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Railroad companies anticipate hiring boom:July 04, 2004.

Jul. 4--Marcos Zavala drives a screeching locomotive up and down a track in Downtown Indianapolis by flipping a few switches on a black remote control box hanging from his dirt-clad overalls.

Zavala, 56, has worked on railroads since 1980, from the Missouri Pacific Railroad Co. in Texas to The Indiana Rail Road Co., where he's worked for 16 years.

In about six years, he'll build his last freight train. That's when Zavala will be eligible for full retirement after 30 years in the industry. He is one of the thousands of aging baby boomers who are expected to retire from the railroad industry in the next few years -- which means more vacancies to fill.

U.S. railroads expect to hire 80,000 workers nationwide over the next six years, according to the Association of American Railroads. At the end of 2003, they employed 221,000. Two other reasons account for the projected job spurt: an improving economy and an increase in business.

Industry officials say this growth dispels myths that the rail freight industry is dying.

"They think we're an age-old dinosaur," said Sue Ferverda, vice president of human resources at The Indiana Rail Road Co., based in Indianapolis. "Working in the industry, I know that railroads will be moving more and more products over the next 20 years. It is a very exciting time."

Tom White, spokesman for the association, said intermodal freight has been booming.

Rail intermodal service moves truck trailers or containers by rail and another type of transportation. These containers transport lots of consumer goods, from toys to bottled water.

Intermodal traffic surged from 3 million units in 1980 to more than 10 million this year, White said. The industry is almost up 9 percent compared to last year, he said. Railroad companies nationwide have seen greater customer demand, as well.

For Canadian Pacific Railway, which operates about 90 route miles between Terre Haute and Bedford, a rise in grain traffic and freight traveling to and from China are driving demand, said Laura Baenan, communications manager for the company's Midwest region. Railroads are also taking some business from the trucking industry, said Tony Hatch, an independent transportation analyst. It's cheaper to use railroads for longer-haul freight compared to trucks. As business rises, officials also expect retirements to accelerate, in part thanks to a 2002 change in the federally operated railroad retirement program.

The change in the Railroad Retirement Act lowered the age that workers with 30 years of experience can receive full benefits from 62 to 60. "More workers (are) leaving at a time when demand is at an all-time high," Hatch said.

Now, railroad companies are anticipating hiring more field personnel.

CSX Transportation and Norfolk Southern Corp. project thousands of hirings in upcoming years. These railroad companies are the main freight train companies running in Indiana, operating more than 3,000 miles of track in the state -- about 91 percent of Indiana's route miles.

Florida-based CSX estimates it will hire nearly 4,500 workers through 2005, while Virginia-based Norfolk Southern expects to hire about 2,000 people a year over five years.

Company officials said they do not know how many people might be hired in Indiana. The Indiana Rail Road Co. operates about 140 miles of rail in the state with 99 workers. Ferverda plans to create six new railroad operating positions within six months.

That's positive news for recent hires like Billy Alumbaugh. He's training to be a train operator. "It looks good for the future of new employees like me," said Alumbaugh, 36. "It looks good for the future of railroad business."

He's spending three months in training and said every day is different -- he may end up working on a coal train, riding a locomotive as a third man, or switching cars at the company's Palestine yard.

Indiana fares well in the freight business. As of 2002, Indiana was ranked ninth in the nation for the number of total rail miles running through the state -- with 4,623 miles, according to the Association of American Railroads. The No. 1 state, Texas, had 10,347 rail miles.

Historically, railroad employment has been on the decline.

Railroad employment peaked in 1944 with 1.7 million workers.

The railroad industry went through a 20-year period of no significant hiring, White said. "Technology allowed the railroads to eliminate a lot of jobs to improve efficiency," he said.

The number of Class I employees decreased by about 50 percent from 1980 to 1990. These include employees working in line-haul freight railroads that earn an annual operating revenue of $272 million, as determined by the federal government.

Even with the projected thousands of new workers, though, the number of total railroad workers will continue to decrease, according to a June report by the U.S. Railroad Retirement Board.

"What it will boil down to (is) 110,000 will leave, 80,000 will replace them," said Jim Metlicka, public affairs specialist for the board. Despite such declines, railroads are searching for new talent.

AMDG Inc., an Atlanta-based recruiting and training company, will hold a testing and interview session for CSX in Indianapolis on July 15. The test costs $25.

Individuals who are hired through AMDG will complete three training phases: five weeks of classroom training, one week in a controlled environment and 12 weeks of on-the-job training.

Norfolk Southern held hiring sessions in at least four Indiana cities in June as part of its multicity search for workers. More than 25 railroad hopefuls strolled into the Best Western hotel lobby in Lafayette, eager to see their future as a conductor trainee.

Rudy Husband, Norfolk Southern's director of public relations, said the company looks for employees with good attitudes and experience. "We want to make sure that the people we hire understand the need to be safe, not reckless in their duties," Husband said. "Any experience in heavy machinery setting is helpful." Industry officials say train engineers -- conductors and locomotive engineers -- are the most in demand.

Conductors earn an annual average salary of $67,128, according to the railroad association. Personnel who maintain locomotives and freight cars earn $48,853, while locomotive engineers earn an average of $75,162, peaking at $110,000.

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Courtesy : The Indianapolis Star.




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