It didn't take much to persuade Anthony Weis to apply for a job on the railroad.
"It just seemed like the kind of thing I'd want to do. I love being outdoors," said Weis, who works part time at Flying Cloud Airport.
Weis became so determined to work for Canadian Pacific Rail (CP) that he applied for eight jobs, joined a railroad chat group and hit the gym. Then, he drove recently from St. Louis Park to Detroit for a job interview, just so he could meet the company's recruiters in person.
Last week, he took his railroad physical and spent some time aboard Engine No. 4510 in CP's Humboldt Yard in Minneapolis with 40-year train master Pat Siverling. Now Weis is waiting to hear if he will be hired. "I think it's a great opportunity," he said.
While some industries remain in layoff mode and many others are wary of hiring, the nation's railroads are waving their want ads and hosting job fairs. And job candidates like Weis are lining up in droves.
Canadian Pacific, Union Pacific, Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CSX and other railroad behemoths need workers both because demand for rail transportation is rising and because their workforces are aging. Union Pacific had 5,400 furloughed workers as recently as 2009, during the depths of recession. But it hired 4,000 last year, will hire 4,000 more this year and another 4,000 next year.
Holly Arthur, spokesman for the Association of American Railroads (AAR), said railroads will hire 15,000 conductors, engineers and yard workers this year and invest a record $12 billion in infrastructure. Rail car shipments, including intermodal trailers and containers, rose from 5.47 million in 2009 to 6 billion last year and are on pace to exceed 6.2 billion this year.
Mike Freeman, spokesman for the Rail Road Retirement Board, attributes the hiring boom mostly to a retirement boom. A 2001 tweak in the law is largely responsible for the shift, he explained. Railroad workers could suddenly retire with full benefits at age 60 if they had 30 years of service. Before that they'd only get partial benefits.
"So 2002 had a big jump in retirements, and it has stayed pretty steady since then," Freeman said.
Tired, dusty and banged up from physically demanding careers, engineers, conductors, rail yard and signal workers have retired in droves, a trend that didn't hurt when the recession hit and demand for workers slumped.
But those days are over. The association predicts that 30 percent of rail workers will retire within five years. Replacing them is critical.
With unemployment at 9.1 percent nationally, economists welcome the hiring. Few sectors show the promise of job growth like the rail industry.
But working on the railroad can be tough work with long hours and many days away from home.
Phil Qualy, state legislative director for the United Transportation Union in St. Paul, said his union is helping to train 600 new railroad hires.
"Half of our new guys won't be here in a year,'' said Qualy, who spent more than 30 years a freight conductor. "There's a high turnover rate for new hires. It's a very difficult lifestyle and physically demanding. Some people just aren't suited for it."
But his son, Dan Qualy, a former cook and forklift driver, isn't complaining.
The younger Qualy was one of 20 workers hired in March to be freight conductors for CP subsidiary DM&E Rail in Waseca. He now drives grain, ethanol, gravel, sand and canned goods across miles of track each week. He operates brakes, maintains car couplings and runs his load on shifts that keep away from home for 36 to 72 hours at a stretch.
"I love it,'' said Dan Qualy. "It's in my blood."
BNSF regional spokeswoman Amy McBeth said the railroad hired 99 people in Minnesota last year and has hired 226 more so far this year. Besides hiring to replace retirees, McBeth said BNSF ships more coal, food and shipping boxcars packed with consumer products these days, so it needs more conductor trainees, electricians and other rail positions.
Canadian Pacific is also hiring, and it's not just from backfilling attrition.
Shipments are roaring back for the 130-year-old rail line, which is based in Calgary with its U.S. headquarters in Minneapolis. In the last three months, CP recruiters hired 250 Minnesotans and there are plans to do more job fairs in the state, said CP spokesman Ed Greenberg.
"In 2010 we hired 1,650 people [systemwide] plus we brought back another 1,500 employees who had been temporarily laid off in both the U.S. and Canada," Greenberg said. "In 2011, we are on pace to hire about 1,750 people for various positions, including conductors, with more hires planned for 2012."
CP just added 61 new locomotives to its network as its shipping customers recover from the recession. With demand up, CP is shuttling more bulk grain, coal, fertilizer, consumer products as well as crude oil and ethanol.
"Frankly, this is an exciting time for anyone thinking about working in the rail industry," said Greenberg. "There are lots of opportunities."
Dee DePass • 612-673-7725