Sandy Suver, manager of yard operations in Union Pacific's Council Bluffs yard and former military flight controller, right, talks to Phil Schafer, a remote control locomotive operator who is a 101st airborne veteran, March 4 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. As thousands of American soldiers return to the civilian workforce after service in Iraq or Afghanistan, many are finding jobs on the rail lines. More than 25 percent of all railroad workers nationwide have served in the military. (Nati Harnik / AP)
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OMAHA, NEB. — Mark Major once led a team of soldiers in combat in Iraq. Now he leads a team of railroad employees. The difference, he says, is obvious: “I’m not getting shot at anymore.”
But it’s the similarities between serving in the military and working for the railroad that draw Major and many other former military members to this type of work.
“For a veteran — a person who thrives off excitement, a mission and a chain of command — you tend to seek out companies like that,” said Major, who has worked for Union Pacific for about two years.
As thousands of American soldiers return to the civilian workforce after service in Iraq or Afghanistan, many are finding jobs on the nation’s rail lines. More than 25 percent of all U.S. railroad workers have served in the military.
Veterans have a long history of railroad work. Civil War veterans, for example, helped complete the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. But railroad opportunities are especially welcome now because the unemployment rate for recent veterans remains higher than for the rest of the nation.
Major helps manage intermodal freight trains for the railroad in Oakland, Calif. He sought out a railroad job when he was getting ready to leave the military because of the challenges and independence it offered and because he had known other soldiers who went to work for a railroad and liked it.
“I’m infantry,” Major said. “The 40-hour workweek, sitting in a cubicle doesn’t really appeal.”
The Labor Department says the unemployment rate for veterans who have served since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks improved last year but still registered 9.9 percent, compared with the 7.9 percent rate for nonveterans. The jobless rate for veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 was even worse — 20.4 percent in 2012.
The stubbornly high unemployment among veterans inspired the White House to launch a campaign called Joining Forces to encourage businesses to hire veterans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce led a similar effort called Hiring Our Heroes.
Partly as a result of those efforts, businesses have hired more than 125,000 veterans or military spouses and pledged to hire or train another 250,000 more by the end of 2014. But there are up to 800,000 unemployed veterans, and thousands more are constantly leaving the military as combat operations wind down in Afghanistan. The last U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of 2011.
Part of the challenge for veterans is that they have trouble describing their military experience in language that civilians can understand, said Kim Morton, spokeswoman for the Hiring Our Heroes program.
And veterans don’t always choose to live in cities where they have the best chance of landing a job. Instead, many move back to their hometowns or to the city where a favorite base was located.
Railroad officials say veterans are well-suited to the work they do because of their training and the fact that they’re used to working a 24/7 job.
“Military folks adapt well to the railroad environment,” said Roy Schroer, Union Pacific’s vice president of human resources.
The railroad is like having a factory with no roof, Schroer said, so prospective employees who are trained to accomplish difficult tasks under fire are attractive.
Certain railroad jobs are almost perfect fits for certain military jobs, said John Wesley III, BNSF’s military hiring manager. For instance, someone who was an air traffic controller can become a train dispatcher rather easily. And mechanics who maintained diesel equipment in the military can use those skills to take care of locomotives.
Plus, skilled trades such as plumbing and electric work are all needed in the railroads.
And even veterans who don’t have special skills are still a good fit because railroads are willing to train them to be conductors or to do other jobs.
“For the most part, if the military has it, so does the railroad,” said Wesley, who served in the Army himself for 22 years before joining BNSF in 2007.
Railroads pursue veterans by attending dozens of job fairs every year, employing recruiters who are veterans and offering classes for veterans to help them apply for civilian jobs.
When she was leaving the Navy in 1998, Sandy Suver was contacted by a recruiter because the railroad industry had figured out that air traffic controllers tend to make good train dispatchers.
Working at the railroad, she said, has always helped her feel like part of a team, and her contributions mattered — much like when she was in the military.
“It’s a proud company with a proud heritage — very similar to the military,” Suver said. “The similarities are uncanny sometimes.”
Suver and her brother both interviewed with UP around the same time and got job offers. Later her husband also went to work for the railroad after his active-duty military career ended. But he joined the Army Reserve just before the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks to complete his 20 years of military service and was promptly deployed.
The railroad took such good care of Suver and her family during that deployment that she says it’s unlikely she’ll ever leave UP. The railroad maintained her husband’s life and health insurance and covered the difference between National Guard pay and his railroad salary so he wouldn’t take a pay cut while deployed.
“UP took care of me and my family while my husband was gone,” Suver said. “It just made a huge impression on me.”
That’s part of why Suver has become an unofficial railroad recruiter herself by talking about 15 other former Navy co-workers into joining Union Pacific.
Suver said the military is structured for safety and so is the railroad, which helped with her transition to a civilian job.
“That structure is very comfortable for someone who grew up in the military,” she said.