OMAHA, Neb. — Mark Major once led a team of soldiers in combat in Iraq. Now he leads a team of railroad employees. The difference, he says, is obvious: "I'm not getting shot at anymore."
But it's the similarities between serving in the military and working for the railroad that draw Major and many other former military members to this type of work.
"For a veteran — a person who thrives off excitement, a mission and a chain of command — you tend to seek out companies like that," said Major, who has worked for Union Pacific for about two years.
As thousands of American soldiers return to the civilian workforce after service in Iraq or Afghanistan, many are finding jobs on the nation's rail lines. More than 25 percent of all U.S. railroad workers have served in the military.
Veterans have a long history of railroad work. Civil War veterans, for example, helped complete the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. But railroad opportunities are especially welcome now because the unemployment rate for recent veterans remains higher than for the rest of the nation.
Major helps manage intermodal freight trains for the railroad in Oakland, Calif. He sought out a railroad job when he was getting ready to leave the military because of the challenges and independence it offered and because he had known other soldiers who went to work for a railroad and liked it.
"I'm infantry," Major said. "The 40-hour workweek, sitting in a cubicle doesn't really appeal."
The Labor Department says the unemployment rate for veterans who have served since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks improved last year but still registered 9.9 percent, compared with the 7.9 percent rate for nonveterans. The jobless rate for veterans between the ages of 18 and 24 was even worse — 20.4 percent in 2012.
The stubbornly high unemployment among veterans inspired the White House to launch a campaign called Joining Forces to encourage businesses to hire veterans. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce led a similar effort called Hiring Our Heroes.
Partly as a result of those efforts, businesses have hired more than 125,000 veterans or military spouses and pledged to hire or train another 250,000 more by the end of 2014. But there are up to 800,000 unemployed veterans, and thousands more are constantly leaving the military as combat operations wind down in Afghanistan. The last U.S. troops left Iraq at the end of 2011.
Part of the challenge for veterans is that they have trouble describing their military experience in language that civilians can understand, said Kim Morton, spokeswoman for the Hiring Our Heroes program.
And veterans don't always choose to live in cities where they have the best chance of landing a job. Instead, many move back to their hometowns or to the city where a favorite base was located.
Railroad officials say veterans are well-suited to the work they do because of their training and the fact that they're used to working a 24/7 job.
"Military folks adapt well to the railroad environment," said Roy Schroer, Union Pacific's vice president of human resources.
The railroad is like having a factory with no roof, Schroer said, so prospective employees who are trained to accomplish difficult tasks under fire are attractive.
Certain railroad jobs are almost perfect fits for certain military jobs, said John Wesley III, BNSF's military hiring manager. For instance, someone who was an air traffic controller can become a train dispatcher rather easily. And mechanics who maintained diesel equipment in the military can use those skills to take care of locomotives.
Plus, skilled trades like plumbers and electricians are all needed in the railroads.
And even veterans who don't have special skills are still a good fit because railroads are willing to train them to be conductors or to do other jobs.