The West Coast Railway Heritage Park is doing its part to mitigate a wave of retirement hitting the railway industry.
Last month, British Columbia Institute of Technology (BCIT) students in the institution’s railway conductor program got some hands-on experience at Squamish’s heritage park. The eight students worked five shifts in a row on the railcars, switching air hoses and changing knuckles.
The park’s and institution’s partnership formed in 2004 in anticipation of the Baby Boomers hanging up their gloves, the program’s chief instructor Monica Serbanescu said.
The industry forecasts that approximately 70 per cent of today’s employees will reach retirement age within the next eight to 10 years, she noted. More than 300 employees are hired each year to work on the railways, according to Transport Canada.
Since the global recession, the timeframe has extended slightly, Serbanescu said, but not enough to make a big dent.
“This is an unprecedented wave for the need for employees,” she said.
Students put in a 40- to 50-hour work week at the rail park, said Russ Grycan, the park’s chief mechanical officer. The heritage centre hosts BCIT groups twice a year.
“They work in the rain, or the snow, night or day,” Grycan said, noting the program aims to make the experience as realistic as possible.
The heritage park provides four instructors, three of whom live in Squamish. Together they have approximately 120 years of work experience in the industry, Grycan said.
“The biggest thing that we do with the people is focus on the safety aspect of railroading,” he said.
That means going home with all one’s fingers, Grycan said. In a workplace filled with big, heavy equipment and noise, it’s paramount that workers stay aware.
“There are tremendous dangers,” he said. “You have to respect the whole deal.”
Last month’s visit to Squamish marked the 23rd class through the BCIT program. The course averages 16 to 20 students, including one to two females, Serbanescu said.