All Aboard For Rail Manufacturing Jobs


In “Global Competitiveness in the Rail and Transit Industry”, released by the Worldwatch Institute, the authors describe what can only be considered as an incredible opportunity for transportation manufacturers and their suppliers: $216B worth of worldwide rail and transit manufacturing demand by 2016.  Currently, in countries with active rail and transit infrastructures – and government support for them – there are approximately 500,000 jobs in rail vehicle manufacturing and an expectation of hundreds of thousands more in suppliers of transmissions, brakes, signaling operations, articulation systems, and R&D.

Yet here in the U.S. transportation manufacturing has declined since the 1950s as the government shifted funding from mass transit to highways and airports. Now U.S. producers are focused pretty much on building freight locomotives and wagons.  To kick-start the renewal of the rail and transit transportation system – and the manufacturing needed to support it – government funding has become available through the U.S. Department of Transportation. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood announced this spring that rail car manufacturers across the country will have an opportunity to submit bids to produce the first American-made, bi-level passenger rail cars. The $551 million Request for Proposals (RFP) from the California Department of Transportation (Caltrans) call for 130 new rail cars including 88 cars for the Midwest coalition states, and 42 cars for California, including coaches, cab/baggage cars, cafe/lounge cars, and cafe/business class cars. Funding sponsorship for the procurement is coming from the participating states, as well as the Federal Railroad Administration’s High-Speed and Intercity Passenger Rail Program.

But what of the skilled workers that manufacturers need to be a part of this manufacturing revival?  A recent NAM Manufacturing Institute Skills Gap report stated that as many as 600,000 manufacturing jobs are going unfilled.  How will we be able to support America’s rail manufacturers if we can’t provide them with the talent they need?

MEP has already hosted in 2012, four Next Generation Rail Supply Chain Connectivity Forums to help manufacturers understand how to transition to rail supply and to help identify the skills their employees will need for this effort.  Based on these forums, MEP has a relatively good picture of those skills.  They can be found in competency models for advanced manufacturing, mechatronics and commercial construction and include CNC machining, welding, casting, fabrication, design and prototyping (additive manufacturing), carpentry, plumbing, construction, HVAC, and electrical and electronics. The task before us, then, is partnering with training institutions such as community and technical colleges to have them create educational pathways using existing curricula and certifications that will be valuable to the rail industry.

This nascent effort has considerable potential for job creation and economic resurgence if we can pull all the pieces – skills, finance, operations and ideas – together quickly.  As the competitiveness report states: “All international rail equipment manufacturers are significant employers”.  For more information about the rail supply chain forums, visit the NIST MEP website at

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Stacey Wagner

Guest blogger Stacey Jarrett Wagner has more than 20 years of experience in workforce development, conducting research and providing strategic thinking and technical assistance on workforce development issues.

1 Comment

  1. I think this post does a good job of identifying some “next steps” for the Supplier Scouting work—as supply chains are built out and developed, workforce issues are going to become more important. Linking supply chain developments to the many ongoing manufacturing workforce efforts now underway makes great sense.

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