If there's a good indicator of how things are going for the rail industry, it might be all the new faces showing up at Union Pacific.
They belong to dispatchers and engineers, train conductors and signal workers, administrative assistants and diesel mechanics.
Just two years ago, the Omaha-based railroad was laying off thousands of workers, taking engines off the tracks and holding off on big projects. Now U.P.'s hiring has picked up to its highest rate since before the recession. The vast majority of the 5,300 workers who were furloughed have been given the chance to return to work. By year's end, the company hopes to have boosted its workforce by an additional 1,500 people.
"It's across the board ... everything from track labor to IT professionals to people with an MBA," said Jim Young, chairman and CEO. "It covers the whole spectrum."
BNSF Railway Co., owned by Omaha's Berkshire Hathaway, and with a strong presence in Alliance and Lincoln, also is hiring. That railroad hired 1,500 people last year and, seven months into 2011, already has added another 3,500.
Railroad executives and industry watchers said the rail carriers' interest in beefing up their workforces is related to expectations about an economic turnaround. It's about being ready to haul more grain, coal, cars, lumber and store merchandise as soon as other industries pick up speed.
In a time when there's plenty of talk about a "jobless recovery" from the Great Recession, the railroads seem to be standing out, with jobs ready.
"Demand for rail service is based on things we move," said Holly Arthur, a spokeswoman for the Association of American Railroads. "If people aren't building or buying things, we aren't moving them. So when railroads begin to hire and invest in infrastructure and do things that are positioning them for growth ... these are very shrewd businessmen who believe things will return."
So far, 2011 has been a good year for Union Pacific.
Despite some notable challenges from winter storms, widespread flooding and high fuel prices, the railroad has marked two quarters of growth. Quarterly earnings records were set in both the first and the second quarters.
Last month, Young said he expected that trend to continue in the second half of the year — typically a busier time for railroads because of the fall harvest and a boom in shipping around the holidays. Plus, this fall should bring increased demand from automakers, including Toyota, which saw production drop following this spring's natural disasters in Japan.
But the railroad can't wait to make sure that things pick up and then make new hires. Typically it takes about six months to get a new employee trained and ready for work.
At the Harriman Dispatch Center, the Omaha facility where U.P. coordinates almost all of its rail activity, 87 new dispatchers are expected to be hired this year. Each will have to go through a 12-week academic program and then another six to eight weeks of on-the-job training, said Greg Garrison, general superintendent for dispatching in U.P.'s western region.
It's a similar story for most of the other new hires.
In all, U.P. plans to hire 4,500 people this year. About 4,000 of those will replace people who retire or leave the company for other reasons. Another 1,000 will be brought back from furloughs, bringing the overall net increase to 1,500 workers.
By comparison, the railroad hired 1,600 people in 2010 and about 250 in 2009.
Plans call for the hiring to be distributed fairly evenly across the company's three regions. Many will be in Nebraska, which has the company's largest number of employees — currently about 7,700 — and the country's busiest stretch of freight rail, between North Platte and Gibbon. U.P.'s freight classification yard in North Platte is the largest in the world.
Iowa is home to about 1,700 U.P. workers, including many at the rail yard in Council Bluffs.
Young said the railroad recently has had good luck finding skilled laborers and has expanded its apprenticeship program to help get people ready for work.
The training isn't cheap. In the second quarter of 2011, for example, the company spent $26 million more on training than it did in the same period last year.
Anthony Hatch, an independent transportation analyst, said railroads such as U.P. don't have much choice if they want to stay competitive.
He pointed to periods in the past when demand from shippers outpaced railroads' expansion plans. U.P. in 2004-05 struggled with congestion and service delays while moving record volumes, even as it turned away customers. The railroad association held forums to hear from disgruntled shippers, some of whom said U.P. was hurting their bottom lines.
In today's shaky economy — and with the railroads under scrutiny because of new talks about government regulation — Hatch said rail companies know they have to be ready for anything.
"I think the railroads are thinking much more strategically than tactically, and U.P. is a leader in this," he said. "It's looking beyond today: When you add capacity in the railroad industry, it's a long-term thing. Locomotives last for 30 to 50 years, and rail careers can do that as well."
Industrywide, about 15,000 people will be hired this year, said Arthur of the railroad association.
As with U.P., a large number of BNSF hires will be to replace people lost to attrition. The industry has an aging workforce, and about 30 percent of railroad workers are expected to retire within the next five years.
But the rail companies also are adding some additional jobs. Hiring numbers for June — the most recent available — show a 5 percent increase from June 2010.
About 370 of the BNSF hires have been in Nebraska, and BNSF expects to make more local hires, said company spokesman Andy Williams. By comparison, BNSF hired 125 people in Nebraska last year. The railroad runs lines along the Missouri River in eastern Nebraska and across the western half of the state. It has a rail yard and locomotive repair shop in Alliance and a rail yard in Lincoln.
Though some recent news about the economy has been less than rosy, Hatch said the railroads are growing because they are finding ways to run more efficiently and outpace trucking and other transportation options. Hatch and Arthur said one of the fastest-growing sectors on the railroad is in intermodal shipping — the truck trailers and shipping containers that move by rail.
U.P. executives said hiring plans could change if the economy takes a major turn for the worse. They monitor weekly carload volumes and make changes accordingly.
But for now, signs are that they are banking on a busy future.
"New York is about to go through a round of layoffs on Wall Street — there's a lot of negative stuff out there about unemployment," Hatch said.
"But the rail industry is clearly an exception to this national trend of malaise on the hiring front. If you want a job, go look at the railroads."
Contact the writer: