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As globalization increases, products often travel halfway around the world before reaching their final destination, making supply chains as important as ever. However, the sheer volume of goods and the distances they travel these days means supply chains are extra sensitive to a crucial factor: rising fuel prices.

“The reality is fuel prices affect everything,” said Bob Armstrong, president of theSupply Chain and Logistics Association Canada. “It makes people decide the rationalization for inventory, or where to have a distribution centre, and where to manufacture a product.”

When it comes to transferring goods over longer, domestic distances, Armstrong says supply chains are going to use rail because it’s cheaper and more efficient.

And there are a lot of things that need to be transported across the country: petroleum, chemicals, metals, minerals, grains, fertilizers, automobiles, and more. Rail in Canada handles the fourth largest volume of goods in the world, and moves about 75 per cent of surface goods (by weight) across the country.

What does this have to do with you, a soon-to-be grad?

The rail industry is hot with jobs right now. Currently, more than 32,000 people are employed in the rail industry in Canada, and a further 60,000 people are directly or indirectly employed through rail supplier jobs – with a bunch of baby boomers about to retire.

But let’s talk about what you really want to know. The average annual earnings in the rail business is about $75,500, although salaries vary by specific occupation.

In 2010, CN announced it will be hiring 2,000 workers each year for the next five years.

Mark Hallman, director of communications and public affairs at CN, says the company is hiring people all across the board. Railway occupations requiring post secondary education involve finance and economics, supply chain logistics, civil engineering, information technology, sales, marketing, and supply management, as well as specialized skills required for signal technicians and heavy equipment mechanics.

Since Canada’s Class 1 freight railways have cut greenhouse gas emissions by more than 20 per cent since 1990, there are also jobs to cut rail fuel costs even more.

Hallman said, “We also have internally developed analysis tools we’re going to be advancing, so that we can profile and monitor fuel by train run and other specifics. So we’re going to be getting much more concrete and individual sort of metrics in terms of fuel performance.” This means more jobs for people with mechanical engineering or locomotive experience who will develop that technology.

A wide range of skills

While CN is looking to hire a wide range of people, Hallman notes the highest demand will be for conductors and operating crews, which requires high school education. As a conductor, you’re responsible for managing the train on the locomotive, and once you have sufficient experience, you can move up to being a locomotive engineer.

To be a conductor, Hallman said, “You also have to be mechanically adept, because you’re dealing with machinery in motion. It’s a very safety-sensitive job as well, so you have to be extremely mindful of where you are and to be able to communicate with others, because you are dealing with moving machinery that you can’t stop on a dime.”

Conductors must have good teamwork skills, be physically fit, know signals, have good reading skills, and technology and computer skills that apply to the job. They are required to be available to work shifts 24/7, and sometimes be away from home in excess of 24 hours. Conductor positions with CN are primarily available in western Canada.

Peter Dicks, who spent the past 20 years as a beekeeper, recently completed the four-month Railway Conductor Program at George Brown College. He says he has always been interested in trains, and the brevity of the program attracted him. “Plus I did some research on the industry and found it’s both a growth industry, and one with a lot of people retiring. So there’s an awful lot of opportunity in it.”

While Dicks can highlight the benefits of rail – the potential for advancement, good pay, and benefits – he is well aware of the challenges of being a conductor. “You get a two hour warning as to when you’re called to work. And that can come at any time of the day or night.”

All in a days – or nights – work. All aboard!

Photo: TomasSereda/iStock