Saturday, March 18, 2017 | 2 a.m.
Most agree that today, despite the falling unemployment rate, fewer and fewer jobs are providing workers true financial independence. However, one industry is defying the reality of today’s “underemployed employee”: freight rail. One of the worst-kept secrets in the nation’s labor force is the fact that freight rail employees are some of the best-compensated of any industrial sector — and those wages continue to rise each year.
Today, the average freight rail employee brings home annual wages and benefits of $121,000, placing freight railroads in the top 7 percent of American industries when it comes to total compensation. By comparison, the typical American worker earns $73,000 — nearly 55 percent less. The railroad health plan for employees also pays 93 percent of health care expenses on average, a higher value than the “platinum plan” under the Affordable Care Act and most plans offered by employers.
Rail workers are also seeing consistent annual pay increases, bucking the wage stagnation felt in other industrial sectors. In fact, rail workers have earned more than 40 percent in total wage increases over the past 10 years. During that same time, workers have seen an average annual pay raise of 3.5 percent.
These benefits extend beyond workers’ rail careers, with more than 580,000 retired employees receiving $12 billion in fiscal year 2015 alone under the Railroad Retirement Act — a program exclusive to railroad employees and, by all accounts, much more viable than the nation’s Social Security system.
Rail employees also have numerous routes to career advancement, especially for those who do not have college experience. For instance, workers can start as train conductors, climb the ladder to engineers and then to trainmasters overseeing 12-man crews. It is no surprise, then, that the average tenure for current railroad employees is 13 years, compared to just four for other private-sector workers.
This workforce investment by freight railroads comes at a time of transformation in the rail shipping landscape — driven in part by a reduced demand for coal, once the industry’s highest revenue-producing commodity, and traffic pattern changes driven by a tepid economy — that has put new pressures on the industry. These economic challenges, however, have not stopped freight railroads from making investments in their workers and infrastructure that has made America’s rail network the best in the world and one of the country’s most vital economic engines.
Advances in technology, automation and globalization benefit businesses and consumers, but these developments are causing American workers to feel more uncertain about their futures. Fortunately, there are still many opportunities for workers — whether they have a high school diploma or a Master’s degree — to find paths to career growth and success. The freight rail industry offers a map for how to discover these paths in today’s ever-changing and challenging workforce environment.
Freight rail employees take great pride in doing their part to move America’s commerce. Few professions are as noble and rewarding as that of a “railroader” — but it’s a secret.
Russ Brown is CEO of RWP Labor, a labor relations firm. He wrote this for InsideSources.com.