A high retirement rate has Canada’s railways stepping up their search to restock their workforce.
The industry is facing retirement rates as high as 70 per cent over the next decade and Thunder Bay’s Confederation College is helping to fill the void with its railway conductors program.
Confederation began offering the short 10-week program in 2008 and is one of a handful of colleges that have an agreement in place with the Railway Association of Canada, which represents the major railroads.
Confederation is one of four schools that offer the program nationally.
Railway conductors are entry-level jobs, but they are the lifeblood of the industry.
In all kinds of weather, they man the sidings and railyards, handling the switching, coupling and uncoupling of rail cars, and generally form or split up trains, some carrying dangerous goods.
Greg Holsworth, manager of Canadian Pacific Railway’s (CP) Employment Centre in Calgary, said the average age among CP employees is between 57 and 58, roughly five years older than the Canadian labour average.
“The (aging) demographic levels that will be hitting other industries are hitting CP now.”
In a five-year forecast released in 2008, the Railway Association anticipate the retirement and attrition rate for conductors and locomotive engineers to be more than 5,000 employees, about 14 per cent of Canada’s current rail workforce.
Last summer, CP went on a hiring binge that’s expected to continue for the next two years.
Holsworth had no concrete numbers on their overall workforce needs, but for conductors alone, they have 42 college classes of 15 students each booked for this year.
John Hatton, Confederation’s director of community and industry learning, said just about all their conductors-intraining are in demand from the moment they sign up.
The program is taught by two former CP employees who teach a combination of classroom and field work at local rail yards.
Both have industry contacts and closely scrutinize each applicant.
“We tell our guys this is a 10-week interview for a job,” said Hatton.
Prospects need a minimum Grade 12 education and if they graduate, there’s usually a good-paying job waiting for them. The average starting salary of $40,000 can quickly grow to $80,000.
There’s also an opportunity for advancement.
When a locomotive engineer retires, a conductor usually gets promoted into the cab and can move into upper management ranks.
“Some people stay as conductor their entire career,” said Holsworth.
It’s not a job for everybody.
Moving Canada’s freight safely and efficiently is a heavy responsibility.
Confederation conducts an intensive interview process for enrollees and the railway later conducts their own screening in looking for prospective employees with good attitudes, mechanical aptitude and a clean criminal record.
“We’re looking for people who are willing to work outside, do shift work and understand that a good part of it is manual labour,” said Holsworth.
Maturity is key and a broad range of experience certainly helps.
“If you have military experience, that’s always a positive thing,” said Holsworth. “Equally so is coming from a farm. We recognize that if you’re a farm kid coming from the Prairies, that’s just as valuable a background as the military.”
Being flexible certainly helps. Because of union bumping rights, new conductors have to be willing to relocate anywhere in the system.
Until they gain seniority, they’ll work holidays and usually get unpopular shifts.
Hatton said about 80 per cent of Confederation grads get job offers.
They find work with the main Class 1 carriers like CP and Canadian National, but also the regional and short-line carriers such as Ontario Northland, and even grain elevator companies like James Richardson International.
So far, Confederation has graduated 52 conductors.
Their tracking shows about 60 per cent are still employed in the rail industry.
The class sizes range between 10 and 15 students, and are run on an as-needed basis by industry so as not to flood the market.
Hatton said the trainees’ ages range between 18 and 40, from high school grads to laid-off forestry mill workers taking advantage of government retraining programs.
Confederation also makes an attempt to recruit from First Nation bands.
With an aging rank-and-file, that means more hiring right across Canada, especially in the oil and refinery patch of northern Alberta and the natural resources plays in Saskatchewan.
Besides conductors, Holsworth said CP also needs mechanics, labourers, track maintainers and people for administrative positions.