All Aboard For Training At BNSF Railway Company

A global driver training program, greater use of virtual reality, and a future-forward management program were a few of the standout accomplishments of BNSF Railway Company’s Learning team.

When your business requires both great efficiency and attention to safety, the challenge for Learning professionals is steep. Not only must you train managers and employees to provide the consistent, on-time results customers expect, you also must ensure this service is provided without creating unsafe working conditions. For BNSF Railway Company, operator of one of the largest freight railway networks in North America, that meant rolling out a new driver safety training program, more rigorous safety training, and the use of more advanced technology—virtual reality (VR)—to further refine the skills of its workforce.

At the same time, the company addressed the age-old challenges of recruitment, retention, and engagement with impressive results. The BNSF Learning team showed it is capable of using new technology to drive continued progress while keeping a strong focus on the basics of learning and development. This not only landed BNSF Railway Company once again in the Top 5 of the Training Top 125 but also qualified it for induction into the Training Top 10 Hall of Fame in 2021 after ranking in the Top 10 for four consecutive years.

Safety Is Job One

“Because safety is business critical, many of our initiatives support it—training, operating practices, rules, and technology. We are focused on safety, and leverage a broad approach to safety training for our employees and the communities we serve,” explains Scott Schafer, general director of Railroad Training Services.

The drive to improve safety took the form of the Global Driver Training Program, a company-wide defensive driving course to improve driver safety for all 8,545 employees who drive BNSF-owned or rental (non-train) vehicles.

Some 145 employees were certified to teach Global Driver Training, with 3,200 employees attending the oneday instructor-led training. The course includes two hours of classroom instruction and five hours of actual driving. Quizzes assess knowledge of content, and the on-road proficiency session includes individualized coaching.

Some 5,200 employees took the 20-minute Web-based training on distracted driving. Measures to track training effectiveness include:

  • Driver behavior monitored by Drive Cam, a recording of driver “trigger events,” such as hard braking and acceleration, to provide a measurement of the driver’s performance
  • Reports generated for any driver behavior that is “coachable” or “risky”

Results of the program included:

  • Department of Transportation (DOT) violations for BNSF’s truck drivers declined by 11.3 percent in 2018 compared to the prior five years.
  • In 2018, BNSF achieved a 30 percent reduction in company vehicle accidents compared to 2017.
  • Bodily injuries due to vehicle accidents decreased 18 percent in 2018 and 65 percent as of December 2019.

As for vehicle claims from accidents or events where damage occurred to a BNSF vehicle, a third-party vehicle, or other property, in the first year of training, BNSF realized an 8.8 percent reduction in claims in 2018 versus 2017 (ARI). In the second year of training, the company realized a 40 percent reduction in claims and $1.2 million savings through August 2019 versus August 2018 (ARI). (BNSF’s Global Driver Training Program earned a Training Top 125 Best Practice Award.)

In terms of overall company safety, BNSF achieved a 0.95 Injury Frequency Ratio while handling more than 50 percent of the Western U.S. freight market compared with a 1.78 percent injury frequency across the rest of the rail transportation industry, according to Federal Railroad Administration 2018 year-end data. BNSF’s Injury Severity Ratio (lost and restricted days per 200,000 employee hours) for 2018 was 28.2, a 2.5 percent improvement over 2017 (after already improving 6 percent from 2016).

Next-Level Training with Virtual Reality

The railway’s focus on safety continues as BNSF uses VR welding training simulators to accelerate employees’ mastery of welding techniques and success. The welding VR simulates the sights, sounds, and techniques of welding to help learners develop dexterity and muscle memory, Schafer explains. Training with “virtual welding” also saves on the raw materials, wire, and shielding gas that would be used in the initial stages of actual welding training.

In combination with traditional welding training, instructors can help learners get more repetition, reduce training time, and accelerate the certification process. Instructors can track student performance and progress in real time. The VR welding helmet immerses students in the environment, while instructors can see the welding from the student’s viewpoint and give immediate feedback and adjustments.

Historically, welding training was static and limited to available materials, tools, and lab set-up. This prior method also led to injuries, as employees were not ready for live learning environments. “Our virtual reality simulation is totally immersive and allows BNSF to deliver foundational training concepts, as well as adapt to the needs of students who might struggle with one or more skills,” notes Schafer. “Instructors can effectively monitor the progress of each student and provide additional coaching or instruction, or partner a struggling student with another student who has mastered a skill.”

In 2018, 1,140 employees completed welding training at the Technical Training Center (Kansas), with an average proficiency score of 95.3 percent.

Finding the Right People for the Job

It’s not always easy to find talented welders and other employees as BNSF operates in remote areas across 28 states with small populations and limited candidate supply to fill vacancies with qualified candidates. “If we do not have trained employees in the needed locations, trains do not move,” says Bret Irvin, assistant vice president of Human Resources. “Over the last few years, we have put strategies in place to mitigate this challenge. In 2018, we faced high business volumes and needed more employees in these remote locations.”

With record low unemployment, BNSF set a 2018 goal to fulfill its hiring plan by the start of the fourth quarter. The company took targeted actions to meet this challenge.

The company extended its recruiting reach and targeted more audiences by leveraging social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and LinkedIn). BNSF also maintained a strong connection with military veterans by attending more than 40 military hiring events in 2017/2018. This effort produced more than 1,000 military veteran hires in 2018.

During BNSF’s peak hiring in 2018, the company effectively partnered with a professional marketing organization to use media outlets, including print and targeted digital advertising, to capture candidates for its skilled positions. Over the last few years, BNSF has used state-of-the-art on-demand and live video interviewing. Live video interviewing allows potential candidates to interview remotely but still be faceto- face onscreen in real time with the recruiter and hiring manager. In on-demand interviewing, potential candidates can record and submit their interview at a relaxed pace and at a time that is most convenient for them.

Even with record low unemployment in the U.S., BNSF’s recruitment results were significant, with 100 percent of the hiring plan target reached by the 10th month.

Next Stop: Motivate People to Be Pioneers

One of BNSF’s top business strategies is to develop and transition the workforce for sustained business success. “Due to the technical nature of our business and our desire to maintain a strong and cohesive organizational culture, we firmly believe in cultivating and promoting talent from within the organization,” says Debra Ross, assistant vice president of Learning and Organizational Development. In the years from 2018 to 2022, the company will replace 16 percent of its top 500 leaders due to planned retirements.

To meet the demand for future leadership needs within the company, BNSF has a Management Trainee (MT) program that starts with college and graduate school hires. Many of its senior leaders began their career as MTs, demonstrating the success of the program across the years. Each MT participates in an “All Aboard” Program when they join BNSF. In this program, they are assigned a mentor who contacts them prior to their first day, connects with them through networking events, and serves as a point of contact throughout the program. In addition to extensive technical training, BNSF conducts a program on “Transitions,” designed to help college graduates transition from school to work, and offering insight into how they develop their personal leadership.

The company’s succession and talent planning, Ross explains, supports the strategic goal to develop and transition the workforce by leveraging internal talent, while maintaining business continuity and meeting customer needs. “We ensure risk mitigation of potential regretted attrition with a strong bench for all top leadership positions. The process involves continuous department-level calibration discussions regarding top talent,” says Ross. “Discussions include individualized accelerated development plans aligned to each employee’s developmental areas and projected career progression. Talent movement also is discussed, and developmental moves and promotions are commonly catalyzed through this process.”

The results of the succession and talent-planning process have been substantial. BNSF’s deep talent bench has enabled the company to successfully manage transitions due to retirements, with an 86.2 percent internal fill rate of all non-entry-level positions and a 96.5 percent internal fill rate for vacancies within the top 500 leader positions. The company boasts a low failure rate of just 5.3 percent for all internal promotions and a zero percent failure rate of all moves into the top 500 positions.

BNSF is focused on keeping its vision for the future clear and reachable. “Our biggest strength as a company has always been our people,” Ross says. “In 2020, BNSF will celebrate its 25th anniversary of our merger. Our leadership training focus will be: ‘Create a Compelling Vision: Motivate people to be pioneers and achieve the vision in spite of obstacles.’ I can’t think of a better training focus than to re-instill the vision our leadership had when they created BNSF: to realize BNSF’s tremendous potential by providing transportation services that consistently meet our customers’ expectations. We will add 725 new People Leader Training (PLT) attendees this year. All 5,500-plus exempt employees will focus on developing as leaders as they achieve the BNSF vision in their work every day.”

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