RAILWAY AGE, NOVEMBER 2019 ISSUE: The U.S. military’s long association with North American railroading exists on several levels. First, railroads fulfilled the military’s crucial need for movement of troops and equipment both at home and abroad, dating back to at least the Civil War. During World War I, the U.S. government assumed operation of the railroads, but the daily operation was still carried out by the roads’ employees. During World War II, U.S. railroads completed the Herculean task of serving not only the military, but the general boom in wartime traffic resulting from a strengthening economy and manufacturing needs generated mainly by the war. The Korean conflict and the Vietnam War also placed significant demands on the railroads, as have more recent conflicts in the Middle East. Also, railroad infrastructure on foreign soil during wartime required professional railroaders to join the military to build and maintain U.S. and Allied railroads near the zones of hot conflict.
During the postwar eras, many railroads found that employing veterans worked well for them, as it did for the veterans themselves. Even today, U.S. troops deployed throughout the world facing combat or other rigorous duty find, upon returning home, railroads offer excellent employment opportunities. “Veterans often have a dedicated work ethic and adaptability, both of which are important characteristics for railroad operations roles,” says Doniele Carlson, spokesperson at Kansas City Southern. Sheriee Bowman, spokesperson for CSX, points out, “The values held by the U.S. Armed Forces closely align with many of the values held by CSX. Service, dedication and leadership are just a few of the qualities that make veterans attractive candidates for a wide range of opportunities on the CSX team.”
BNSF External Corporate Communications Manager Bill Wilemon points out, “Veterans, with their teamwork and safety-first mentality, acclimate seamlessly into BNSF positions and our culture. They display leadership qualities and the ability to perform successfully in a fast-paced, dynamic environment while often having the experience of working outdoors for a prolonged period of time.”
Rory Thompson, Manager of Veteran Relations with Canadian Pacific, says that many veterans have a wide range of experience and skillsets that make a good fit for the railroad: “Leadership skills, discipline, making decisions under pressure and working in a dangerous environment are just a few. These people have operated and lived in tough environments, they can complete tasks without a lot of resources, have dealt with weather issues, and have performed well in high-tempo psychological environments. They have ambition, seek promotions and are goal-oriented.”
Union Pacific says that some of its first employees were Civil War veterans, and throughout its more than 155-year history, it has consistently supported the military, whether by moving troops and supplies, or by providing good jobs for veterans and active-duty soldiers. The company says it recognizes that members of the U.S. military are dedicated individuals who bring unique experience and skills to Union Pacific. More than 17% of employees have military experience, with some still active in the National Guard or Reserves. In the past five years, 24% of new-hires were veterans.
How Do Railroads and Veterans Connect?
Canadian Pacific’s Thompson says, “First and foremost, we have a formal military recruitment program in the human resources department. And, we found veterans are best at hiring other veterans. We attend career fairs in bases, launch social media campaigns and sponsor many military activities across the country. Part of the outreach includes our website, where we have a dedicated veterans section where we outline popular roles for veterans and use military terms to make it easier for them.”
“BNSF works with all four branches of the military, including reservists,” says BNSF’s Wilemon. “This enables us to ensure we have a strong pipeline of military talent to fill our open positions. We build those relationships through military-sponsored recruiting events, working with various Transition Assistance Program (TAP) offices and by communicating with military-related organizations and publications about our employment opportunities (Military Times, MilitaryFriendly.com, CivilianJobs.com, etc.).”
Norfolk Southern Manager of Talent Acquisition Brad Dodd says, “We have several ways we reach out to veterans. We are most actively involved in partnering with individual Soldier for Life centers at Army bases. This is the Army’s career services branch.” Norfolk Southern also participates in the Army “Partnership for Youth Success (PAYS)” program. On the second day of their enlistment, soldiers choose companies participating in the program they would like to link up with when their discharge dates are approaching. Many large companies engage in this program, including Coca-Cola and Amazon. Upon discharge, transitioning soldiers have to meet with these companies to learn what opportunities may be available to them.
“We also participate in career fairs at military bases,” Dodd adds. The railroad has recently participated in career fairs at Fort Bragg and Fort Benning. Moreover, Dodd says that Norfolk Southern is trying to expand its participation in career fairs at other bases: “We talk to a lot of soldiers who have been in the service for ten years and are uncertain about how their skill sets will transfer to the private sector. Meeting and talking with them is one of the best ways to give soldiers this insight.”
According to CSX’s Bowman, “CSX has partnerships with national organizations that help veterans transition from the military to new careers. Through these partnerships, we attend events that focus on military hiring. The ‘CSX Pride in Service’ program is one way we demonstrate our company-wide commitment to honor and serve our nation’s veterans, active military and first-responders. Many of the communities we touch have high concentrations of military families, and we have deep connections to and gratitude for the first-responders in and around all of the areas in which we operate.”
Transition to Civilian Life
The difficulties many veterans have in transitioning to civilian life are well known. While most railroads do not have counseling programs specifically for veterans, they do have robust employee assistance programs that are available to all employees. Watco’s Tracie VanBecelaere says its employee assistance program offers team members confidential counseling sessions by text, phone or in person.
Canadian Pacific’s Thompson says that, in addition to its employee assistance program, the railroad has a veterans’ social club and mentoring program. Plus, Thompson, a veteran himself, will periodically check in with other vets to see how they’re doing. “For the veterans working at CP, Rory Thompson is the go-to person for veterans employed by the railroad who have any issues or questions,” says Andy Cummings, Manager of MediaRrelations for the railroad.
“All Norfolk Southern employees have the opportunity to access mental health counseling,” NS’s Dodd says. Confidential in-house counseling is available, as are referrals to outside professional counselors. “Regardless of background, the employee benefits package includes these services.”
In addition to counseling services, the railroads work to match a skill set the veteran learned in the service with jobs on the railroad that are well-suited to that skill set. NS’s Dodd says, “When we hear about a veteran’s skill set, we try to identify particular well-suited jobs.” Also, Norfolk Southern is piloting an internship program for veterans, where the Army will provide time for the service member while still on active duty to intern in a particular job to see what they think of the job and life on the railroad.
Norfolk Southern has approximately 25,000 employees. About 20,000 are agreement employees; roughly 5,000 are non-agreement. While the general trend is for non-commissioned officers to pursue an agreement position and for officers to pursue a non-agreement job, this is not a hard and fast rule. Not all veterans who were non-commissioned officers want to pursue an agreement position, and not all who were officers wish to pursue an executive position. “We found a candidate at Fort Benning who is a West Point graduate and served as a tank commander while in the Army,” Dodd says. “When he joined Norfolk Southern, he was interested in being a supervisor, but did not want to pursue an executive job.”
Dodd adds Norfolk Southern has found that veterans who were in air traffic control jobs for either the Air Force or the Army have gravitated toward train dispatching positions. Also, many veterans who worked in logistics during their service are finding that supply chain positions on the railroad are quite suitable. Canadian Pacific’s Thompson says his railroad employs veterans from “private to lieutenant colonel.” They look at the veteran’s transferrable skills, massage them and get the right person in the right job.
BNSF’s Wilemon says, “Veterans who work for BNSF hold various leadership roles from top executives in the company to first-line supervisors. The also perform skilled-labor roles as engineers, conductors, mechanics, dispatchers, track laborers and signal maintainers. Their flexibility and can-do attitudes enable them to successfully transition into virtually any position with a variable background, including marketing and sales, finance, technology services and human resources, among others.”
In addition to significant efforts by nearly all railroads to recruit and hire veterans, several railroads have dispatched locomotives in special paint schemes that salute and honor veterans. Kansas City Southern, CSX, Union Pacific, Norfolk Southern, Canadian Pacific and Amtrak are prominent examples. The units are in regular service, and remind Americans of the sacrifices military personnel and their families are making and have made for the United States.
Antonio Esposito, Conductor, Canadian Pacific
Born in Bronx, N.Y., Antonio Esposito worked as a Services Journeyman in the U.S. Air Force for four years. When he transitioned out of the Air Force, he was looking for a career that would recognize his Associates degree in Engineering, leadership skills and dependability.
Enrolling as a conductor at CP in 2017, Esposito loves working outdoors, especially working in the yard figuring out more efficient ways to assemble trains and switch out cars. He reflects that the structured environment of the military prepared him for life at a young age, and these qualities have stayed with him at the railroad, as you always need to think on your feet with minimal supervision. Esposito’s transition was aided by the strong team environment and veteran network.
“Stay focused and don’t give up,” he says. “The civilian world is very competitive. Have a plan before you get out, and network with other veterans; it can be a great help.”
Herschel Flowers, Homeland Security Manager, Kansas City Southern
Herschel Flowers was a U.S. Army Infantry Non-Commissioned Officer, and after Officer Candidate School he became a Chemical, Biological, Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Officer, mainly in charge of Homeland Defense and Consequence Management. The Units he has been part of are responsible for preventing and/or responding to Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) incidents.
Since his mission was Homeland/CBRN Defense, Flowers did not see combat, but has been mobilized to support his Unit missions at different locations. He is currently a Major in the Army Reserve (almost 19 years total service). At this time he serves as the Course Chief for the Army Reserve and National Guard CBRN Captains Career Course, responsible for coordinating training for Officers at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo.
In 2007, as he was transitioning out of Active Duty after almost 7 years, Flowers attended a job fair in Dallas, where he was able to interview with KCS. The railroad was interested in his military experience and his diverse skill set that included understanding in HAZMAT, Legal affairs and CBRN, as well as that he is a fluent Spanish speaker.
Flowers is the Homeland Security Manager at KCS, responsible for working with all federal agencies that manage railroad security (TSA, DHS, FRA, CBP, FBI). He ensures that the company meets all regulatory requirements, and works with KCS Railroad Police to help enhance the company’s security posture and readiness. While at KCS, he recently had the opportunity to Commission as a Peace Officer, so he now also serves as Railroad Special Agent within the KCS Police Department, responsible for the protection of railroad personnel, property and assets.
Lyle Hayes, Director of Marketing, Industrial Products, BNSF
Lyle Hayes served in the U.S. Navy for 11 years, holding a variety of Intelligence Officer positions while stationed in Virginia, South Korea and Hawaii. Additionally, he deployed throughout Asia, the Middle East and Northern Africa in support of Operation Southern Watch, Operation Enduring Freedom, Operation Unified Assistance and the broader Global War on Terrorism.
During his time in the Navy, Hayes also competed as a sweeper on the Men’s All-Navy Soccer Team, eventually earning the same defending position on the Men’s All-Armed Forces Soccer team.
After marrying his wife, Monique, and celebrating the birth of his daughter, Soraya, Hayes decided to pursue employment options outside of the Navy, and recruited the assistance of a headhunter for junior officers in 2008. During this timeframe, the economy was on a downturn; however, BNSF was still actively recruiting in the Los Angeles area to fill needed positions.
In late 2008, Hayes began his career at BNSF as an Industrial Products Sales Manager in San Bernardino. He eventually took a position in sales for the Consumer Products team, gaining a wider understanding of the various commodity groups at BNSF. Using this knowledge, Hayes earned a director’s role in Customer Support. Now in his 11th year with the company, Hayes has returned to the Industrial Products team, where for the past two years as a director of marketing he has been responsible for marketing strategy, forecasting and pricing for BNSF’s forest products business.
No longer in the service, Hayes now enjoys the consistency of work hours that his current job provides, while also appreciating the skills and experience that he acquired in the Navy that led to his employment at BNSF. He now uses his free time coaching his 11-year-old daughter’s soccer team, which he has done since she was five, and supporting his favorite English Premier League football team, Arsenal.
“Before the headhunter connected me to BNSF, I would have never thought of the railroad industry and how my skills and training from the Navy might transfer to that environment,” said Hayes. “Now, having been here for 11 years, I can see that my military experience has opened doors and paved the way to a successful start of my career.”
Stephanie Stone, Assistant Trainmaster, Canadian Pacific
Like the military, CP has high expectations of its employees and demands a lot. It also rewards accordingly. Ex-military officers have completed a ton of leadership training, and even a Junior Captain would have a plethora of leadership experience. They would already have the right tools to be successful as a manager.”
Born in Kingston, Ont., Stone enrolled in the Royal Military College where she completed her degree in Business. Thereafter she explored various ranks and roles working in the search and rescue squadron, transport squadron and in the air force as a wing comptroller.
While loving the military lifestyle, community and work ethic, Stone found herself wanting more control over her career and postings. Enrolling in the Veterans Management Trainee Program, she soon discovered that her leadership, communication and management skills could place her immediately in a role similar to a Junior Officer leading a team of employees with decades of experience.
Access to other departments to learn how various trades work together has been a rewarding experience that not only enable her to make decisive decisions accountable to operations, but to highlight the numerous career paths she can take. For now, Stephanie enjoys working as an Assistant Trainmaster as she likes to travel and finds the work, pay and benefits very similar to military life.
Rory Thompson, Manager of Veteran Relations, Canadian Pacific
Born and raised in Scotland, Rory Thompson spent 11 years as a British Army Officer. During his term, he served as a Captain in the prestigious Parachute Regiment, worked for a British Intelligence Agency, and was deployed to more than 15 countries. After spending more than two years in Canada as an Operations Officer at the British Army’s largest training establishment in Suffield, Alberta, he decided he wanted to emigrate and settle into civilian life.
After his transition out of the military, Thompson quickly found a job at CP applying his technical knowledge and extensive leadership skills as a Manager in the Signals and Communications Department. After identifying many parallels and synergies between the military and the railroad, he found himself recruiting many of his veteran colleagues to CP.
Thompson was recognized for his efforts assisting the veteran community transition to careers at CP and was promoted to Manager of Veteran Relations. In this role, he is responsible for recruiting and retaining veterans at CP.
Alexandra Tomo, Senior Analyst-Services Scheduling, Union Pacific
Alexandra Tomo always wanted to be a pilot, but her dreams were halted by something outside of her control: her height. “I thought, well, if I can’t fly, the next best thing is to be around planes,” Tomo said.
After four years of ROTC at Clarkson University in Potsdam, N.Y., Tomo was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force. She served as an aircraft maintenance officer at California’s Beale Air Force Base for three years before completing a two-year tour at Bellevue (Neb.) Offutt Air Force Base. As an aircraft maintenance officer, Tomo worked long shifts, sometimes from 5:30 am to 8 pm, scheduling both emergency and routine aircraft maintenance, preserving plane health. “Just like your car needs an oil change, planes and trains need routine maintenance,” she said.
Tomo is proud of her work as an aircraft maintainer. “They’re the backbone of the Air Force,” she said. “Working in that field was the best choice I made.” When she switched from active duty to reserve, Tomo looked for a career requiring related skills. “What drew me to Union Pacific was how similar it is to the military,” Tomo said. “I went from managing aircraft maintenance to managing train schedules.”
Today, she’s in UP’s Network Planning and Operations Department, working in service design and scheduling. “Although I still work behind the scenes, it’s satisfying to see cars running smoothly, creating happy customers,” she said.
Illustrating the similarities between the military and UP, Tomo led a group of Harriman Dispatching Center (HDC) and Network Planning and Operations employees on an Offutt Air Force Base tour. “Some of my old maintainers were there and asked, ‘What are you doing in civilian clothes?’” she said. “I was able to tell them how happy I was with my transition from active duty to UP.”
Tomo serves today as a reservist in the Air National Guard. “I still have a passion for the Air Force, and UP is supportive of my continued service,” she said.
Craig Volstad, Senior Project Manager, Canadian Pacific
Serving 25 years in the military, Craig Volstad has seen it all. He has served in every province and territory in Canada and two combat tours in Kandahar, Afghanistan. His ambition and dedication to leadership paved an accomplished career path full of post-secondary degrees (MBA, BEng, PBDM) and the senior rank of Major.
After an accomplished and celebrated career with seven moves, Volstad made the decision with his wife to settle in Calgary, a location where they knew they could find a stable and nurturing community for their family and careers. Working with Prospect, he was put in touch with CP as a preferred employer of veterans.
While having no previous railway experience, Volstad’s educational and leadership experience was recognized by CP’s recruitment team as someone who has exceptional organizational and project management qualities. he was hired on as a Senior Project Manager in the Information Services department. He is now responsible for four major initiatives.
Carl Walker, CSX Chief Engineer Communications & Signals
Carl Walker began his career at CSX in 1999 as a Manager of Communications Solutions in technology following 22 years of dedicated service in the United States Navy. Carl has held various roles with increasing levels of responsibility, including Director of Communications Operations, Director of Program Management for Technology Projects, Assistant Chief Engineer Communications, Assistant Chief Engineer Signal Construction, and now, Chief Engineer Communications & Signals.
Walker began his military career as an enlisted service member in communications and was commissioned as an officer in 1989. He completed three deployments to the Persian Gulf on the U.S.S. George Washington during Operation Iraqi Freedom and the Gulf War. As a commissioned officer, he was stationed at the Trident Training facility in Kings Bay, Ga., where he was the Combat Systems Training officer responsible for training crews of the Trident submarine in information and weapons systems, communications, electronics and ship handling.
Walker learned about CSX while in the military, and became interested in working for the railroad, more specifically CSX, after his retirement. “What I like about going from the military to CSX is that the organizational structure is very similar,” he said. “Working for CSX, particularly in operations and engineering, you need a high level of dedication, commitment and discipline in order to effectively execute the various projects required to run a safe and efficient railroad. So, the transition was easy for me because the discipline and leadership required in a career with the military aligned with the values needed for a successful career at CSX.”
Brian Warren, Watco
Eleven years ago, Brian Warren’s Army Ranger unit found an abandoned American flag while on a United Nations mission in central Africa. Since then, that flag has traveled across six continents with members of his team. It’s suffered some damage and received repairs along the way, but now that flag flies in the yard of Watco’s Palouse River & Coulee City Condon, Ore., switching location.
“The only place it hasn’t been is Antarctica,” Warren said. “I love penguins, but not enough to go see them there.”
While telling Condon’s general manager Michael Goss about the flag’s history and significance, Goss suggested they put it up in the facility’s yard. Warren started gathering supplies from around the yard to build a flagpole. The pole is an air line from a railcar’s braking system and the tie-off on the pole is a brake shoe retainer pin. The bricks around the base were painted Watco’s black and yellow, which also happens to be Ranger colors.
“My buddies and I pass the flag around. Whenever one of us gets deployed on a U.N. mission, we ship it out to them and it’s theirs until someone else gets deployed,” said Warren. “So it’ll fly here until l have to pass it along.”
After years of service, Warren returned to his hometown of Boston, but didn’t find what he was looking for there. When a railroading job opened up in Florida, he jumped on it. At first, Florida sounded great, but that was short-lived.
“All my friends were either gone or in trouble. I decided I needed to move on too,” said Warren. “In Florida, I’d wake up and be sweating at 6 a.m. I’d had enough of that and needed some place without the humidity.”
Warren knew he wanted to stick with railroading. So, when he saw a conductor position at PPC-Condon located on the Washington-Oregon border, he applied and has been a member of the Team since April 2017.
“Railroading is kind of like being in the service because a lot of it is black and white. It’s regimented. You know what you’re doing each day. You’re either being safe or you’re not,” said Warren. “You watch out for the guys next to you to make sure you’re all going home at the end of the day.”
Warren carried another flag with him while he ran the Columbia Gorge Half Marathon on Oct. 22. He finished in just over two hours after cramps set in during the last few miles. When he’s not working, running or enjoying the Pacific Northwest’s booming craft beer scene, Warren volunteers to raise funds and awareness for the Veteran Suicide Prevention Association. “It’s important that men and women get the help they need ” he said. “I needed help in the past, and now I’m in a position to give back.”
Warren says he’s also been trying to help other service members he knows find work when they leave the military. He always makes sure that he mentions Watco.
“It’s been great working here. They make you feel like you matter, and you know they care about your well-being,” he said. “I served with people from all over, so when they retire I tell them to check if there’s a Watco location near them hiring.”