“From the Ballast” is an open column for SMART Transportation Division rail members to state their perspective on issues related to the railroad industry. Members of the union are encouraged to submit content by emailing to news_TD@smart-union.org. Columns are published at the union’s discretion and may be published in the SMART TD newspaper.

Why is it so hard to hire people into jobs that companies are actively trying to eliminate?

Courtesy morguefile.com.

This seems to be a question that answers itself, yet it remains the paradox that currently defines the railroad industry. Railroad companies all over the United States have two things in common.

First: They are desperate to attract talented workers to the industry to fulfil the needs of a self-created labor shortage.

Second: They are openly requesting permission from the Federal Railroad Administration to eliminate the profession that they want to fill (and have been doing so for quite some time).

It’s not all that difficult to see why the second item makes it almost impossible to achieve the first. Signing bonuses are a wonderful incentive to short-sighted job seekers, but men and women seeking a career path have no incentive to leave their current job to work for a railroad when they are being told their prospective employer is investing millions of R&D dollars and in lobbying with the intent of making their new profession go the way of the dinosaur.

No high-priced ad campaign and no tantalizing signing bonus can make this truth go away. The amount of press coverage that came about in 2022 during national contract negotiations has placed this industry-wide contradiction into a national spotlight.

On December 14th in Washington D.C., Union Pacific unveiled before the FRA, their now-infamous YouTube video that highlights the “advantages” of ground-based expeditors over the time-tested institution of an in-cab freight conductor during a hearing on the two-person crew rulemaking. This video was a wake-up call to many railroaders that the Class I’s were no longer speaking hypothetically about removing conductors from the cab of America’s locomotives. They were actively and aggressively pursuing it.

The logic contained in UP’s propaganda video had more holes in it than can be addressed in one article, but it did bring to the surface one truth; No railroader in their right mind could justify encouraging their kids/nephews/nieces/friends or neighbors to hire out on the rail. When we are fearful of our own jobs, we are 100% not going to be responsible for misleading loved ones into following us down a career path targeted for extinction.

In railroading, there is a common expression about how you can get the word out on any topic, it is “Telephone, Telefax, Tell-a-Railroader.” UP’s video premiered at an FRA hearing with roughly 30 people in attendance and maybe 100 viewers on Zoom, but a bombshell like that was inevitable to be talked about in every crew room and railroad hotel lobby from that day forward.

To all the Class I rail companies looking down the barrel of stagnant head counts, I would tell you this; Your employees used to be the only recruiting tool you needed and that advertising came free of charge. Now you not only do not have that resource to lean on, but you need to up your advertising budget as well as your “hiring incentives” to even come close to getting enough bodies into your training classes. Additionally, conductors are constantly learning the craft of how to be an engineer when they are in the locomotive. There is an added value for the carrier because it works out that they get the benefit of an apprenticeship program without having to put one in place. That will be gone in a scenario where the first time an employee is on the engine, he/she is expected to run it.

This column was written by Daniel Banks, a SMART-TD member for 11 years who is a member of Local 378 in Cleveland, Ohio. He has worked as a conductor and engineer for CSX and now serves members as a public relations representative out of the Independence, Ohio, headquarters.