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Working on the Railroad

February 19, 2009

Once a railroad town, always a railroad town. It might not have seemed that way a decade or two ago in Manly, Iowa, as declines in freight traffic made the once-bustling town in Northern Iowa into a sleepy burg. But thanks to the local emergence of biofuel and wind power industries, Manly has been transformed again, this time into a major distribution point along the Midwest's growing "green" technology corridor.

So interested are local employers in the renaissance of the railroad industry that talk of a degree program for its employees -- a relative oddity for such an “old” technology -- is generating traction at a two-year institution known for training wind turbine technicians.

Following in the footsteps of many other institutions around the state, North Iowa Area Community College jumped on the “green” bandwagon and began a program last fall specifically training students to become wind turbine technicians. Although the program is only a few months old, college officials say it has been welcomed by the local wind power industry, and has generated a significant buzz among younger, more technologically oriented students.

Mark Johnson, North Iowa's vice president for academic affairs, said the college was able to easily alter part of its existing curriculum for the associate in applied science degree to accommodate the program for wind turbine technicians. Whether Iowa’s close-knit relationship with wind power is a fad or not, he said, students who complete the program will be qualified for a wide variety of electromechanical jobs other than those with wind turbines. This well-rounded approach to training workers, he said, has pleased prospective energy employers and attracted attention from the local rail industry, which would like the same options for its employees.

“There’s a rail spur up here, and we’re in the middle of wind turbine country,” Johnson said. “Businessmen in our area are seeking to further develop the terminal in Manly to be a staging area for collecting and disbursing wind turbine parts. It also is a storage point for ethanol and biodiesel -- another industry in Iowa and the Midwest. They’ve expressed an interest in working together with [the college] to develop some training for new workers and continuing education for those in the railroad industry. We’re not too far along yet, but we’d like to give students a broad type of training and versatility for emerging job opportunities working with the railroad.”

The Iowa Northern Railway is among those local businesses that has asked the college to develop a degree program for prospective railroad workers, much like the one recently developed for wind turbine technicians. In order to capture interest at its height and respond to the demand of the community, Johnson said the college hopes to start the program in the fall. Though degree programs specifically for those in the rail industry are not altogether uncommon -- Johnson County Community College, in Kansas, has one of the country’s most robust, hosting the National Academy of Railroad Sciences -- others at North Iowa have noted it is unique to see one started as a direct result of the growth of much newer, “green” technology.

Josh Byrnes, North Iowa's industrial technology division chair, said the resurrection of rail in northern Iowa has been dramatic to watch. He described the scene at the Manly rail terminal, about 10 miles north of the college.

“There are hundreds of towers, blades and cells,” Byrnes said. “It’s cool that this see this whole green initiative, and it’s right there in your face. At one time, they tore out the rail system up here. They saw it as a dying technology. But, to see this distribution center, there’s a revival going on. Who'd’ve thought that wind turbines would have been such a turn-on? We talk about how the world is changing and how we’re preparing people for jobs that didn’t exist five years ago. The rail system is going to be a part of that up here. When some of this new technology is applied to the rail system, it’s going to open the floodgates.”

The new program being planned for prospective railroad employees, like the one for wind turbine technicians, would make use of a number of preexisting courses and resources at the college. Byrnes said the program would consist of everything from Occupational Safety & Health Administration certification to tool and die training for the manufacturing of railroad parts. Also, so that students have a broad-based education, the program would also include a number of logistics courses for more office-oriented jobs with the railway.

Still, some worry that this renewed interest in railroads might be here today and gone tomorrow, another passing fad in work force development. Johnson, for example, noted that the college loaded up on information technology courses during the “dot-com boom” of the late 1990s, only to see interest in them dwindle and only recently be rekindled. Whether or not this will be the case with the railroad industry program, only time will tell; but officials at the college argue the training it offers students can serve them regardless of their chosen field.

“We’re always going to try to respond to emerging needs, but we’re not simply in the business of responding to short-term economic activities,” Johnson said. “We’re going to give students an education and training that stands them in good stead even if the wind [power] industry or the railroad declines five years from now. I believe that unless manufacturing disappears from this country 100 years from now, a person with good manufacturing skills training is going to be marketable.”

The true test of the college’s program for railroad workers, Johnson said, will be jobs at the end of the line. For the moment, however, an area known for its agricultural and manufacturing spirit is welcoming the influx of new economic interest.

“It’s created quite a buzz,” Byrnes said of the Manly railroad terminal for wind turbines. “They’ve set up shop here in a small community. It was always kind of a rail town, but until recently the community was dying. Now, there are all kinds of development and new homes. It’s kind of funny that it’s come back around again.”

 

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