resulted from railroad retirement reform legislation enacted in 2002, which lowered the age that workers can receive full benefits from 62- to 60-years-old for those with 30 years of experience. The rail industry has a significantly older workforce than the United States as a whole – almost 40 percent of rail employees are eligible to retire within the next decade.
"Youth is a commodity in railroads," said Corey Veal, a 27-year-old assistant superintendent for Norfolk Southern Corporation in Greenville, South Carolina. "I bring something different to the table."
Highly skilled workers are needed for today’s technologically-advanced freight railroad industry. For example, the cab of a modern locomotive looks much like that of a jetliner, equipped with computer display terminals and microprocessor-controlled engines. Other railroad personnel help operate some of the largest computer and private telecom systems in the world.
Nearly all of today’s railroad jobs require significant technical expertise, which necessitates training. Training programs have traditionally been conducted in-house, although some railroads have worked with community colleges to develop a railroad curriculum that prepares students for careers in railroading.
"I got to a point in my life where I needed a change," said 47-year-old Annette Jokish, who has been a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway conductor for five years and is now training to be an engineer at the National Academy of Railroad Sciences in Overland Park, Kansas. "I interviewed with a railroad and liked what I learned. The railroad offered good pay, good benefits and training."
Railroad employees enjoy high pay, yet their work is often physically demanding, must be performed outside in all types of weather and necessitates schedules that accommodate 24/7 operations covering the entire United States.
Railroads frequently conduct recruitment and orientation sessions in conjunction with state and local community job fairs and recruit heavily at colleges and universities across the country. They also are using the Internet, advertising and direct-mail to reach potential employees.
"Riding on almost 180 years of history, the railroad industry is forward- looking," Hamberger said. "We’re a big part of America, hauling more than 42 percent of U.S. intercity freight on a 142,000-mile, nationwide network. We offer excellent careers for highly qualified people who will help us continue to keep America’s railroads the strongest in the world in the 21st century."