Closing the Knowledge Gap

One way to take the railroad industry into the future is to look to its past. More specifically, to make use of the knowledge base of all those employees near retirement, or already retired, who can help train the next generation to be leaders in the industry.

With advances in technology, it’s easy to write off the older generation in favor of Millennials for whom computers and automated systems are just a part of life. But that’s a mistake. Technology can improve transportation, but only if it’s used as a tool to enhance productivity and not as a substitute for basic operating knowledge.

Let’s take the case of a trip I made recently with one of my company’s consultants who had 21 years of operating experience as an executive with a major rail carrier. Conditions appeared optimal for travel, yet trains were sitting for long periods of time for no apparent reason. The cause, according to experienced workers we talked to in the region? Dispatchers were making decisions from 1,000 miles away via video display, and many of them did not have direct everyday, in-field experience with the territories they were controlling. These dispatchers had the technology to make long-distance decisions, but not the field knowledge base to make optimal decisions.

Such over-reliance on technology can have dire consequences. Consider the airline industry with the 2013 crash of Asiana Flight No. 214 in San Francisco. In that case, industry experts raised concerns that the pilots had become too dependent on technology and instruments. The experts theorized that this may have diminished the pilots’ ability to manually fly the aircraft and contributed to the crash.

One way to strike a balance between new technology and hands-on experience is to have the more seasoned or even retired professionals mentor the current younger generations to follow. This could both expand the younger generation’s knowledge of how to operate a railroad efficiently and fill what has become a shrinking talent pool in the rail industry.

According to one executive at a major carrier, the rail industry hires about three out of every 100 candidates who apply. Many people opt out when they learn that it is a 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year profession. Other candidates cannot pass a basic drug test. Compound that with the fact that railroads did not hire for years, and in some cases decades, leaving them with no one to come up the ranks when massive retirements started to affect the industry. What all this has meant is that the railroad industry is facing a shrinking talent pool at a time when demands on workers are increasing. The commercial trucking industry is facing similar problems today.

To turn this around, the industry is going to have to make itself more attractive, especially to Millennials. In the meantime, one viable solution is to use experienced personnel to fill the talent pool, even after retirement, to mentor young employees. Education through formal training classes and seminars will always provide value, especially for those learning the basics of something new. In addition, offering mentoring on a daily basis, from those who are experienced to the newer generations, can greatly improve both the efficiency and overall performance of the railroad industry. Many retired railroaders I know loved what they did and find it difficult to give it up. The same is true of many seasoned employees who are still on the job. Why not leverage this passion for the benefit of rail carriers?

A Chinese proverb eloquently states, “If you would know the road ahead, ask someone who has traveled it.” A Danish proverb carries a similar message: “He who knows the water best, has waded through it.” These words can guide the railroad industry in the years ahead.

The pace of business in this country – and especially within the transportation industry – is accelerating. All businesses are demanding that employees get more things done with fewer resources. They’re expected to provide goods and services quicker today and even faster tomorrow. To accomplish all that, employees need knowledge and experience—something that often can be gained only by trial and error, by making mistakes. But mistakes and inexperience cost businesses precious time, which in turn costs money. Leveraging the experience of others who have already traveled the road can be a valuable aid in avoiding mistakes and improving the bottom line. 

To see how big the knowledge gap is between seasoned veterans and those new to the industry, you need look no further than discussions of the next frontier – high speed rail. Many states, including Illinois, define “high speed” as 110 mph. This is not only slow in comparison to other countries, but, if you know anything about history, not much of a milestone in the United States. Prior to Amtrak, which is now 44 years old, passenger trains routinely exceeded 110 mph on certain routes all day and every day. That was more than 40 years ago. I would welcome an explanation of why it is so difficult to accomplish a goal of 110 mph today, when passenger trains routinely traveled at that speed decades ago?

This generation of railroaders, they know only what they have been taught and experienced. In many cases, they don’t know what they don’t know, because they have not had the opportunity to understand how history can be utilized as a foundation for today and the future of railroading. But by bringing seasoned employees and retirees into the fold, the railroad industry can help bridge that gap. Experience does matter. By making use of the knowledgeable people within their industry – retired or not – railroads can move ahead and even flourish in the years to come.