Hiring on a fast track at BNSF

Rail company goes full steam ahead to meet rising demand, replace retiring baby boomers

By KATHERINE YUNG / The Dallas Morning News

After three six-month deployments to the Persian Gulf for the U.S. Navy, Brandon Rusk needed a change.

The 27-year-old Texan gave up life aboard a gigantic aircraft carrier for a different kind of adventure: barreling down the tracks on a freight train from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Brandon Rusk is one of Burlington Northern’s newest conductors. A significant number of BNSF’s new hires are ex-military personnel; Mr. Rusk was in the Navy. "I don't know anybody who doesn't think trains are pretty cool," said one of the newest conductors for Burlington Northern Santa Fe Corp.

Former military personnel such as Mr. Rusk make up an increasing number of new workers at the Fort Worth-based company, which has embarked on a hiring binge unlike any other in recent memory.

Last year, the railroad hired more than 4,800 people.

That comes on top of adding 7,500 in 2004 and 2005, and this year, it anticipates welcoming 4,000 more. "Our projection is that it's going to be at this level for a number of years," said Jeanne Michalski, Burlington Northern's vice president of human resources and medical.

Retiring baby boomers and growing demand for railroad services sparked the hiring boom. The railroad estimates that 41 percent of its more than 40,000 employees will be eligible for retirement over the next 10 years.

The challenge for Burlington Northern: Integrate a massive number of new employees while gracefully coping with the exodus of thousands of others. The hurdle also looms in other growth industries with lots of retiring baby boomers.

That's why thousands of openings exist for oil and gas engineers, electric utility linemen and truck drivers. But the demand for new rail workers stands out. Only in the last three years has the total number of rail workers increased, reversing decades of falling employment as railroads shrank their networks and struggled to become more efficient.

Today the industry is prospering, thanks to a tidal wave of imports from China that are moved across the country by rail. Last year, total freight volume and revenue hit another record.

With freight demand expected to jump 67 percent by 2020, the industry anticipates adding 80,000 jobs over the next six years, according to the Association of American Railroads.

That puts pressure on Burlington Northern, which had gone a decade without significant hiring. In addition to tapping into schools, colleges and jobs fairs, it's placed recruitment ads in unusual places such as movie theaters and highway billboards.

It also talked to trucking companies to get ideas on how best to use the Internet to attract new workers.

Getting on track

Even with the industry's renaissance, many young people view railroads as yesterday's technology.

"People don't know about railroads," said Steven Klug, Burlington Northern's assistant vice president of human resources- operations. "We're still one of the best-kept secrets." Finding qualified new hires has proved the biggest challenge.

Of the 85,000 job applications it receives a year, it selects only 12,000 for interviews. Most applicants are male. Life on the rails isn't for everyone. Conductors are constantly on call and work odd hours, and they also work outdoors in the cold, rain and heat.

So far, the military has turned into the railroad's biggest source of new hires. Of 1,000 veterans hired last year, just over half came from the Army, 20 percent from the Air Force, 15 percent from the Marine Corps and 12 percent from the Navy.

The railroad even employs a manager who focuses on attracting current or former military personnel to the company. These people understand the importance of safety rules and have already adapted to a 24/7 operating environment where you can get called up at any moment, Mr. Klug said. "The whole mentality fits really well."


The railroad needed to do more than get new workers in the door. It also sought to preserve the institutional knowledge of longtime employees, who were retiring in droves.

To do that, it's bringing on new hires before their predecessors leave. And it's developing systems to document procedures, such as the best way to maintain a track.

These and other workforce moves require a tremendous investment.

The railroad spends about $20,000 to $25,000 on each new conductor, mostly to cover the cost of paid training programs that last 13 to 15 weeks. One of those trainees is Wesley Zepeda, a 19-year-old conductor who's one of a growing number of young people enticed by a career on the rails.

These days, he's riding trains that are 86 cars long from the Fort Worth area to Temple, Wichita Falls, Tulsa, Okla., and other destinations. He expects to earn at least $50,000 before taxes.

At first, his parents, an orthopedic surgeon and a nurse, couldn't understand why he wanted to forgo college for a railroad job, he said. But after learning about the industry's potential, they now support his decision.

And it doesn't hurt that some of his friends with bachelor degrees are earning less money than he does. "College is not a guarantee anymore," he said.

Qualifications: High school diploma or GED. Must pass an examination at the end of a 13- or 15-week paid training program. Working conditions: Must be able to work on-call 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, in all kinds of weather.

Required to work on weekends and holidays. Must be able to travel to job sites around the area and remain on site for days at a time.

Job description:

Gets relays from the dispatcher, switch foreman, yard master or others. Operates a variety of track switches and derails. Monitors track conditions, checks switch points and inspects rail cars and other equipment. Observes, interprets and relays hand, lantern and other signals affecting the movement of trains and judges and controls the speed and clearance distance of rail cars. Sets and releases hand brakes. Prepares required reports.

Average annual salary:

Next career step: Many conductors go on to become train engineers.

SOURCE: Burlington Northern Santa Fe

Next Article:

NBC News:

Union Pacific expands with more jobs

(2/07/2007) By Adam Freeman

Union Pacific railroad continues to grow at a rapid pace.

In order to keep up with the demand, the company is trying a new way of hiring employees. The railroad plans to add least 200 new train service workers this year to keep up with the increase in coal trains, as well as those who are retiring.

To help with the hiring, UP is teaming with the Nebraska Workforce Development Center to open up a "store front" hiring center in North Platte.

“Applicants can come in and get questions answered directly from a person in our workforce development who has been thoroughly trained in the occupation of train service at the railroad,” said Director of Employment Jolene Jefferies.

This is a pilot program that will run through June 30th. Right now, they will only be filling train service positions, but if it is successful, they could expand the program in the future.

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