Michele Louise Malski: A Modern-Day Railway Baroness

Michele Louise Malski: A Modern-Day Railway Baroness

As children, we reveled in the joys of dinosaurs and toy trains, but over time, those fleeting fascinations dimmed, replaced by newer, brighter distractions. The railroad industry, although left on the playing tables of our youth, still remains a powerful force in the modern world. Michele Louise Malski, Founder and President of Succession Planning for Railroads Investing in the Next Generation (SPRING) LLC, explains that the rail industry's pulse beats strong; you just need the right curiosity to find it. Michele has dedicated her career to reigniting intrigue in the railroad industry. With her infectious enthusiasm and depth of knowledge, she is on a mission to reveal the overlooked world of freight railroads as a compelling career path for the next generation.   

Railway Industry Advocate   

Born into a railroad family, Michele gained an early appreciation for the industry that is not your typical track. Her father, a devoted railroad leader, imparted his passion onto his daughter, guiding her to follow her strengths as a connector and communicator at a young age. "My Father was my biggest mentor and influence," Michele recalls. "He allowed me to see the complexity of railroading, that you learn something new every day. With the right education, experience, and vigor, you can shape the industry for the future."   

After graduating from Cornell University with a degree in Industrial Labor Relations and earning an MBA from Quantic School of Business and Technology, Michele embarked on a series of internships and careers with railroads, large and small and other rail-related companies. She worked her way up from Management Trainee to Division Trainmaster and later Manager of Hazmat Training and Safety Culture Training, gaining experience in operations to government relations.   

However, as Michele advanced in her career, she became concerned about a growing problem that faced companies of all sizes: the aging railroad workforce. "Whether you are a railroad proper or steel rail manufacturer, our industry is facing one of the largest problems of people and skill shortages it will ever face," Michele explains. "My father reached his wings out to me, to show me the way, and took me to meetings with bridge inspectors to new customer site visits. Not everyone has that luxury. Having started in operations, I realized not many companies were catapulting solutions to fix the fast-pressing issue. This is why I started SPRING. To ensure a pathway that allows curious candidates to find, gain entry to, and grow within a vital part of our economy, the railroad."   

"Succession planning is not reserved for the upper echelons of management. It's a process that starts with every crew, every position that makes a railroad run." Michele created SPRING LLC Succession Planning for Railroads Investing in the Next Generation in 2019 to do just that.   

But Michele soon realized that connecting candidates with railroad job openings wasn't enough. She needed to spark interest in the industry first. "When I talk to employers, my conversation starts by answering a question. "Where are all the people?" In my retort, the root cause creates another question, "If no one knows we exist, why would we expect anyone to apply? Most young people today don't know about the rail industry in general, let alone the opportunities we have," she explains. "We, as an industry, must change that perception if we are to survive."    

Michele began visiting tech schools, veteran bases, and college campuses to give presentations on railroad careers. She highlighted the varying cultures that each railroad offers.  "There are hundreds of railroads proper in the US, and no one knows anything about us. Now, multiply that by 25, and now you may have a better idea of how many contractors, suppliers, and other employers support this great industry. It is a world that embodies all others, a microcosm of all industries in one. We have homes for biologists, engineers, marketing, operations, accounting, you name it, and I can find you a place where you belong here in this industry.    

The Secret Society of Railroaders is no more   

Our ephemeral captivation for dinosaurs mirrors another similarly fated interest freight railroads, Michele muses. Wooden toy trains that jumpstarted growth in young minds now collect dust. Years later, railroads re-emerge when learning about technological advancements in the late 1800s or Manifest Destiny.  Occasionally, Hollywood brings railroads back into focus, glorified for viewers' pleasure. Then, like a flame too short a match, the curiosity vanishes as quickly as it came.   

But what if I told you, there's a whole world awaiting your entry, Michele proposes a unique community of people, assets, and customers? Without a personal connection, you likely have never heard of the freight railroad industry. As a member of the public, you may only encounter the railroad industry at crossings, where you wait for a passing train, but instead of waiting in frustration, look at the strength of the economy in front of you. How long is it? Is it carrying hopper cars full of grains for your future beer or double-stacked containers with the TVs you'll watch this weekend? The rail industry's impact is all around us, and it's time to recognize its relevancy. It is hard to keep thousands of railroad employers nationwide a secret. So, how does one enter this unknown society? Michele suggests that until recently, you needed the right code, handshake, or connection to get into the club.

Well, the code is 4, Michele reveals. The handshake, a handshake. And she will be your guide to a world of opportunities. All her team asks is that you bring your curiosity once more.    

Tracing the Tracks of Railroad History   

To understand the present and future of the rail industry, we must first acknowledge its rich history. Canal systems were built to expedite the movement of goods. However, the need for a more efficient system led to the birth of railroads.    

With new routes evolving, new towns arose. More markets then meant more people. Passenger rail popularity entered the scene as the main way of travel for people and it remained so until the late 1940s.   

Manifest Destiny fueled expansion, but it also brought labor issues to the forefront. Worker rights and standard workdays, legislative doctrines, and aggressive labor negotiations or actions laid the foundation for a more regulated and more organized rail industry with a new priority of safety.   

However, the 20th century saw the rise and affordability of automobiles and the growing interstate highway system, along with wars, a few bankruptcies, and strict government regulation, posing new challenges for railroads. When passenger travel by rail began to be outrun by several contributing factors, so did the relevancy of railroads from everyday mind. Yet, for the freight side of the railroad industry, it was game on. The steadily growing freight railroads continued to evolve and adapt their systems, safety, and network until the present day.   

Freight Forward Future   

Railroads are the unsung heroes behind each box of Cheerios or oil at the pump, ensuring the main ingredients reach their destinations. Safety and sustainability are top priorities in the rail industry. Data-driven forecasting, hydrogen, electric locomotives, and innovations in natural movement sensing are shaping a greener future. Railroads are already moving 1 ton of freight for 1 gallon of fuel over 500 miles on average, with plans to further reduce emissions.    

Research by the Association of American Railroads in 2020 found that railroad employees were among America's highest paid when including benefits on average, versus the average American worker. For those not drawn in by salary alone, many railroad employers also provide rewarding perks, some being 401ks, tuition reimbursement, charity focuses, and the lucrative Railroad Retirement programs.

Skill development and training is also a major benefit for our industry. We want to show you how it's done. Many employers have management trainee and apprenticeship programs to help you get started; that's how I started in operations with BNSF railroad in 2012. For veterans, listen up. You can earn a monthly housing allowance (MHA) benefit from your GI Bill of over $2,000 on top of wages your employers offer you if they have a nationally registered apprenticeship program. It is totally free for employers to adopt – We and our partners set these programs up for free, thanks to the Department of Labor. Each railroad offers different benefits, so explore your options with our network. Know that a career in freight rail likely means enjoying compensation and advantages among the best in the nation.   

The rail industry offers diverse career opportunities, from welders to marketing; the opportunities are boundless.   

A Path to a Bright Future   

Michele's company, Succession Planning for Railroads Investing in the Next Generation (SPRING) LLC , serves as a bridge to connect curious individuals with the rail industry. She has dedicated herself to helping people discover the myriad of career possibilities within the realm of railroading.   

SPRING is all about ushering in a new generation of railroaders, fostering diversity, and injecting fresh ideas and energy into the industry. Michele and her team offer hope, support, and mentorship to those willing to explore this uncharted territory. She offers a new pathway to consider.   

Michele invites you to join SPRING and become a part of this adventure. The rail industry is not just a relic of history; it's a living, breathing community ready to welcome and embrace the next generation of railroaders.   

This is not just a career; it gets into your blood. It's an opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself. The rail industry is calling, and Michele Malski's hand is extended, inviting you to explore the possibilities and shape the future of railroading. Just bring your curiosity once again. Welcome aboard.

The Editorial Team

The Editorial Team

Hi there, we're the editorial team at WomELLE. We offer resources for business and career success, promote early education and development, and create a supportive environment for women. Our magazine, "WomLEAD," is here to help you thrive both professionally and personally.

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