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The Journey of a Female Locomotive Engineer

Huffing and puffing along, a 7,000 foot freight train curves gracefully around the Columbia River Gorge. Jessica Hassler, locomotive engineer extraordinaire with BNSF Railway, looks out the side-view mirror of the cab at the 16,000 tons she has been vigilantly guiding for hundreds of miles. She feels pride welling up inside her as she safely and smoothly handles the power of this great machine.

Jessica has been a Locomotive Engineer for 7 years now and has been with the railroad as a whole for 10 years. Before her foray into the world of locomotives, Jessica was a creative ‘jack-of-all-trades’. Armed with a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Illustration, she supported herself by doing freelance work. She was contracted by advertisers and restaurants to draw for them, but the work wasn’t conducive to ensuring a stable future; the market for creatives in Portland was, and continues to be, saturated. Jessica also opened up her own food truck, but after 3 years, decided that being an entrepreneur was not for her if she wanted to have job-security, health insurance, and to one day own a home.

She heard from a friend that BNSF Railway was looking for switchmen and conductors and that the work was well compensated and Union protected. In 2008, she took a chance and applied to BNSF Railway. She was hired as a switchman/conductor and worked for 6 months before getting furloughed. The furlough, while incredibly inconvenient, was a perfect segue into Oregon Tradeswomen’s Trades and Apprenticeship Career Class (TACC).

Jessica was at a loss as what to do until someone pointed her in the direction of Oregon Tradeswomen. Growing up in North Dakota, Jessica never considered the skilled trades or blue-collar work an option, as it was mostly men who filled those jobs, but going through Oregon Tradeswomen’s pre-apprenticeship training program, a whole new world opened up for her. During the summer of 2009 when Jessica was enrolled in TACC, she developed an interest in becoming a lineman with Bonneville Power Administration. One of the most valuable things she experienced during Oregon Tradeswomen’s class was the opportunity to learn math in a way that made sense to her. Jessica never saw math and numbers as things that came easily to her, but in TACC, math was broken down in a way that she could access. TACC was also a supportive environment where she felt like she could ask as many questions as she needed about anything.

Soon after graduation from TACC, BNSF ended Jessica’s furlough and she decided to go back and work as a switchman. Even though she didn’t go on to pursue the electrical trade, Jessica reflects on her time in the TACC program fondly, saying that:  “Oregon Tradeswomen picked me up when I didn’t know what to do. It helped me realize that even if the railroad didn’t work out, there were other options in store for me.”

And so, it was “Take Two” for Jessica. Hired on as a switchman, she switched cars, serviced local industries, and built trains for departure to their next destinations. Working on the railroad can be a very challenging job. While not for everyone, it is a place for someone who thrives on variety. You are on the railroad’s whim as you are on-call 24/7 and Jessica says that it is up to you to make the best of worst of it. Jessica made the best of it and after three years working on the ground, she took the promotion to become a Locomotive Engineer.

Throughout her time at BNSF Railway, the men that she worked with were nothing but welcoming and genuinely thrilled to have a woman join the crew. When she just got hired on, she was fearful of harassment or hazing, but instead she felt respected by the men who were all so generous to teach and share their tips and tricks. The men on her crew understood that she was their teammate and that if she succeeds, they succeed. Jessica calls them the family of men she never expected to have. There is irony in how Jessica found support, success, and a sense of equality at the railroad, a place people don’t expect women to work. BNSF does have a very strict harassment policy, but Jessica recounts that in her case, the culture has been so positive that it never needed to be enforced. Even ten years ago things were much harder for women on the railroad, but since then, the culture has evolved for the better.

To the women who are curious about joining BNSF, Jessica Hassler says, “Just do it! Be open and be brave. Drop the attitude and the ego and go into it knowing nothing with nothing to prove. Believe you can do it and allow yourself to learn it.”

10 years with BNSF Railway has flown by for Jessica and she has all that she once dreamed of: a rewarding job that offers great benefits, belonging to thee BLET Union, owning a home, owning a car, and she has the economic stability she always dreamed about. She even met her life partner through her job with BNSF.

So what does the future look like? Jessica can see herself sticking with it for another 20 years followed by happy retirement. As long as she can sustain the lifestyle, there is no reason not to go all the way to retirement.

Life may not always end up how you thought it would, but sometimes the reality you end up with is even better than anything you could have imagined. It is important to take things in stride and keep your options open. Who knows, you might discover something life-changing like Jessica did!

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