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Pull Learning and Development from the Business


Wed Dec 10 2014

Pull Learning and Development from the Business

Trains need to run on time, tracks need to be repaired, and signal maintainers need to keep lights flashing. These are a few of the jobs that Margaret Downey, general manager of learning and development strategies, needs to keep in mind when her team designs the learning and development programs at CSX, the North American railroad that carries goods throughout the eastern half of the United States. 

Downey has been at CSX for 39 years and has seen many changes in learning and development. “I can remember sitting around the table and brainstorming about what we should teach when I first joined the learning space. We came up with a catalogue, course descriptions, and designed fairly generic courses. Then we would try to market them throughout the business,” she says. 


Downey continues, “Today, we approach our training and development in a completely different way. We are very tied to the strategic business direction of CSX; most of the things we design and teach come from the business itself to support its strategic workforce planning. It’s a very different direction, more of a pull from the business, based on current strategy and objectives, versus a push from our department.” 

Training issues for CSX resemble those in many organizations. The company is turning over a significant percentage of its workforce every year with the continued retirement of Baby Boomers. It is common for Downey to look at the parameters for a specific job in the organization when planning her programs. 

One example is the road-master position, which is a front-line supervisor job that manages the people who build and maintain our track infrastructure for operating the railroad. “Currently, more than 50 percent of the people in that job have less than five years of experience with the company. We have a relatively young workforce in terms of experience and skill sets, which is very unusual in the railroad industry. Formerly, we used to interact with employees who had 20, 30, and 40 years of experience. Now, we’ve got a much younger, and therefore, less experienced workforce. We see that across all of the crafts and areas of our business,” she says. 

Downey’s department has done a lot of work to develop good technical and leadership programs used to on-board people into the railroad industry so they are prepared for the specialized work. There has been a tremendous effort to create more intermediate and advanced technical and leadership programs from taking employees from the initial steps of learning about their first jobs to getting them ready for promotions within the organization at an accelerated level. 

Recruiting from engineering and the military 


CSX has many engineering jobs. “Within our corporate portfolio, we have our own organization called CSX Technology, which has several hundred employees. These kinds of technology and innovative jobs are an important component of our business. We realize we need to recruit in that profession, and we’ve tried to align ourselves with the universities that will produce students who would be good candidates to come into our workforce,” Downey says. 

Additionally, CSX has a defined military recruiting campaign. “We look for people who are either retiring or transitioning out of the military, because we believe they are a good fit for our work environment, both from a leadership skills perspective and a skills transfer perspective. One in five of the employees we recruit has a military background, and that is helping us in some of the areas we might otherwise be challenged to recruit in,” Downey explains. 

“We find ex-military employees are a great fit, because the railroad business is a 365-day, 24/7 operation. Folks from the military are used to the kind of environment and challenging lifestyle they might experience in railroad operations. Their leadership skills are useful for us. Many times people who work on trains, and who work on teams that do track repair and maintenance, work in isolated locations without direct supervision. The initiative, drive, and self-leadership skills they got in the military are great assets for us,” she adds. 

Measuring results 

Downey’s team uses the Kirkpatrick four-level model of evaluation. They measure transfer of skills from classroom to the job. Her group also measures the influences that some of the intermediate and advanced technical programs have in terms of productivity and impact on the organization. Her department takes baseline metrics of the performance in the organization around a specific skill or part of the business, looks at the data over time, and measures the improvement for that particular business problem. 


“Several years ago, we revamped our locomotive engineer-training program. We rebuilt that program, which was a four-week, lecture-based program, and rewrote it using 36 hours of locomotive simulator time. We tracked student performance for 18 months prior to the implementation of the simulator program, and looked at results 18 months later among those graduates. We saw a significant difference in their train handling performance with regard to human-factor errors. We’ve also use welding simulators that create virtual realities to allow students to practice some of the safety and basic fundamentals of welding without consuming the gas, rods, and other consumable materials they would need to use when they’re learning welding. We have invested significant money over the past ten years in simulation technology, and we continue to look for opportunities to purchase and implement this kind of technology, so our people can get hands-on experience for what they need to learn,” Downey says. 

She admits selling these programs can be challenging, because her department has to compete for capital, just like any other part of the business. “When we make a proposal to add a new building to the Railroad Education and Development Institute or to buy several million dollars of simulation technology, we have to produce a business case that shows the savings we can create thought the investment in that technology capital,” states Downey. 

“We have created level-four metrics and succeeded in gaining creditability within the organization about our department’s ability to produce documented results. When we continue to ask for capital to grow our training assets, it becomes easier over time, because we have established creditability and have proven that training can make a difference.” 

Identifying high potential talent 

Downey recognizes CSX is no different than other organizations in looking for ways to identify high-potential talent and to create programs that help prepare them for roles in the future. “One thing we’re especially proud of is our program called the ‘Associate Development Program,’ which is more than 20 years old. It’s a program where people can self-nominate, with letters of reference from leaders in the organization, to be matched with a coach in mid-level management at CSX,” she says. 

“Our employees complete the Associate Development Program in addition to their regular day jobs. They have to manage current responsibilities along with everything else they’re expected to do. It provides a yearlong experience in coaching and mentoring for that individual for career development and growth, and it creates a pipeline for talent within the organization. This program has been so successful, we’ve migrated it from being exclusive to the CSX headquarters into seven field versions that run throughout the year with 120 mentee-coach pairs,” Downey adds. 

There is a three-day kick off program for the participants where the mentor and mentee spend time together. Moreover, they come together for a quarterly meeting, which is planned by the mentees with support from the coaches. For example, a mentee might visit a customer such as the Tropicana manufacturing plant in Tampa, Florida, where he learns how CSX supports transportation of juice products across the country. Alternatively, he could visit some of CSX’s terminals involved in the coal export business. 

The rest of the program is whatever the mentee creates with his coach for his individual development plan. Additionally, the mentee is encouraged to meet with or spend some time on the phone with his mentor at least monthly. His mentor doesn’t necessarily accompany him on a job-shadowing situation. Instead, he becomes a door opener for his mentee by introducing him to people who can line up the kinds of experiences he wants to have and support him in achieving his goals. 

“After the mentoring experience, an employee may choose to switch to an operations role, or if he chooses not to do that, the knowledge he brings back about the operations will help him be more successful in his technology development role supporting our operations. We track the program statistically, and we’ve found those who graduate successfully are promoted slightly more often than our other employees. There are other hard metrics we track that show our development programs are making an impact in helping talent development at CSX,” Downey says.

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