NS operations internships and co-ops:
A slice of railroad life for students, a pipeline for future leaders at NS
Growing up, Max Waibel watched Norfolk Southern trains lumber past a railroad crossing near his neighborhood outside of Knoxville, Tenn. Years later, at a University of Tennessee job fair, an NS recruiter encouraged him to apply for a new summer internship program with the railroad’s Transportation Department.
- Max Waibel, assistant trainmaster
He did, and he loved it. Waibel spent the summer of 2014 traveling across NS’ Central Division in Kentucky and Tennessee shadowing trainmasters, road foremen of engines, and chief dispatchers. NS loved him, too. At the end of the internship, NS offered him a job. After graduating that December from UT, where he studied supply chain logistics and finance, Waibel joined NS as a transportation management trainee.
Now an NS assistant trainmaster in Danville, Ky., Waibel said the internship gave him a “running start” on his railroad career. Waibel could be the poster child for the railroad’s operations intern program, which has continued to grow since it was launched it 2011.
“I got a great test drive of what it’s like to be in the Transportation Department and work on the railroad, including some of the soft skills in personnel and business management,” Waibel said. “A lot of my peers in school had internships and worked in a cubicle the entire summer. They didn’t really feel part of the team. At NS, I was working as part of a team, and it was a very inclusive and unique experience.”
What it takes to run a railroad
NS has long offered college internships that involve office work in nonoperations departments, such as information technology, accounting, and marketing. Students picked for the operations internships gain an inside look at the work that frontline supervisors do and what it takes to run a freight railroad.
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In the summer of 2016, NS provided nearly 100 college interns three months of paid, on-the-job experience in operations. The company has recruited 105 operations interns for 2017. With pay ranging from $3,300 a month for college seniors to $2,500 a month for freshmen, students and NS benefit, said Sharona Stimpson, manager recruiting.
“It gives college students a real-life job preview of an industry that many of them don’t know much about, and it provides NS with a pipeline to convert people to come work for us full-time,” Stimpson said. “It is a way for us to really diversify and give people exposure that we hadn’t necessarily given them before.”
NS is leveraging the internships to expand workforce diversity, especially to bring more women into railroad operations. Recruiters in NS’ Human Resources Department visit college campuses and attend conferences of engineering and professional organizations with student chapters, including the Society of Women Engineers, the National Society of Black Engineers, and the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.
- Ed Boyle, assistant vice president maintenance of way
The recruiters look for engineering majors – civil, electrical, and mechanical – and students in such fields as construction management, supply chain, and logistics planning. Interns who show promise might receive job offers to join NS as management trainees. Currently, NS converts about 15 to 20 percent of operations interns into full-time employees.
“It can truly be a success story for interns if they come out here and perform well,” said Ed Boyle, Engineering Department assistant vice president maintenance of way. “We’ve had numerous interns go back to school for their last semester knowing that they have a job offer when they graduate. That’s a true selling point.”
Starting salary for a management trainee in engineering is around $64,000. “It’s a substantial salary coming out of college,” Boyle said. “We look at this as our pipeline for the future leaders of our department.”
Checking each other out
A job in railroad operations is not everyone’s cup of tea. The hours can be long, you work outdoors in all kinds of weather, and you often have to be willing to relocate for a job promotion. Many people, however, find rewards in those challenges. The internships give the students and the railroad a chance to check each other out. Students who interned are more likely to stick with the company after coming aboard as management trainees.
“There’s a share of risk associated with our management trainee program, because many times candidates interview well and look good on paper, but after they’re hired and experience the railroad, it doesn’t work out on our side or on their side,” said Carl Wilson, division superintendent, Central Division. “The intern program offers a win-win – they get a taste of the industry and whether this is a place they want to be, and we get an opportunity to identify that talent and reduce the risk factor. That’s a financial benefit for us, because we invest time and money on these candidates.”
Added Boyle: “Engineering brings people on during our heaviest workloads in the summer months. What we do in maintenance-of-way is very demanding. Quite a few interns decide that the work we do is not for them, and that’s OK. It saves us in the long run, because they eventually would have quit if we had hired them as a management trainee.”
From interns to full-time employees
Like Waibel, other employees who interned at NS said the experience was invaluable. Chris Cawley, an assistant division engineer bridges in Pittsburgh, joined NS as a management trainee in December 2011 after earning a degree in civil engineering from Purdue University. He had interned with NS engineering’s bridges and buildings group the summer before graduating.
“I had the ability to see what a supervisor at Norfolk Southern deals with on a daily basis – the types of projects they tackle and the different activities,” he said. “It was rewarding as the company got more comfortable with me and let me take on more and more responsibility.”
NS’ Mechanical Department, the railroad’s other main operating department, offers a co-op program that exposes college students to office and field work.
Drew Peng, a mechanical supervisor at NS’ Enola Locomotive Shop in Enola, Pa., did a semester co-op at the railroad’s Atlanta operations building his junior year at West Virginia University. Going in, he knew little more than NS was a freight railroad that operated in the eastern U.S. During five months with the car administration group, Peng worked on several substantial projects, including one that focused on reducing train delays caused when rail car air brake hoses uncouple unintentionally. He also visited shops where locomotives and rail cars are maintained and repaired.
“It was a very valuable experience for me,” said Peng, who joined NS in June 2015 after graduating from WVU with a mechanical engineering degree. “It really helped to be able to see the daily work that goes on and the type of work or roles that a mechanical supervisor plays at NS.”
- Amelia Joyner, mechanical supervisor
Amelia Joyner, a mechanical supervisor at NS’ Shaffers Crossing Locomotive Shop in Roanoke, Va., worked three semesters as a co-op at the company’s Inman Yard in Atlanta before hiring on as a management trainee in July 2015. Joyner, who earned a mechanical engineering degree from the Georgia Institute of Technology, learned about NS from a company recruiter at an Atlanta career fair she attended as a sophomore.
During her co-op, she shadowed supervisors who manage craft employees responsible for maintaining and repairing locomotives and rail cars, giving her a risk-free chance to explore a career possibility.
“Having all that exposure and getting an opportunity to shadow supervisors and work on things that directly impacted the transportation industry sparked something in me,” she said. “It gave me a real look at what working for the company would be like, and I really enjoyed it. It motivated me to want to continue. When I signed up, I signed up for a career.”