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Aging workforce cause for concern (10/02)

By Ian Ross Canada’s rail industry workforce is graying faster and rail companies expect to be scrambling in the coming years to infuse young talent into the ranks.

By Ian Ross

Canada’s rail industry workforce is graying faster and rail companies expect to be scrambling in the coming years to infuse young talent into the ranks. Sault College is responding to the anticipated need for rail workers with a proposed railway trades training institute.

According to the Railway Association of Canada, the North American railway sector has slashed 50,000 jobs over the past decade. Due to union agreements, many of those cuts affected the sector’s youngest workers, which will become a critical issue for the industry.

Canadian Pacific Railway, in particular, could see one-fifth of its employees retiring over the next five years and expects to face a retirement crunch sooner than other firms in other industries.

“Certainly there is a trade shortage in every industrial sector and the rail sector is going to be experiencing the same shortage,” says Roger St. Jules, Sault College’s manager of training services.

Sault College and FedNor have jointly provided $61,091 in funding to contract consultant Ralph Medaglia, a former Algoma Central Railway superintendent, to assist the college in conducting research with the rail industry to consider the feasibility of forming a Railroad Industry Institute based in Sault Ste. Marie.

Medaglia, a retired Algoma Central Railway mechanical superintendent for 27 years, credits Sault MP Carmen Provenzano for identifying the future need for the industry.

At the same time, Human Resources Development Canada and the Railway Association of Canada released a study in June, which confirmed the industry’s demand for skilled trades.

Provenzano asked Medaglia to work with Sault College to determine whether developing such an institute was feasible.

“Through experience I could see this trend coming up,” says Medaglia. “The average age of a railroader throughout the (Canadian) system in mechanical, transportation, and track maintenance is between 45 and 48.”

Sault College already runs a heavy-equipment “rubber tire” diesel mechanic program and in the past has trained apprentices as locomotive mechanics.

“This is something every college in Canada can offer - services to the rail industry. I was asked to do an assessment of their facilities and add the railway content to this.”

Whether there are eager young college graduates primed for careers in railroading will be a challenge for the recruiters.

“It is an old industry and perhaps we as parents haven’t done an adequate job of teaching our kids about it,” says St. Jules. “The rail industry has also been remiss in promoting careers in its own industry.”

Medaglia envisions a Sault institute affiliated with a major railway offering a comprehensive, well-rounded graduate with hands-on experience from working in “real-life situations over and above the standard training.” The institute would also offer upgrading courses for professional development training. The jobs in the greatest demand stand to be anything in the mechanical fields of locomotive, freight car and track maintenance repair, as well as conductors and signal and communications.

Medaglia is putting together a survey of needs for a business plan, which will include research and identify industry training requirements to develop a general plan for the college in order to cost out the development of the curriculum and the institute.

The preliminary research is expected to be complete by December and from there, Medaglia will develop a comprehensive proposal which will be submitted to the rail industry and federal government for funding to start the project. The goal is to develop some infrastructure for the program as early as next year.