Second Chance Employer Profile

Union Pacific Railroad

View of a trainyard showing multiple tracks filled with train cars.

One of the world’s leading railroad companies, Union Pacific Railroad dates back more than 150 years to when President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act of July 1, 1862. The act created the original Union Pacific, which played a role in building the transcontinental railroad.

Today the company’s routes cover more than 32,000 miles in 23 states in the western two-thirds of the U.S. Headquartered in Omaha, Neb., it has more than 32,000 employees systemwide.

Second chance hiring practices 

Union Pacific’s second chancing hiring process began as a pilot project with The Manufacturing Institute, which has organized a series of pilot project to encourage hiring those with justice-involved backgrounds.

The company, like many others, was having difficulty finding talent. “Everyone was going after the traditional talent pool. And everyone was getting into a pool that was shrinking,” says Ken Kawamura, UP’s manager of strategic partnerships for talent acquisition. “We had to look at nontraditional markets where we could find talent. In 2021 we made a commitment to take a stand against social injustice and pursue our DEI (diversity, equity and inclusion) program.”

And hiring second chance employees was part of the plan. The company reviewed and revised its application process.

“If an applicant’s record turns up on a background check, UP runs another unique interview.

We set up a second interview with the senior director of talent acquisition, the vice president of workforce resources and an attorney,” Kawamura says. “It’s a good process. It works. But not everyone who goes through the second review gets hired.”

“Overall, however, we have been pleasantly surprised with the level of the talent, the loyalty and the effort they put in. They’re appreciative of the opportunity.”

The company began working with Levelset, (which was a fair chance employment collaboration between Envoy and CEO, the Center for Employment Opportunities) to identify potential community partners. Levelset singled out 10 organizations in Houston they thought would be a good fit. UP chose to work with the Houston Health Dept. and SER Jobs. The two organizations helped it develop a candidate pipeline as well as an advisor group. The company began interviews for applicants in February/March 2022.

Using the experience of Houston, UP expanded its second chance employment effort to Los Angeles, Denver and Chicago, among other places.

The first positions it hired were for train crew, who are the people on the ground switching train cars and are paid about $52,000 per year. By the end of 2022 all departments were opened for second chance hiring. And the company had hired 71 people across the U.S., with 192 applications still in progress.

Their partners not only helped UP get the program off the ground but continue to offer wraparound services. The Houston Health Dept. helps provide a stipend for rent or help with buying food for those who need it. SER Jobs has provided customer service, financial literacy and other types of training.

UP also created an advisory board for each of its locations. The agencies create a spreadsheet that includes all of the applicants, and the advisory board will discuss each of them and where they are in the hiring process. “I reach out to the applicants if they don’t qualify and look for other positions with the company,” says Kawamura. We also have other employers on our advisory boards, and if an applicant is not successful with us, we see if one of the other companies can take them on.”

While Kawamura feels that UP has been successful so far, he says that there were challenges along the way. One of the challenges was to “educate ourselves on what was the right thing to do and how to communicate it. We also had to make sure we were going after the right talent and figure out how to find that talent,” he says.

Another challenge was with the partners in each location. “Every agency is not a good fit. It was making sure that we picked the right partners,” Kawamura adds.

Beyond getting loyal, enthusiastic qualified employees, Kawamura feels that the company’s biggest success is the impact they’re making in the community.

“We’re providing people with opportunities that are going to sustain their livelihood. They can afford a place to live. They can afford a vehicle.,” he says. “The reward comes when you see the smiles on their faces. When you call and offer them a job and they want to put on the speaker so everyone in their household can hear. When someone calls and says, ‘This is the first time I’ve been able to take my kids to a dentist.’ It may sound like a little thing for some people, but it’s a big thing for them.”

Proud of the success it’s achieved so far, Union Pacific no longer considers its second chance hiring program a pilot project. “It’s actually a strategy we’ve put into practice,” says Kawamura. “We’re looking forward to opening up more programs with our community partners across the 26 states during 2023 and 2024.”

To learn more about Union Pacific Railroad