Ever wonder how to build skills for railroad jobs?

Railroad doule track

Like most industries, the railroad industry requires some very unique skills.  Unlike most industries, the railroads industry provides you the training you will need to be successful at your job.  Where an electrician can get training through school programs and apprenticeship programs, a railroader is mostly trained through the company that hires them.  This includes rules training on Federal Railroad Administration requirements and technical training to perform their specific craft.  This fact makes applying for a railroad position a little bit different than most jobs.

When you apply to be an automotive tech, chances are you have experience in the automotive industry.  If you are applying for an electrical position, the same thing applies, but in the railroad industry, many times the people that are hired for skilled craft positions do not have any railroad experience. If you have never worked on a railroad, don’t fret. You still have a good shot at getting hired as long as you’ve built skills for railroad jobs in other ways.

Prerequisite skills for railroad jobs

There are a few things that all companies will require, regardless of the job type.  You will need at least a high school education or equivalent.  You will have to be able to pass a strength test, drug test, physical and eye screening.  If you are color blind, you can not work in any position that will require you to read signals. Technology may change this in the future, but for now, the transportation, signal and track department will all require a color blindness test as part of your hiring physical.  If you are applying for a craft that will require a CDL, or if your seniority will allow you to hold a job with a CDL, you must be at least 21 years of age.  Otherwise the age limit is 18, with a year of work experience.

Work Ethic

This is the number one thing railroads look for when hiring new employees.  They look for consistent job history, military training and any extra training that you have picked up along the way to show that you are someone who wants to work.  If you have taken extra classes, volunteered for a local organization or volunteered for an extra assignment at work, make sure those things make it to your resume.

Safe Work Record

Railroads are  dangerous; there is really no way around it.  On June 28, 2016 4 people went to work for BNSF,  only 1 came home.  One engineer was able to jump from the train before the two engines collided in a head on collision in Panhandle, TX.  February 21, 2016 a track worker for Norfolk and Southern went to work, he was killed when he was hit by a train while working on the track.  Those are only 2 of the fatalities suffered by the railroad industry so far this year.

Make sure you highlight your safety record on your resume.  This means talking about your driving record, your injury record, and anything that you have done to create a safer work place in the past.  Railroads want to know you are contentious about your safety and the safety of those around you.

Outdoor Work Experience

I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but railroads are not usually indoors. Railroads prefer people who are used to working outdoors in all weather.  The running joke on the railroad is that it is always 72 and sunny on the tracks, because no matter what the weather, you are going to be out in it.  If you have done farm work, worked on an oil platform, done road work, anything that shows you are willing to work outside in all weather conditions is a plus.

Cumberland Yard Snowy engine

It’s always 72 and sunny on the railroad!

On Call Work Experience

Railroads operate 24/7, 365 days a year.  Trains run on Christmas, they run on New Years, they run at 2 am on a Saturday.  If you have past experience in a position that required you to work on call at all hours of the day and night, the railroad looks at that as a positive.  Not all skilled trade positions will have to work on call on a consistent basis, but most do.  In the event of a major disaster, even those that don’t usually work on call may get called out.

The Learned Skills

Experience in other industries comes in handy depending on the path you take to the industry. Welders, heavy equipment operators, electricians, and telecommunications workers will all have a leg up with this type of experience.

Railroad Track Work

Railroad track workers are responsible for fixing and maintaining track conditions and rail.  Any previous welding or cutting experience is considered an asset in a track worker.  The railroad will provide additional training that is specific to the railroad industry, but previous experience will make the process smoother for you and the railroad you are hired onto.

Track workers are also responsible for the track beds under the rail so previous experience with heavy equipment is also a plus.  Track workers may be required to run dozers, back hoes or track hoes.  Any previous experience with this type of equipment will give you a leg up on the competition.

Railroad Track Workers Grinding Rail at Night

 

Railroad Signal Work

The signal department is responsible for installing and maintaining the train control system and all crossing equipment.  The equipment itself is very specialized and engineered specifically for railroad applications, but the theories behind it are not.  Knowledge of basic electrical theories like Ohm’s law or series and parallel circuits will help you understand how to install and maintain the equipment.

If you are interested in working on the construction side of signal work, a Class A CDL with air brake endorsement is required.  The railroad will help you get one if you are qualified in all other aspects, but having one going in will help.  Previous experience with cranes and backhoes is also a big plus

The Communications Department

The communications department is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the train control system.  In addition to the train control system, the communications department is responsible for the installation and maintenance of radios, printers and end of train devices.  To work in the communications department an FCC license or military equivalent is required.  Previous experience with fiber and CAT cable are also a plus.  To find more information about obtaining an FCC universal license, visit the FCC website.

Working for a railroad is a great career choice and previous experience isn’t required.  A few key skills for railroad jobs and a great work ethic will give you a great shot at getting hired on your railroad of choice.

The right tool for the job depends on you… and if you can use it as a hammer

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“The right tool for the job.” It’s a saying that my father used quite a bit.

It’s a saying, “the right tool for the job,” that’s so popular it’s been co-opted by other, non-trade industries, but I never fully appreciated it until recently.

From experience, I’ve learned it basically means “If you have the correct tool for the job, you probably won’t ruin things, and you’ll curse much less.” For my decades of putting tools to the test, it all comes down to one thing… can I use it as a hammer?

Of course, by that I mean, “Which tool will be the highest quality, most durable and the best bang for my buck?” But also, I’m probably going to use it as a hammer eventually, either because of frustration, rage or pure necessity. There are so many places to find yourself the perfect pipe wrench, drill press, or miter saw for whatever job you’re tackling, that it’s mind-boggling to think about. I’ve narrowed it down to 3 categories to help you decide not what tool is best, but what tool is best for you.

Homeowner tools

Congratulations, you just bought a house! You’ll need tools for up-keep, and repairs. Just go Craftsman, hit up Sears, or find a nice K-mart special-30 piece tool set. That’s all you really need. No need to spend a Corvette’s worth in tools for light-bulb fixtures and table leg repairs. Done.

DIY / hobbyist / garage-r tools

You’re a serious DIYer. You need a quality tool for the job but you don’t need the best tool on the market. I’ve worked on my car since I Corey's Dad-Tool Box purchased it at 14 using whatever tools my dad had. They usually weren’t the best quality, but I still use some of them to this day. Go Craftsman for hand tools or better. Their wrenches, pliers and hammers are perfect for everyone from the weekend track racer to the most Ron Swanson of us all. The higher initial price is out-weighed by the lifetime use of the tool. Just check for the warranty so you can replace it if necessary.

Full-time trade and craftsman tools

If you make a living off your tools, you’re going to want something that will pay for itself over the years. You need power, precision, and durability. The hands down consensus is that if you want the best tool that’ll last a lifetime, you want Snap-on.  If your company is paying, or if you can afford it, Snap-on is the best bang for your buck for any dedicated, daily wrench jockey. They have consistently beat any challenger for best in the business. If that isn’t a possibility, brands like SK, GearWrench, Matco Tools and Mac Tools offer replacements with warranties that are just as good with only a minor sacrifice in strength and durability.

Still not sure which tool is right for you? Start simple and build up from there. You may find that, most of the time, you need the basics but for a few specific jobs, it’s worth investing in the right tools. Like my dad always said, “The right tool… “

Launching a career as a telecommunications technician

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What is a Telecommunications Technician?

Many have heard of the telecommunications industry, but what does a telecommunications technician do for a living?  A telecommunications technician can wear many different hats.  This type of person works on construction sites pulling cable for data drops, mounts cameras, and installs access control for card readers.  Others in this field work from cellular phone towers or route and terminate fiber optics cabling.  Some may work for local phone, internet, and cable television providers, showing up at your home for installations throughout the day.

Telecommunications technician training

Training opportunities in the telecommunications industry are widely available for those who know where to look.  Both union and nonunion electrical contractors offer a combination of excellent on-the-job training and instructional classroom education for new employees looking for a career in the trades.  Apprenticeships through local area contractors typically range from three to five years depending on the diversity of training before earning the journeyman title.  Technicians who have success working in the field will eventually find themselves in supervisory and management positions, thus providing numerous chances to further their career.

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Find a local contractor

There’s a multitude of places to look for employment within the telecommunications industry.  A person doesn’t have to have years of experience to land a job in this field.  The first place a job seeker can visit is their local electrical contractor.  These contractors are in the business of building homes, offices, and high-rises for their clients and are often looking for entry level help.  An easy way of locating these contractors is by calling your union hall, International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers (IBEW), and asking for a list of electrical contractors in your area.

Network to learn more

You can also talk with other professionals working within the telecommunications industry via online forums, social media websites and live chat rooms.  Often there’s no better advice about where to find a job in a particular industry than the advice given from a journeyman technician.  Getting to know people currently working in the career you’re pursuing will always be of value to you.  Also, there’s a wealth of information standing behind a Google query.  Be curious and look around online. You will be surprised what you can find.

The telecommunications industry is an excellent field for trade workers who value the ever-changing landscapes of computers and technology.

What is a Railroad Signalman?

Signal work on a switch at dawn

If you have never heard of this position don’t be alarmed, a railroad signalman is a very specialized jack of all trades. It didn’t start out this way, but as modern technology has changed everything else, it has also changed the role of the signalman.

A Little Railroad History

In the early part of the railroad, a signalman would use lanterns to signal trains and give them information about the track ahead.  They would sit in a tower, lean out the window and hold the lantern at a particular angle to let the train know how close the train in front of him was, or if there were any known problems with the track ahead.  If he was at a station where a train could switch from one rail to another, it was also the signalman’s job to route the train properly using long handles inside of his tower to throw the switch.

The DC Track Circuit

The invention of the DC track circuit was the beginning of big changes for the signalman.  Where previously the signalman was the one giving out information about the condition of the rails and other train traffic, the DC track circuit could do that automatically.

A DC track circuit is simply a battery at one end and a relay at the other with the tracks being used as a conductor.  When a train goes over the circuit, the electricity will pass through the train wheels instead of going down the track to the relay.  The relay drops and along with it, the position of the signal arm.  With this change the signalman went from being an active participant in controlling train traffic, to someone who maintained track circuits and electrical systems.

Old style railroad signal

As the train goes across the circuit, this old style arm falls to the down position , it will stay in this position until the train clears the block.

 

The Modern Signalman

As technology has advanced, so has the signalman.  Today’s signalman is split into two categories, the signal maintainer and the construction signalman.    All signalman for Class 1 railroads are members of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalman,  this is also true of most smaller railroads and contractors that do signal work.   Your union seniority will determine what positions you can hold, but if you stand for it, you can hold either the signal maintainer or the construction signalman position so it is best to be prepared to handle either job.

 

The Signal Maintainer

The signal maintainer maintains the signal system by performing required Federal Railroad Administration tests on all signals, switches and road crossings in his territory.  In addition to the tests he must perform, he is also on call 24/7  to fix any problem that occurs on his territory.  The maintainer is a troubleshooter, he must understand basic relay logic, electrical theory and circuit design.  He has to be able to show up to a location, read the prints, determine  the problem and then repair the problem.

 

signalman switch junction box wiring

An example of a switch junction box that was wired by a signalman

The Construction Signalman

A construction signalman is someone who builds or does major repair to the signal system on a railroad.  A construction signalman works on a gang of 5 or 6  people.  The gang will travel to their assigned location and stay in a hotel for the duration of their work period, usually 8 days on  and 6 days off or 4 days on and 3 days off.  On a construction gang you are given material and a set of plans and must do everything from operating a backhoe to dig in cable to wiring in and testing the new equipment to get it in service and working correctly before it gets handed over to the maintenance department.

signalman sets crossing platform

A CSX signal construction crew sets a flood platform to sit a crossing house on top of.

 

The Future of the Signalman

As long as there are railroad tracks, there will be signalman, but the evolution will continue.  Currently there is a mandate from the Federal government to install positive train control by 2018.   Positive train control is a system that will automatically stop a train before it can go past a stop signal, thus preventing head on and rear end train collisions.  Construction signalman are currently working hard to install all wayside assets and some portions of railroads are already up and running using this system.

From a guy hanging his arm out the window to a completely integrated system of controlling train traffic, the signalman has always been and will always be, an integral part of the railroad.

 

Know Your Trade, Know Your Wages

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Anyone who works in the trades knows that the one of the most important, and valuable, skills to have is to be knowledgeable about your field. Not only should you be experienced, but you should also be able to use that experience to perform your job to the best of your ability. Being knowledgeable about your trade doesn’t just include knowing how to perform certain functions, you should also have an understanding of wage trends in your specific field. Government websites such as the Bureau of Labor Statistics aggregate data on wages from all over the country and even divide the information into separate fields, locations, and occupations. You can use sites like this to compare your wages to other trades or even to other locations. We looked at the wage trends of some of our most popular user’s trades. We want to be giving the best product possible to users, and the only way to do that is to familiarize ourselves with all facets of the trades. For example, did you know that Plumbers and Pipefitters (steamfitters) have one of the highest mean annual wages of any blue-collar occupation? On average, they make around $54,000 around the nation, but pipefitters out in Alaska can make $72,000 a year!

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Electricians come after them with an average annual wage of $53,000, earning the most in California, New York, and Illinois respectively. Sheet Metal Mechanics, Wind Turbine Technicians, Elevator Technicians, and HVAC Technicians on average earn around $52,000 a year and as the need for skilled tradesmen continues to grow in our country, these wages will only increase. The Baby Boomer generation that for years has dominated the world of the trades is beginning to retire, and new workers are needed to take their place. Vocational education is taught in our schools with much less frequency and because of it there are less workers with the skills needed to fill up those jobs. It’s never been a better time for a career in the trades, especially with WorkHands by your side.

 

Photos courtesy of: Jun Wang, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers