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In Search of Railway Workers

The industry struggles to train newcomers to keep up with an exodus of retiring employees.

June 06, 2005|From Reuters

PLEASANT GROVE, Calif. — Sweat beading around his sunburned cheeks, 24-year-old Shane Grupp climbs aboard the hulking freight car and sends a hand signal to his student, Art Croney, 55, who mans the controls in the locomotive.

Croney toots the horn and throttles the locomotive into motion. It lumbers back and forth across this one-mile stretch of training track in California's rice country, property that is leased and maintained by the Modoc Railroad Academy.

With its hand-me-down locomotive and scraggly track, the academy has trained nearly 300 conductors, brakemen and engineers over its six years. It sends students off with a handshake from founder David Rangel -- and as many as six offers each from the likes of Burlington Northern Santa Fe, Amtrak and Union Pacific.

The industry that shaped the American West and now carries the nation's freight loads from seaport to warehouse is desperately trying to keep up with the outflow of retiring rail men, the consequence of decades of hiring stasis and recently relaxed pension rules.

Industry estimates point to 80,000 railroad jobs that will need to be filled in the next several years, a daunting statistic that is placing enormous pressure on industry executives to attract and train new staff, and to help ensure the viability of the industry's pay-as-you-go pension system.

Having hired little in the decades since deregulation in 1980, the railroads now find themselves facing a demographic bubble not unlike what awaits the economy as a whole: Its workers are approaching retirement age in record numbers.

"The railroads look like the country in general, in terms of the aging baby boomers," said Steve Klug, the assistant vice president of human resources at Burlington Northern. "In 10 years from now, a good chunk of our people won't be here."

Today's labor problems were by all accounts intensified when, in December 2001, President Bush signed into law the Railroad Retirement and Survivor's Improvement Act.

The law, which was supported by the railroads and their unions, lowered the retirement age from 62 to 60 for employees with 30 years of experience. So many railroaders hit the new magic number, jokes Rangel, who runs the academy with his wife, that trains all across the country came screeching to a halt.

The upside for him is that his students often have their pick of employer; the bad news, he said, is that he can't find enough young men to consider the job, which he said is brutal on marriages and not for people who shy away from long nights working in the cold rain.

"This is a blue-collar trade that nobody thinks about," Rangel said. "There's too many Gen-Xers that want to stay home in their underwear and be Internet millionaires."

Grupp, the academy's precocious trainer, who says he has railroading "in my blood," concedes that he'll eventually be tempted with a job driving his own train -- a tough job, but one that can pay $60,000 or more and carries full benefits.

Burlington Northern and the nation's largest railroad, Union Pacific, are both trying to turn the rash of retirements into an opportunity to introduce diversity into the railroad, long a mainstay of white men.

Ninety-four percent of Burlington Northern's staff is male, and 83% is white, a reality the company is trying to change by attending Native American powwows and hiring women into its trainee programs.

"We still are a vestige of the way the country employed 30 years ago," Klug said.

Barb Schaefer, Union Pacific's senior vice president of human resources, recently described today's environment as a chance to "drive the most significant cultural change the railroad has seen in generations."

Fifty years ago, the railroads employed 1.2 million workers; in 2000, faced with competition from airlines and truckers, they employed just less than 250,000.

Although further contraction is expected, there is still plenty of room for schools such as Modoc and the Overland Park, Kan.-based National Academy of Railroad Sciences to train replacement workers.

Andy Burton, the director of the Kansas academy, said his program was seeking a $2-million federal grant to build a new rail yard to train the influx of new students.

Despite its location in "Dorothy and Toto land," as Burton put it, the academy is being overwhelmed with new students. "We may be required to do three eight-hour shifts of school just to meet the need," he said.

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