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First Line Supervisor at BNSF Railway Company
Former “Gunny” finds success on the rails as part of BNSF Railway’s Experienced First Line Supervisor Program.
by Warren Duffie

Keith Thomas knows how to coax large, machinery to life. The former gunnery sergeant spent his 20-year Marine Corps career as a mechanic and aviation technician first mastering the nuts and bolts of 26-ton tanks and later the electronics of aircraft such as the C-130.Making-Tracks219x292

But when he met Connie McLendon – military staffing manager for BNSF Railway Company – and she presented him with a new challenge, he was hesitant.

“Last year, I was stationed at Camp Pendleton and preparing to leave the military,” says Thomas, 39. “She told me about her company and how I would be a good fit. I told her I didn’t know anything about railroads or trains, and she said, ‘You’ve supervised people, right? You can be a leader with us.’”

Less than a year later, Thomas is glad he took McLendon’s advice. He’s realizing wonderful success in BNSF’s Experienced First Line Supervisor (EFLS) program – an intense leadership initiative that trains new employees to manage railroad workers. EFLS encompasses the transportation, engineering, and mechanical departments. Thomas works in the signal division of the engineering department and supervisors around 20 signal mechanics and operators.

Signaling a New Career
EFLS lasts a rigorous six months and comprises three parts. First, new hires attend a corporate orientation at BNSF’s Fort Worth, Texas, headquarters, where they learn about company culture and rules. Afterwards, they attend technical training in Overland Park, Kan. – studying railroad terminology, safety regulations, and personnel management. Finally, all of this is followed up by on-the-job training with a mentor.

Based at a railroad yard in Lincoln, Neb., Thomas begins his day at 6:45 a.m., first going through the previous night’s e-mails. He then meets with his mentor, and the pair spends the day overseeing the testing of track signal systems and addressing various issues. It’s demanding work: Thomas is sometimes required to visit sites along several hundred miles of track, and he’s on call 24/7.

Military Crucial to Development
“My military training has been crucial in my development here,” he says. “As a former mechanic, I can understand the technical side. But I also spent three years as a recruiter, so that’s helped me interact with my signal crew. I’ve been able to earn their respect.”

Helping Vets Engineer Success
Respect is one thing BNSF has for its military employees. Operating one of America’s largest railroad networks – 32,000 route miles in 28 states and two Canadian provinces – the company hauls more grain than any other U.S. railroad and enough low-sulphur coal to generate about 10 percent of the electricity produced in this country.

This success is bolstered by veteran muscle. Named one of G.I. Jobs 2005 “Top 25 Most Military-Friendly Employers,” the BNSF has long partnered with the Transition Assistance Program (TAP), to recruit veterans.

In 2005 the company hired 750 veterans and is on track to hire 1,000 more this year. Some positions include management (like Thomas), track maintenance, mechanics, diesel engine mechanics, and electricians. But even veterans with non-technical backgrounds can do well as conductors, says Connie McLendon. Conductor positions, averaging $67,000 annually, “can be for a young soldier who did four years in the infantry who may not have the mechanical skills, but has the leadership, attention to detail, self-reliance, organization and planning skills.”

Salaries for those in the EFLS program range from $56,160 to $62,400 base, with bonus potential.

From College to the Corps
Thomas didn’t join the Marines planning to be a leader of men. In fact, he didn’t plan to enter the Marines at all.

“The Air Force recruiting office was closed,” says the Baltimore, Md., native. “When I turned to leave, the Marine recruiter ordered me to get in his office.”

“I really needed some discipline at the time,” he continues. “I had just finished my first year of college, and it didn’t go well. I needed some drive and to grow up some.”

After basic training at Parris Island, S.C., Thomas was sent to Twentynine Palms as a tracked vehicle repairman. A few years later, his unit shipped out to Kuwait during the first Gulf War.

When he returned stateside to re-enlist, he was told his occupational specialty was full and he would have to find a new one. So he attended aviation technician school, and later served in Okinawa and at Camp Pendleton.

But by last year, Thomas was facing his 20-year mark: “I wanted to get out after 20 years, that way I would have enough time to have a successful second career as a civilian.”

Lift-off with Locomotives
He began preparing earnestly for his separation by Thomas attending TAP classes, review his résumé, and attending a number of career fairs — including the one where he met McLendon. Early this year, he took terminal leave and returned to Baltimore. In April he received a call from McLendon, who told him to post his résumé online with BNSF. Three weeks later, he was invited for an interview and was hired within two days.

“I had a very smooth transition, no difficulties at all,” he says. “My time as a recruiter really prepared me for interacting with civilians. Plus, BNSF is very military-friendly, and there’s a large number of veterans working here. It’s like being among friends.”

Thomas’ Advice
Start preparing early. “When I attended TAP classes, I saw too many people with only a couple of months left on their enlistments. Give yourself at least a year.”

Don’t just stick with your military career field. “You’d be surprised at what you might qualify for. Look at me. I never dreamed of working for the railroad.”

Take an interview quiz. “Get some interview books, and answer some of the basic questions. That will help you get in the right mind-set and allow the interview to go smoothly. It worked for me.”


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