Lonnetta Smith recently lined up looking for a job–along with hundreds of others–at a career fair in Gary, Ind., a crumbling old steel town along Lake Michigan. But at least one of the employers here offered a genuine whiff of hope for real jobs in a field as old as the American frontier: working on the railroad.
“Look at me,” the stocky Smith told ABC News, “I’m built for the railroad.”
CN (Canadian National Railways) is moving 250 jobs to its northern Indiana operations, reflecting a little-noticed industry trend: Railroads are posting “help wanted” signs all across the country.
“In 2011, we’re looking to hire 15,000 people,” says Ed Hamberger, who heads the Association of American Railroads. ”My prediction is 2012 will be at least 15,000 more.”
Railroads are finally chugging out of the recession tunnel. After steep drops in freight shipments during the worst of the financial crisis, the AAR reports that railroads operating in the U.S. are running at 90 percent of their peak before the recession. In spite of a wobbly national economy, 2011 is on track to be the industry’s strongest year since 2008, when American rails moved nearly 21 million carloads.
What’s driving the railroads to recovery? High gasoline and diesel prices, for one thing. They have helped railroads take business from the trucking industry, in some cases, and work with it more effectively in others. United Parcel Service, for example, is now the biggest rider of American rails.
Not only is demand for railroads rising. The workforce is aging: Nearly 30 percent of its workers are eligible for retirement over the next five years. John Pisut, a 63-year-old CN freight conductor, is typical. He hired on as a summer replacement in 1968 and never left. “I’ve been very fortunate. Never been laid-off once in my 43 years.”
The employees who replace such veteran railroaders will get good wages and benefits, according to Hamberger, along with some rare job security. “These are jobs that are not going to be out-sourced and shipped overseas. These are American jobs. They pay well.”
In fact, he says, salaries average around $100,000 after a few years on the job. Most railroad jobs require only a high school diploma, not a college degree.
Alphonso Bounds, a brakeman trainee, moved his family to Indiana from Georgia after landing a railroad job in August, among more than 660 new U.S. based employees CN has hired this year. The 42-year-old had worked previously as a postal worker and a preacher.
“For a guy like me who was out of work for two years, this is a fresh start for me and my family,” he says.
But working on the railroad is not for the faint of heart; employees must be prepared for long hours, arduous travel, and random government-mandated testing for drugs and alcohol.
“It’s like a 140,000 mile outdoor assembly line,” says Hamberger. He says prospective workers must be disciplined — that’s one reason railroads like to hire military veterans.
But Lonnetta Smith, who lost her previous job as a certified nurses’ assistant, says she is more than willing to put up with the hours, travel, and drug-testing if she gets a coveted railroad job. ”I can get out there and swing a pick just like the average Joe. I’m not afraid of heavy work.”