How To Become a Railway Conductor In Canada

As someone with B.A. I’ve written about the benefits of getting a liberal arts degree, and the challenges it presents for people who see a B.A. as a direct route to employment.  In the final chapter of our new book: More Money for Beer and Textbooks – A Financial Guide for Today’s Canadian Student, we take a research-driven look at what exactly the labour market in Canada is telling us it needs.  This is a completely separate conversation from the “worth” of a liberal arts degree.  The idea of placing a “worth” on education leads into all kinds of vague debates about value to society, and becoming a well-rounded citizen, blah, blah, blah.  It is impossible to quantify the overall “worth” of a learning experience because learning for the sake of learning is a great thing, but it is possible to quantify what your job potential and earning potential will be as a result of the educational path you pursue.

Outside-the- Box Thinking for An Inside-the-Box World

As a high school teacher who is trusted (for better or for worse) with providing teenagers with information related to post-secondary education so that they might make an educated decision as to the best fit for them, I try to stay up-to-date on trends and opportunities in Canada.  Within that role I’ve recently began thinking about how ironic it is that universities are supposed to teach you to think critically and “outside the box” (amongst other things), yet going to university to take a basic liberal arts degree has become about as “inside the box” as you can get.  My students know that if they say they are going to university everyone will accept that answer and laud them for it.  They will be encouraged, helped and pointed out as an example of someone who has it all figured out.  It has become the path of least resistance in many ways.  Again, I’m not saying a liberal arts degree is a bad thing, I’m just saying that going to university to take sociology 101, psychology 101, and literature 101 because you don’t really want to leave high school isn’t always a good choice.  To my way of thinking, taking a hard look at your interests, strengths, and the job market in Canada – then coming up with some possible careers out there that allow those things to align to some degree (after doing a little research) – THEN looking at what educational path could get you to that career – is a far better strategy than simply taking the path of least resistance.  It is also what will likely lead you to a great career opportunity that is slightly outside of the box most Canadian students are currently finding themselves trapped in.

A 100% Employment Rate?!  Must Be a Typo…

One great example of applying this educational strategy is becoming a railway conductor.  Where did that idea come from you might ask?  Well the other day I walked into my staff room and picked up a little piece of information put out by Red River College here in Manitoba.  Basically, it had polled all of its former students and documented post-graduate information about them such as if they had any employment at all, if their employment was related to their field of study, and what their average pay was.  It then broke down the feedback into fairly precise categories.  I thought this information was perfect for students in high school today.  It gives them a great snapshot of the current market, especially in certain programs that they made not have thought of before.

One program that Red River offers that really caught my eye was their railway conductor program.  It literally had a 100% employment rate and a fairly large sample size had reported back.  When I did a little research on the topic it looks as if the industry in general is in dire need of workers and is willing to pay top dollar for in-demand employees.  The pay rates are great, benefits are good, and the schooling takes roughly as long as one semester of university.  It seems too good to be true, but it actually isn’t.

What You Need To Enter The Field

While it seems like several people had got railway conductor jobs without taking courses, the programs that kept coming up (in addition to Red River College) were those offered by George Brown and SAIT.  These programs were put together with help from Canada’s railway personnel (what a novel idea, asking the workforce what education is most needed, and then developing a partnership with them to produce the best program possible… are you listening universities or are you still going to be on tracks when the train comes through?).  The basic outline is similar for all of the programs in that it is a relatively short course of 15-17 weeks.  The conductors-to-be work at various jobs within a rail yard and learn the ropes first-hand.  Students learn regulations, safety protocols, record-keeping practices, and everything else they will need to jump into the job.

Pros and Cons

The promotional stuff for the programs is careful to point out that being a railway conductor isn’t all flowers and sunshine.  People who take the job need to be willing to work long hours with quick turnaround times.  They also need to be mobile and flexible in terms of living accommodations.  That being said, if you’re a young person looking to get your foot into the employment door and earn some series cash (first-hand accounts varied between $70,000-$100,000 annually), then this looks like a great opportunity to me.  If you pursue the job, there appears to be not only a virtual guarantee of finding employment, but plenty of opportunity for advancement as well.  While I could see the hours and lifestyle scaring off a few people, if you’re 18-20 years old in Canada today and aren’t sure what to do, being a railway conductor would not only allow you to get a huge financial jumpstart on life, it would also put some great material on your resume if you determined you were ultimately looking for something a little more stable and predictable further down the line.  Also, with all of the resource extraction and infrastructure needs across Canada, I’m pretty sure railways aren’t going to go out of style anytime soon.

What would stop you from jumping at numbers like this?  I highly doubt being a railway conductor is an easy job (physically or mentally), but it can’t be a whole lot more taxing than many jobs in the oilfield that hard-working Canadians have been flocking to for years right?

(Image provided by Flickr)

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10 years ago

Very interesting article. Thanks. If I may put forward a few points. 1) You forgot to mention that even though the program is very short, the tuition at George Brown is around 10K. That’s A LOT of dough for a 15-17 week program, don’t you think? 2) Not that long ago, a kid out of high school could apply and get hired by CN or CP and THE EMPLOYER would train the new hire (and pay for the training). 3) To my knowledge, even if one does complete one of these programs at SAIT, George Brown, or Red River College,… Read more »

9 years ago

How does an, Electronic Engineering Technologist find a job with CN? I live in Northern BC Canada, near Prince George. I have applied for a Conductor position. However, I was passed over. I would take any job, to get my foot in the door. I thought I had very good qualifications, being an Engineer in Electronics.

Any information, would be appreciated.

9 years ago
Reply to  adanac

I would think you’d be a great bet do Adanac. Did you get any feedback at all from your application? I’d ask if I could go over and speak with someone about my application and if they were taking people. Maybe you should look at taking one of these six month courses we outlined in the article?

9 years ago

I completed the red river college program, sure it costs a lot but what you are paying for is the “guaranteed placement” and also by taking the course you have a huge jump on people taking te railways classes because you have a lot of time to learn and complete everything you will learn on the railway who hires you that requires you learn everything in a very short amount of time. It is also very expensive for the short amount of time because it is one of the only classes in Canada that allows you to train with real… Read more »

9 years ago
Reply to  Neil

Thank you so much for dropping by Neil! That’s awesome first-hand knowledge. What do you think about coming on our podcast? We’d give you a shout and just ask you to describe the program and more or less what you just commented here.

8 years ago

Last year I graduated with a B.A. in criminology and have had zero luck in landing a well paying job (been stuck at minimum wage jobs/dead end jobs). I’ve felt lost and confused for the past year. After some research about being a train conductor and stumbling upon this article i’m convinced that this is for me, it has been awhile since i’ve felt like I have some purpose in life.

Thank you, and I will follow up on how it goes

8 years ago
Reply to  Rob

This is great to hear Rob! Thanks a lot for the follow up. You just made my day!

7 years ago

I’m a railroad conductor/Locomotive engineer for CN in Canada. Took the conductor course at BCIT in Burnaby when I was 18, I’m 23 now and still pretty satisfied with my career choice. It’s far from perfect though, up until about a year ago I was basically homeless bouncing around the country chasing work because I didn’t have the seniority to hold a job at my home terminal. If you do go this route, be aware that you will probably have to either do same, or get laid off until you can hold a job. It’s a very difficult lifestyle to… Read more »

7 years ago
Reply to  Anonymous

You agree that’s not a bad deal then Anon? I mean, at 23 having reached that level of compensation and stability – I think a lot of young Canadians would trade places with you! Definitely sacrifices to be made though…

7 years ago

If working as a conductor is in such high demand how come so many are laid off or at home waiting to get a phone call (spare board) which can come at any time of the day? Also if being a conductor is such gratifying job, why is it when you walk into a CN or CP bunk house they have a wall dedicated to brochures that deal with Depression, Anxeity, Suicide, Gambling, Drugs and Alcohol, Greiving, Divorce? A saying on the railroad is ” you can’t be happily married and be doing your job at the same time.” If… Read more »

franklin nwosu
5 years ago

i have msc in information technology from Asia but i found this railway conductor interesting so i applied for the programme at SAIT, hope they are approved to run the program, i mean their certificate on this program is recognize by the railway sector. please i need prompt advice to enable me to know what next to do as i am still waiting for the admission. thanks

5 years ago

This is was informative and enjoyable to read. You might want to correct the spelling and punctuation errors, though. For example, “series” should be changed to “serious,” unless “series cash” is an actual thing I missed learning about while numbing my mind watching too much Netflix. Still a great article, though.

5 years ago

im 60 years old, renovation and construction worker
am I too old to take the course to be a train conductor and be hired by cn as a conductor? I would like to work as a train conductor

Bajrang Singh
5 years ago

Sir, I m Indian railway employee as a train driver or locomotive pilot from last 7 year good experience of freight train, now I want to join Canada railway please tell me how it is possible on my email.

[…] In order to find jobs that few others want, you must get this middle-class, suburban ideal out of your mind. We recently published a post on a great-paying job that takes about 15 weeks of post-secondary training as it has a 100% employment rate. The problem is it requires non-traditional hours and living away from urban centers. What magical job might this be you ask? Some of you probably wanted to do it as a young child – a railway conductor. […]

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