There is a misconception among people outside the rail industry that rail is an outdated, dying industry. How can this perception be changed in order to attract the next generation of rail employees? (Michele Malski)

Michelle Malski (SPRING) Spacing

I love this question not only because I am a second-generation railroader, but because this gets right to the core of the issues facing our employers in the rail industry. I have been invited to speak at several events this year, and recently I have adopted an ice breaker, more of a litmus test of eye-opening honesty. Let me share some of those similar points based on real-life observations, experiences, and various sources of data from the railroad retirement annual reports to Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) white papers.

Similar to the main players in the hit series Game of Thrones, we as an industry know better than any other how to survive, how to take a perceived missed opportunity and turn it into a thriving transload. A specific example of this perseverance is showcased in our short lines. Short Lines watch their interchanging partners’ carloadings report, read the traffic trends, and analyze the economic tea leaves from the Class I’s. They really are crafty little minks that know how to store food for tougher winters and gather berries in the summer. Reinventing themselves, asking why, being different than the others, are keys to individualism as well as basic survival of business, and this thirst for adventure is what the next generation is looking for. Whether we are a Class I’s with new and improved PSR agendas servicing our customers with real-time information, or we are helping our lost coal plant turn into an LNG terminal, we are reinventing ourselves and we need the help of the next generation, and their ideas. We are in the phase of another rail renaissance I like to think. Its time now to change our culture, our ideas about the next generation, and how we look at the success of our business. More veterans, more women, more internships, more involvement with local high schools, we need to engage now to make a lasting impression for later. We have to first fix our own way of thinking about our progress and selves before we can adjust the way others also see us and our progress.

Before we get started, do you like onions?

Like onions, our challenge has multi-layers and can make you cry if you aren’t looking in the right direction, which is ahead. Let’s first talk about looking in the right direction.

Layer 1: Visualizing Expectations

Why do you expect candidates to apply to your jobs if they don’t even know you exist?

A once observed association between two things or actions does not prove any type of cause and effect relationship. Correlation does not mean causation. Just because we, as employers were successful in the late 1970s-1980s in hiring does not mean those tactics will save you in 2020. We need to get to know our audience because it changes with time. It’s imperative for us to adjust strategies, so we can communicate who we are and why that matters to different audiences of candidates.

Sometimes I wonder, if we, as the rail industry, have retreated to our territories only to stomp our feet and pout about why we can’t interest the next generation of employees. “They don’t want to work” or “I can’t find any quality employees interested in rail!” are frequent sayings I hear often.

My question is, “where are you looking?” At the college events and veteran career fairs I have been to since 2019, I have gathered an overwhelming interest in candidates to learn more about our industry. I bring an HO scale Erie Lackawanna locomotive coupled to a covered hopper on a little track. I let candidates touch the display and ask questions. I keep one wheel not connected to the hopper so that I can remove the car from the track and explain the different departments a candidate could get involved with, from track, maintenance of way, mechanical, operations up to all the players making that information flow from action to inbox in the accounting or marketing office. Eyes widen with amazement. The candidates are there, what we have to fix is the visual of us being present as well, no more career fair booths without any railroads represented. We are a great industry and our story is one of perseverance and overcoming challenges, now we have to start “showing up,” and be more than a memory. Be a presence at career events, colleges, and military bases, and if you can’t make that work, hire someone to do so. This is your first commitment in our path to changing our own expectations for the future as well and visualizing who and how we are represented. There are more than 8,760 hours in a year, show up for 3 hours to start making railroads a viable career option, compared with a myth of existing.

Layer 2: Brand Representation

Now that we are going to show up, (right?), who is going to be representing your legacy?

Who is representing your brand at recruiting events? How are they representing your brand? If you don’t know, here’s the first problem of quality control and experience. If you don’t have people that know the job or are passionate about your company or the rail industry in general, this may be a part of the initial problem of recruiting candidates anywhere.

I witnessed an employer’s recruiter at an event in 2019 say to a candidate, “You are going to work around the clock, but you’re going to get paid well which is nice. Say goodbye to holidays if you get this job.” My inner recruiter soul had a few choice words for this individual, but is this who you want expressing your company’s opportunities for the future? Never lie, but also, for the love of my dog Charlemagne, please be positive, have passion, like the company you represent. This would be an event this employer would not be able to expect candidates from because of this missed brand opportunity.

And your brand needs to be out there, front and center, frequently, competing with your competition, all the other industries and their recruiters who already believe in this idea of attracting the next generation of employees. Find recruiters that embody your company’s culture, like what they do, and have a clue what the jobs they are promoting actually do. You as the employer can train your recruiters and empower them, inspire them to inspire others. We'll come back to this idea of cross-training, but just know, if you can’t have someone represent the jobs with knowledge, or have a local employee come by and join a junior recruiter to share about the job you are looking for, then at the very least have someone with passion in front of your audience. Passion and authenticity are timeless and reads to all generations. We are all trying to lift hope for our jobs and hope is a fragile idea that can be squashed with one event with the wrong people representing your brand.

Layer 3: Internal Activism and Attitude

This leads me to the next question, does this statement ring in truth for you and your company? “My company is actively hiring next-generation employees for its future success.”

If you are not, or you do not believe in this statement, then it’s going to be hard for you to attract top talent within next generation. They have different wants than the boomer generation had, because like our parents, we only want more for our children like they wanted for us. The next generation seeks companies that make an impact. They seek a company that is different and embrace training for their employees. They wish to find a company with benefits that ease the stresses of everyday life, for example, key benefits such as 401Ks, solid healthcare, tuition assistance, gym memberships, maternity, paternity, even “paw-ternity” leave, charity options of donations, flexible schedules, and how about railroad retirement! As a railroad employer, you are already an employer that offers training. Showcase this as other employers may not even offer training for their careers, and every benefit your company has that makes you different from your competitors, and your competitors are all employers, not just the rail industry.

We can’t pout in our castles anymore, we need to embrace the knowledge and talents of the next generation, whether they be IT geniuses, veterans, or just curious next-generation candidates who want to ask “why” and help you make your team even better. Veterans are excellent candidates who thrive with self-motivation and self-driven objectives. Thank veterans by offering them their mission right here at home with your team. Millennials want to be a part of something and have the opportunity to be included beyond their job’s scope, so give them projects, give them mentors to shadow in other departments, give them problems to solve. Embrace these candidates and their strengths, support their needs, and they will provide. The only thing in life that is constant is change, so be the change agent by including the next generation in your decision-making processes. “This is the way we always have done it” is not going to cut it anymore if you want to stay in business and not neglect an entire generation of talented energized civilian and veteran candidates.

Layer 4: Mentorship & Uplifting Your Underlings

Mentors & Mentees are the chain links securing your future.

We all think at some point or another that we can do our boss's job. So let me ask you this, can you slip right into all of the responsibilities your superior has to handle if you had to Monday morning?

Maybe you are the boss. Let's look the other direction: Are your subordinates learning the tasks you do in case you needed someone to tap in?

This is the essence of succession planning. You don’t have to have a multi-tier mega-dollar training program to train others in your skills, to write down your tasks and methods of accomplishing those tasks. In fact, we all suffer from amnesia when it comes to what we did. When tax season rolls around, can you pinpoint each receipt? Hopefully, that’s not an issue for you, but I know that Technology has helped us immensely keep track of ourselves. Yet, when it comes to sharing our job duties, when was the last time you jot down how to handle a tough customer in general terms? How did you proceed with the derailment over the bridge? What were the steps? What worked and what didn’t? Write this stuff down, jot down an outline of your day to day tasks, and then we have a living draft that the next “you” can start from. It’s a really just a relay race of information, but if you’re running around and don’t have a baton to handoff, then you’re just running in circles, right?


There are many layers to this onion that we can unravel, but these are the key points to get you in the right direction to putting all the ingredients together to make a great result. Brand yourself to the audience you are looking to attract, know that audience, speak with experience, authenticity, and passion, start training others for your role, prepare them for the next steps, let them shine and surpass your expectations, provide quality control for the message you spread, protect hope in the future. This is the rail renaissance, and it’s time we all plan for the future of our legacies ahead.