Union Pacific railroad is so short-handed it’s offering a sign-on bonus larger than some annual salaries in Wyoming, ranging between $40,000 to $50,000.
The three Wyoming locations eligible for this eye-popping sign-on bonus are Cheyenne, Green River and Rawlins, according to Union Pacific Senior Manager of Communications Mike Jaixen, who told Cowboy State Daily the bonus is payable over the employee’s first year with Union Pacific.
The sign-on bonus is $40,000 for new hires who are less than 300 miles away from the the three listed locations in Wyoming. An additional $10,000 is available to those who relocate from further away than that.
“We are also offering these bonuses at several locations in Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska and Wisconsin as well,” Jaixen said. “Smaller bonuses are being offered in California and Utah.”
Jaixen said the company has tremendous demand for train crews in all of the locations with sign-on bonuses.
“Previous railroad experience is not required,” he said. “Union Pacific provides all of the necessary training.”
Entry-level salaries for new hires typically range between $71,000 to $81,000 for the first one to four years of service.
The jobs have variable work hours and irregularly scheduled days off, Jaixen said.
“Train crews are often on call, even on nights, weekends and holidays, and are typically required to report to work within 90 minutes of notification,” he said. “Train crews typically travel with our trains, sometimes spending a day or more away from your home terminal.”
Wyoming’s Continued Labor Crunch Has Eased
The sign-on bonus comes amid a fairly tight labor market, although the situation has eased somewhat in the Cowboy State.
Last summer, there were three jobs for every applicant, based on Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Wyoming Economic Analysis Division’s Chief Economist Wenlin Liu on Wednesday told Cowboy State Daily the demand for labor had been trending up before the COVID-19 pandemic.
The pandemic threw a curve ball at the market, pulling the rug out from under many, even if that was temporary. After the pandemic, Wyoming struggled to bring back some of the workers it lost, contributing to that 3-to-1 ratio of jobs to applicants last year.
The situation has eased a bit since, Liu told Cowboy State Daily on Wednesday.
The state now has 1.7 jobs per job applicant, Liu said. That’s less than last summer but still reflects continued high demand from a limited labor pool.
The railroad, meanwhile, is competing with other high-paying sectors like the mining industry in the search for high-quality employees willing to do demanding work — even though the mining sector will likely not reach former employment levels any time soon. Liu said automation has been reducing the amount of human labor that sector requires.
“(The mining sector) will likely never fully recover,” Liu said.
Lack Of Personal Life
While Union Pacific’s bonus sounds very attractive, those who work in the industry say there are reasons outside of the tight labor market that explain why the railroad is struggling to hire.
“You’re on call 24/7,” former Union Pacific Railroad Conductor Stan Blake told Cowboy State Daily. “You never know when you’re going to go to work.”
A new hire’s job location can also be suddenly changed within a particular region. Someone who signed on to work in Cheyenne, for example, might instead be involuntarily reassigned to Green River, if that’s where Union Pacific needs them.
It’s also still difficult to get time off, Blake said, though he acknowledged the railroad has tried to improve things since a labor stand-off late last year that had workers threatening to strike over time off for medical or personal reasons.
Those with seniority might get up to 11 personal days, Blake said, as was reported then in various media outlets, but those who are just starting out only get a couple of personal days.
“And it’s when the railroad allows you to use them,” Blake said. “So, if you have a wedding coming up and say, ‘Hey, I need a personal day, my kids are getting married,’ They can say, ‘Oh, sorry, we don’t have enough manpower,’ and they’ll deny it.”
That might be all right for someone who is single and “only has a pet turtle,” Blake said, but the lack of certainty about time off can be a real struggle for someone who is married with a family.
“You’ll get compensated well, but you don’t have a family life until you hit a lot of seniority,” Blake said. “Starting out, you might work 12 hours to get 10 hours off and go right back to work for 12 more hours.”
The job is also physically demanding, Blake added.
The “knuckles” that go on the end of railroad cars, for example, weigh between 80 and 100 pounds. Not only are they heavy, they’re awkwardly shaped and difficult to manipulate and put into place.
“Even if you’re a big guy, they’re hard to put in,” Blake said. “The last knuckle I changed about a year before I retired, I was struggling. I figured it out, but yeah, it’s going to be awkward.”