On the morning of Nov. 29, 14 students sat in front of a lecturer in the Pyle Center. This wasn’t an unusual sight to see on the University of Wisconsin’s campus, but these students weren’t the typical UW undergrads — straight out of high school and living in dorms.

Rather, they were professionals in the railroad industry — safety coordinators, foremen, track inspectors and engineers — participating in courses as a part of the UW Engineering Professional Development department, led by Dave Peterson.

John Zuspan, president of Track Guy Consultants in Pennsylvania, taught the Nov. 29 course, Understanding and Complying with Federal Railroad Administration 213 Track Safety Standards. The course covered how to apply FRA track safety standards to railways, including skills to inspect railroad material such as cross ties and look for deterioration.

“You can’t learn railroad engineering or railroad work in school,” Peterson said. “So a lot of the learning is on the job, and we provide a classroom experience for learning to contribute to their on-the-job learning.”

Railroad courses like the one offered Thursday are a subset of the 200 courses offered through the EPD department, a branch of the College of Engineering. EPD serves 6,000 professionals in the industry each year from all over the country, providing them with the opportunity to receive certificates and licensing credits.

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Mark Miller, vice president of operations at Mississippi Export Railroads, has been to three courses taught through EPD over the past five years. For Miller, the network of railroad industry workers that he meets through these courses is one of the most beneficial aspects.

“Sometimes a problem will come up at work, and you remember someone who worked in a different field, and you can call them up,” Miller said.

Miller is trying to build up that network himself. At this year’s course, Miller brought with him several younger workers in an attempt to bridge the age gap between older and newer railroad employees. Peterson also noted this gap, pointing to a 20-year period in the 1970s and 1980s when there was very little hiring in the railroad industry, which has resulted in a gap between people now retiring and younger professionals in the field.

Training the next generation of employees is important in maintaining railroad infrastructure especially in Wisconsin, Peterson said. 

Wisconsin has more than 3,600 miles of railway, and most of the cream produced in the state is transported by railway to the rest of the country, Peterson said. It is also a growing field, with a new resurgence due to millennials opting to live in cities and rely on public transportation rather than cars, Peterson said.

 

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EPD is part of a campus-wide emphasis on reaching out to students outside of the traditional college demographic. This has been a part of UW’s history since 1890, when UW began correspondence courses to students who were not able to attend classes on campus, Marty Gustafson, assistant dean for academic affairs at the Division of Continuing Studies, said.

DCS partners with EPD in their attempts to increase access by providing services and funding for their programs. DCS also houses many other programs for nontraditional students, including career counseling for adults, online, summer and virtual courses, and funding for programs like The Odyssey Project, which provides adults facing economic barriers an opportunity to start college at UW for free.

Students like Miller and the 13 other attendees of the Nov. 29 course provide a different set of needs, experiences and perspectives than undergraduate students, Gustafson said. These may be raising kids or holding down full-time jobs while taking these classes, and UW must offer resources to support these experiences, such as specialized career services, Gustafson said.

For Gustafson, connecting these experiences with those of undergraduates encourages lifelong learning, and this happens in a handful of EPD courses that are offered to both sets of students.

“Lifelong learning is really important to a lot of people,” Gustafson said. “Lots of other points in people’s lives could be met with education, and it’s important that once they have a relationship with UW, they keep coming back.”