Why young professionals plan to keep working on the railroad

Elizabeth Hutchison was living in Chicago employed in corporate communications in heavy manufacturing when she learned about an opportunity doing similar work for Union Pacific Railroad. It was a no-brainer for this Millennial to make the move to Omaha as a UP senior communications manager nearly six years ago, but not because she was a native Nebraskan.

“The appeal to me was the opportunity to work for Union Pacific,” she says. “Rail is such a critical industry.”

Elizabeth Hutchison
Elizabeth Hutchison

Hutchison also appreciates the security of working in a 150-year-old industry, as well as the diverse experience it offers.

“You can’t be siloed here,” she explains. “You work with people across the railroad. We’re in 23 states. The big machine that is the rail industry is fascinating.”

Career stability matters. Hutchison’s reasons for not only choosing but staying with a career in rail are echoed by many of her generation working for Class Is in non-agreement positions. Scott St. Clair, manager of strategic planning at Norfolk Southern Corp., came to the railroad five years ago right after graduating from college. He wasn’t recruited — he sought out NS.

“I was familiar with the company growing up. Rail is a strong industry, and it’s really safe,” he says. “The railroads felt the effects of the economic downturn, but it’s an industry people rely on.”

In other words, railroads aren’t going anywhere, and neither are Hutchison and St. Clair.

While Generation Xers grew up during a time when company hopping was the norm, Millennials watched their parents struggle through a recession, losing jobs, houses, savings. The result? Even among those working in information technology, the drive to find a solid employer with lots of opportunities for growth within a single company is strong.

of planning and strategy in CN’s IT department, signed on with the railroad in 2003 after serving the road for several years as a consultant.

“I was absolutely amazed by the amount of projects going on and the company’s drive to improve,” he says. “And every two years, I’ve had an opportunity for a new job.”

One reason: For the past several years, railroad hiring managers have been on the prowl for new talent. A decade ago, looming retirements, normal attrition and traffic growth at North American railroads prompted H.R. execs to convince management to put talent recruitment and retention at a premium.

“In 2005, 75 percent of our employees were baby boomers,” says Diana Sorfleet, vice president and chief human relations officer at CSX Transportation. “Now, we’re about a third Millennials, a third Gen Xers, and a third baby boomers.”

At the end of 2014, Class Is had 8,000 more employees than a year earlier, and railroads plan to hire another 15,000 this year, according to the Association of American Railroads (AAR). And contrary to popular belief, rail is competing well with other Fortune 500 industries when it comes to compensation and benefits, according to AAR. The average railroad employee’s annual salary is $109,000.

“Railroads have historically hired every 20 to 30 years, but we’re now focused on constantly refreshing our workforce to maintain a balance of age and tenure,” says Sorfleet, adding that CSX’s attrition rate the last 10 years has been around 10 percent.

Meanwhile, retention rates are strong. At NS, retention stands at about 90 percent for non-agreement employees who go through the company’s management trainee program, a comprehensive 12-month training that exposes new non-agreement employees to the whole of the railroad while also giving them an opportunity to grow a professional network, says NS Manager of College Recruiting Patrick Rickard.

“We set them up to succeed early in their careers,” he adds. “Colleges are aware of this. And we provide salary and promotions based on performance.”