While working in the office of an insurance company back in 2007, Don Auld saw a job posting from Bombardier looking for locomotive engineers.
With no prior railway experience, Auld admits the job wasn’t on his radar. But hoping for a change of pace, he applied anyway: “Nobody grows up wanting to work for an insurance company,” he says.
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Following an interview and aptitude test, Auld was hired. He soon after began a five-year training period as a train conductor. He manned on-board radios, filled out paperwork and protected railway crossings, among other tasks. Auld was eventually promoted and trained as a locomotive engineer. Eleven years later, he operates trains for GO Transit in Ontario.
Locomotive engineers can start their careers with only a high school diploma. At Bombardier, prospective engineers join the company as customer service ambassadors, helping passengers to board trains, offering other assistance and making service announcements. They then work for another two years as conductors, before being promoted to the locomotive role. Other railway companies, such as Canadian Pacific Railway and Canadian National, have different hiring processes, but still rely on on-the-job training programs.
While it’s not mandatory, it is possible to pursue training prior to landing a job. A handful of Canadian colleges across the country, such as the British Columbia Institute of Technology and Confederation College in Thunder Bay, offer certified railway conductor programs. But there isn’t one educational or career pathway to becoming a locomotive engineer, says Auld.
“We have a whole assortment of people here [at Bombardier],” he said. “People that used to work overnight at gas stations, former police officers, and people with two or three university degrees.”
Don Mitchell, a general manager for Bombardier who oversees the GO Train operations contract, says that despite having no firm qualifications for the role, it still is a “highly regulated” position.
“There’s a high level of responsibility that each of our engineers take on every day,” he says, noting that each train carries around 2,000 people. “Our industry is one that values safety.”
It’s also a rapidly expanding sector. The role of locomotive engineer was ranked as one of the top twenty jobs on Canadian Business’ 2019 compilation of the best jobs. The role offers a median salary of $78,000 annually, while government forecasts suggest there will be significantly more jobs than people looking for work in the next five years.
The demand for new engineers might be explained by an aging workforce, Mitchell says. Workers who started their railway careers in the 1960s or the 1970s would now be on the cusp of retirement. There’s also been expansion of rail service across the country. GO Transit, for example, has grown beyond the Greater Toronto Area, into areas like Niagara Falls and Golden Horseshoe.
The role can be challenging. You need to be flexible about working twelve-hour shifts, or during morning and evening rush hours. But Mitchell says it’s satisfying to safely transport thousands of commuters a day, and support the economy by moving goods to customers.
Still other engineers, like Auld, find the role appealing for simpler reasons: “I’m still a kid at heart, so I can’t believe they pay me for this,” he said.