BNSF Railway

BNSF Railway Is On The Right Training Track

BNSF Railway worked to secure the safety of its workforce in 2017, and got its employees on board with next-generation leadership development, career planning, and learning technology.

 At BNSF Railway, ensuring the safety of employees, communities, and customers’ cargo is a core value across the company. As the largest freight railroad in North America, BNSF employs more than 40,000 people in 28 states and three Canadian provinces.

A commitment to learning and development has been central to the company’s success. There’s a strong emphasis on the technical training that equips employees to safely operate a large, complex, and technologically advanced rail network. The emphasis on leadership development is equally strong, with annual training that applies an innovative curriculum and technology to help leaders at all levels of the organization deepen their leadership skills in alignment with the company’s Leadership Model.

Approaching Others About Safety

A key recent training advance for BNSF is its Approaching Others About Safety program. Designed for all BNSF employees, it focuses on employees taking the initiative to help each other stay safe. Launched in 2013, and reaching more than 30,000 employees every year, it is the largest training program BNSF Railway has undertaken. “From the start, BNSF has had a long-standing commitment to safety, and has achieved continuous improvement on a wide variety of safety measures,” says General Superintendent of Transportation Douglas Jones. “The focus on Approaching Others About Safety was the next logical step in continuing those safety advances.”

The program’s development, he says, was driven by an ongoing and deep commitment to safety leadership. “At BNSF, we work in a safe industry, but also an unforgiving environment with 24/7 operations and heavy equipment,” says Jones. “At BNSF, nothing is more important than safety—for our employees, for our customers, and for the communities we serve.”

The idea behind the program was that employees themselves were the best people to keep each other safe. With that in mind, the program was developed with help from employee focus groups conducted with union-represented employees within each functional group—Transportation, Mechanical, Engineering, Intermodal, and Telecommunications. Employees provide feedback on the program design, attend pilot sessions, and assist with the production of relevant videos that are customized to each department and operating craft.

The curriculum each year builds on the year before and captures many facets of safety. The program includes 450 BNSF union-represented employees who train their peers and fellow employees. These trainers are prepared with a 16-hour train-the-trainer class. Training focuses on the exposures that result in 97 percent of injuries, including line of fire/release of energy, pinch points, ascending/descending, walking/path of travel, and lifesaving processes.

“We know that Approaching Others About Safety has fundamentally changed our safety culture, and it is our belief at BNSF that we will operate the railroad free of accidents and injuries,” says Jones.

In 2015, the injury frequency ratio (a common measure in the industry) was less than 50 percent of the industry average and the lowest in the company’s history.

Virtual Reality for Brake Inspection Training

Another key area of safety was the company’s recent response to a federal regulation on Brake System Safety Standards. As a result of this new regulation, BNSF developed a 3-D, e-learning training program, Virtual Power Brake Law (VPBL), which earned a 2017 Training Top 125 Outstanding Training Initiative Award (see p. 102 for more details).

“An innovative and results-oriented training approach was required to address the criticality and complexity of brake inspections,” says General Director, Railroad Training Services, Safety, and Technical Training Scott Schafer.

The learning program uses several virtual reality scenarios to build employees’ proficiency in inspecting brakes. In the course, employees take on the role of avatars in a realistic, three-dimensional, virtual simulation where they perform comprehensive brake inspections on a “consist” of rail cars.

“This program enhances decision-making by testing employees’ ability to both identify and correct malfunctions—many of which prove difficult to demonstrate even in live training environments,” Schafer notes. “With this training solution, we incorporate all potential defects and functionality, reducing the safety risk that comes from inspections in live training environments.”

The program is seen as a “best-in-class” solution across the industry, Schafer points out. “We have been approached by other railroads that are interested in purchasing this training from BNSF. As a result, we plan to seek a patent for this work,” he says. “While we are early in our implementation, we are proud that this and other safety-focused training contributed to record safety performance in 2015—injuries have been reduced by 17 percent since 2012.”

Exploring Innovative Recruitment Technology

While hiring needs vary from year to year, BNSF has implemented new tracking and recruitment processes that help extend the effectiveness of its hiring efforts, as needed.

Approximately 85 percent of BNSF’s employees are in unionized jobs in the field, so typically most of the company’s hiring focuses on union-represented jobs. “One of our greatest recruitment challenges is that we operate in very remote areas across 28 states with small populations and a limited candidate supply to fill vacancies with qualified candidates,” says Assistant Vice President, Learning and Organizational Development Debra Ross. “Because we are competing with local employers within these small pools of potential employees, we have taken steps to make it easier for applicants to apply for our open positions.”

For example, the company simplified and streamlined its hiring process with a new Applicant Tracking System— modernizing the job application, replacing paper-and-pencil testing at hiring events with online testing completed with the initial application, and launching online on-boarding forms. “We’ve extended our recruiting reach and targeted more audiences by leveraging social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn),” says Ross, who notes that BNSF also reaches out to military venues; leverages employee referrals; and uses various media outlets, including print and targeted digital advertising.

In addition, the company has piloted state-of-the-art live and on-demand video interviewing. Live video interviewing allows potential candidates to interview remotely, but still interview live with the recruiter and hiring manager. In On Demand interviewing, a potential candidate is able to record and send in his or her interview at a relaxed pace and convenient time.

Cultivating Future Leaders

One of BNSF’s key business strategies is to develop and transition the workforce for sustained business success. “Due to the technical nature of our business, the complex operating environment, and our desire to maintain a strong and cohesive organizational culture, we firmly believe in cultivating and promoting talent from within the organization,” says Ross. “In the years from 2015 to 2018, we will replace 22 percent of our top 500 leaders due to planned retirements.”

In response, BNSF has implemented programs and processes to bolster its talent pipeline. The Internship and Management Trainee (MT) program starts with college and graduate school hires. “Many of our senior leaders began their career as interns or MTs, demonstrating the success of the program over a number of years. In fact, our CEO started with the company as an intern,” Ross says. “The program has continued to evolve based on the needs of the business, but has always focused on acclimating new leaders to the company, culture, and specialized expertise required for potential career paths across the organization.”

In recent years, the company redesigned its onboarding, internship, and MT training experiences with development and retention as a priority. All MTs participate 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.

Such programs that develop future leaders are key parts of the company’s succession and talent planning. The process of building tomorrow’s workforce includes regular department-level calibration discussions regarding top talent. 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 often are catalyzed through this process.

“These and other development programs ensure we have prepared talent to fill leadership vacancies from within the organization,” says Ross.

Results of the program have been substantial. Thirty-eight percent of the company’s high-potential talent received a promotion, or development move, in 2015. BNSF’s talent bench has enabled it to successfully manage transitions due to retirements; with the company reporting an 87 percent internal fill rate of all non-entry level positions, and a 96 percent internal fill rate for vacancies within its top 500 leader positions. There is a nearly 100 percent success rate for these internal promotions.

“As we reflect on the keys to our success at BNSF,” says Ross, “several things come to mind—most notably the emphasis on alignment, executive support, and engaging learning and talent solutions. The most significant driver is the fact that our leaders believe they are responsible for their talent and personally drive their employees’ development.”

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