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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Northwest Railroad Institute teaches rail yard skills

Susan Parrish McClatchy-Tribune

VANCOUVER, Wash. – Despite temperatures in the 20s and falling snow, Ana Green’s eyes are fixed on the locomotive slowly moving down the track toward her. Green, 21, motions with her hands to signal the engineer driving the train.

The engine slows, and the hopper car it’s pushing stops only an inch from an orange pylon. The other students erupt into cheers.

“She got it! Bang!” one student shouts.

Green, the only female in her class at the Northwest Railroad Institute, turns toward her classmates and smiles.

The private trade school recently purchased the 1951 locomotive, an SW-8 with an 800 horsepower engine. One of the few still in use, it’s the type of engine that pushes and pulls cars in the rail yard, said Arch Miller, who founded the school.

Now the engine has found new life on a short track in the Columbia Business Center rail yards training future railroad industry employees like Green. Students are learning switching, coupling and uncoupling cars and day-to-day railroad operations.

Snow was falling and temperatures dipped into the 20s as the group of students wearing fluorescent safety vests took turns practicing their hand signals to back the train up. Rail operators also can signal via radio and lights.

“We’re out in the rain, wind, sun and cold,” said Wayne Matulich, the school’s program director of program development. “They’re learning in real-life situations.”

A camera mounted on the locomotive films students’ signals from the engineer’s perspective. Later, the class will watch the footage to see how students can improve.

Thousands of openings near

Miller had read an article in which industry experts anticipated demand for trained workers to replace an estimated 20 to 25 percent of the freight railroad industry’s 175,000-strong workforce who will be eligible for retirement in the next five years.

But there was no plan to train new employees to replace them. Miller saw an opportunity to train people to fill that gap and earn living-wage salaries. The school opened in July. A new cohort begins every two months.

Entry-level jobs in the freight railroad industry pay around $40,000. In 2009, the average U.S. railroad employee earned $81,563 in wages and $25,522 in benefits, for total compensation of $107,085, according to the Association of American Railroads.

The wages and benefits attracted students of varying ages, backgrounds and hometowns.

Students in the class of 13 students range from 19 to 44 years old. Four are veterans. One is in the National Guard. This class began in October and will graduate in April. With two months left to their program, the students are learning how to write resumes and apply for railroad industry jobs online.

Railroad jobs most likely will require relocating to a new place, but as one student said, “We’re willing to travel anywhere for a good job. Many us have traveled far already.”

Green, from McMinnville, Ore., is one of only four from the Portland-Vancouver metro area.

Jonathan Tingume, 44, traveled 8,000 miles from Cameroon, in West Africa. He plans to return to his homeland to find work.

Zachary Brown was laid off as a supervisor at a commercial bus company in Wyoming. Michael Forrester, 26, from Waverly, Tenn., was laid off from his job installing sprinkler pipes.

In the locomotive, Richard Green, the engineer and an instructor, moves the train backward between 2 and 3 mph, following the students’ signals. The hopper car holds liquid latex and has a capacity of 25,930 gallons. When the train stops, there’s a lag followed by a jerk as the latex swishes around. That kind of real-life practice is invaluable, Matulich said.

The accrediting body requires the school to place 70 percent of its graduates within 90 days, Miller said. Of the class of 11 students that was graduating the following day, four of those students already had accepted employment in the railroad industry.

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