Mark Brown, Columnist
November 29, 2006
(Used with permission)
The railroads are hiring again. You'd pretty much have to be an old railroader or a family member of one to truly appreciate how strange that news seems. I qualify on both counts, and while my credentials as an actual railroader might be considered a bit thin, it sure sounded strange to me.
This is an industry given up for dead more than once, after all, an industry that left thousands of middle-class families high and dry in the 1980s when mergers and closings led to large-scale layoffs and lesser indignities for those lucky enough to keep their jobs.
As I've mentioned before, my grandfather worked for the railroad, and my father worked for the railroad. So did his brothers. So did my brothers. One still does. I worked summers at the railroad to put myself through college.
It was, therefore, with more than passing interest that I read Tuesday's Associated Press report, which ran in the Sun-Times, on how the railroads are aggressively recruiting workers for the first time in generations, the result of high fuel prices and a shortage of truck drivers that have returned freight to the rails from the highways.
The Union Pacific alone expects to hire some 6,000 new employees this year. The BNSF Railway Co., the survivor of the old Burlington Northern and Santa Fe railroads, has hired 14,000 people over the past four years. Apparently, you don't even need a relative to put in a good word for you.
And these jobs are paying decent union wages, not the crumbs some startup operators were offering in job-starved communities in the years after consolidation.
Fallback plan if the sky falls
There's another reason this story caught my eye.
As some of you may know, these are not boom times in the newspaper industry, which is feeling the pinch of the new media and the redirection of advertising dollars.
A guy my age always has to be thinking about employment alternatives in case the sky falls, not that I'm expecting the sky to fall, mind you, but you want to have an idea of what else you might do if the need arose.
The problem, though, is that I've only had two types of jobs in my life: working for newspapers and working for the railroad. Obviously, I thought my options were limited.
But now I'm thinking I might have a fallback plan: Maybe I could get hired on at the railroad. It's in the bloodlines, you know. Any railroader will tell you that. When you grow up around trains, you have a better feel for what the job -- and life -- entails.
Unfortunately, it can entail long, unpredictable hours away from your family, working outdoors in all weather conditions and responsibilities that can be physically dangerous -- all factors that caused my dad, who loved railroading, to insist I get an education and find another career.
I've been clerking on the railroad
Even at the railroad, my dad steered me into being a clerk instead of following the rest of the family into train service to save me from the rough-and-tumble of riding the rails.
A clerk's job in those days was to keep track of the paperwork involved in making sure the individual freight cars got directed to the right place and for properly billing the shipper.
There were no computers yet. We'd get word a train was coming and race to the end of the rail yard to write down the numbers of the individual cars as they rumbled past. There was more to it than that, but you get the picture. I also had occasional responsibility as a laborer loading piggyback trailers on flat cars, which was real work.
When I checked Union Pacific's Web site, though, I found it wasn't looking for any clerks. Three basic positions were advertised: transportation associate, engineering associate and mechanical associate.
That "associate" part made it sound a little too much like working at Wal-Mart, so I put in a call to the BNSF.
Company spokesman Steven Forsberg assured me his railroad doesn't use the term "associate" to describe its conductors, engineers, brakemen and switchmen.
Following in dad's footsteps
But he had bad news for me when I inquired about openings for clerks.
"That's one craft that's been declining in numbers," he said. "Technology eliminated a lot of those jobs."
There are opportunities on the high-tech end, he assured me, but that rules me out. In other words, I can get a job at the railroad if I want to do the work my dad tried to save me from doing.
Forsberg said he used to be in newspapers, but has now worked 30 years at the railroad and is preparing to retire.
Maybe I could get his job.
Or maybe I'll live long enough to read a story about how newspapers are hiring again.