The railroad conductor training program at Dakota County Technical College sometimes draws students with romantic notions of life on the rails. It doesn't last long.
Instructors make it clear from the start: Good job. Good money. But it can be a hard life.
MPR's Anna Weggel and I spent a morning recently filming and interviewing students. Many were laid off from other industries and, in their 30s and 40s, were trying to regroup.
Their stories capture a lot of the the hard times and hopes of many in this recession.
Conductors work the rail yards. Duties include moving and coupling rail cars. It's a demanding job with lots of irregular hours and pressures that can be hard on families.
New conductors can start with annual salaries in the low- to mid-50s. In return, railroad life demands a lot.
"You're going to be on call. That means you go to work when the telephone rings. You come to work and stay as long as they want you to stay," said instructor Don Spano, who worked more than 20 years in railroads. "The railroad really dictates your sleeping patterns, your social patterns, your eating patterns. Everything."
Demand for railroad workers has been rising in this decade after decades of decline. For the past five years, Dakota County Tech has been training people to be railroad conductors, one of only a few public school railroad programs in the country.
The certificate program costs $4,500, including books, equipment and supplies. Next fall, it rises to $4,800.
Enrollment took a hit in the recession along with railroad business generally. Data from the Association of American Railroads shows the drop in freight traffic in the recession. (Click on the chart.)
Still, the prospects for reliable income and stable work draw dislocated workers from Minnesota and around the country.
Tracey Richardson, 36, from Louisville, Ky., worked in the auto industry before a layoff. "I had to do something," he said. "I'd been unemployed for 8 months." He didn't know anyone in Minnesota when he signed up.
Ken Wood, 50, from Inver Grove Heights said he was a laid off machinist looking for a new career. Trying to find a job at 50 is hard, he said, adding wryly, "I could be a greeter at Wal-Mart."
Murray Bogan, 48, was a master barber, cutting hair at Camp Ripley, Minnesota. But the workload slowed and his contract wasn't renewed.
"I'm trying to get something more stable," he said as he waited his turn to practice coupling the big rail cars. "The thing to remember is to be safe. Don't let the cars hit you or anybody else."
Danielle Gantt, 30, of Rosemount, had been trying to get into a nursing program. She looked into the railroad conductor program for a friend of her cousin and decided to give it a try on her own. She's one of the few women to go through the program.
"The money's as good as nursing, probably better right off the bat," said Gantt, who has three kids from five to 13 years old.
There are no job promises at the end of the course. But instructor Spano says the railroad business may be at the end of the recession-induced decline. If that's the case, things should improve.
Said Spano: "More traffic, more trains. More trains, more job options."
MinnEcon@Work is an occasional series featuring Minnesotans with cool jobs and interesting vantage points on the economy.
Know someone who'd make a good MinnEcon@Work profile? Maybe you? Click here and tell us.
Paul Kolisch holds down two jobs where trust and faith are vital.
He's supervisor of flight operations training at Mesaba Airlines. He's also an Anglican priest. Both vocations are feeling the effects of this recession in different ways.
We sat with Kolisch recently at Mesaba's flight simulator operations and talked about what it takes to be a commercial pilot and the challenges the recession's brought to the airline business.
Mesaba became part of Delta Airlines last year after Delta bought Northwest Airlines. Kolisch says Mesaba is losing pilots as Delta decreases the size of the regional carrier's fleet.
While he doesn't expect his responsibilities at Mesaba to change, "I do worry about some junior pilots who may be furloughed. I would not recommend flying for people looking for secure, good wages."
A source in MPR's Public Insight Network, Kolisch, 63, says his love of flight started as a kid, staring at airplanes in the sky. He's been in aviation for more than 30 years with a stint as a science teacher.
The passion for his religion began as an eight-year-old boy singing in the church choir. Music still stirs him.
The associate rector of St. Dunstan's Anglican Church in St. Louis Park, "I say Mass on Sundays and Holy Days, visit the sick, people in nursing homes, and other such priestly activities." He'd been a layman in the Anglican Church for years before being ordained in 2007.
"As a priest in the Anglican Church, I see more people joining our congregation...The recession has hurt some of our members in terms of employment issues. Nonetheless, the parish is financially healthy, and we have enjoyed continued growth as new people find us," he says.
Whatever happens in the airline business, Kolisch says he's proud of Mesaba's focus on safety and training. "It's a really good place to do this right."
Along with the technical instruction new pilots receive, Kolisch often uses an analogy to make sure his charges understand their responsibilities to passengers. He tells them: "You're a brain surgeon and they're on the operating table."
Most career success stories don't start with running late and needing caffeine. But that's what helped Nate Hrobak land his first job at Caribou Coffee and led him to discover he possessed an expert's taste for coffee.
He's gone from "slinging lattes" at an Uptown Minneapolis shop to one of four green coffee buyers for Caribou. Each day, Hrobak, 32, tastes and judges coffee the company buys and blends. Mornings are filled with roasting and analyzing samples in a kitchen just off Caribou's bean roasting room in Brooklyn Center.
What's accepted will end up in Caribou bags at coffee shops and grocery stores.
Hrobak once thought he'd be a chef but says he realized he didn't like the greasy part of kitchen life and the fact that he'd be working while everyone else was going out.
We spent a couple of hours recently with Hrobak, a source in MPR's Public Insight Network. He gave us a lesson on coffee, roasting, and the the crucial roles slurping and spitting play in his work.
Hrobak graduated from culinary school. But coffee buying and tasting is an apprenticeship training process. That includes learning the biology of growing coffee -- acidity, weather, soil composition -- from around the world and honing a world class palette.
I kind of fell into working for Caribou one day, about ten years ago, while I was running late for work, I stopped into a Caribou Coffee in Uptown, Mpls (as I did every morning, in a perpetual state of lateness) and the manager mentioned that If I worked at Caribou, I would already be at work, and subsequently not late. Imperfect logic at best, but apparently good enough for me. I began my coffee career at Caribou shortly thereafter in one of the cafes in South Minneapolis.
The lousy economy hasn't damaged the coffee business. Nationally, just over half the nation's adults were daily coffee drinkers and while daily coffee consumption by young adults slipped in 2009, making coffee at home is up, according to the National Coffee Association.
That's in line with what Hrobak says Caribou's seeing.
The primary effect of the recession has been a shift in where customers buy their coffee. Instead of coming into coffee shops, they get their coffee in grocery stores. While this does have an impact on our overall strategy, the actual purchase of green coffee supply remains relatively unaffected.
He says he's not a coffee snob and that he can still enjoy diner coffee.
Here's a new, occasional feature: MinnEcon@Work -- short videos of Minnesotans with cool jobs and interesting vantage points on the economy. We start with Catherine Campion, a voice over specialist who sees a growing overseas market for her talent.
Campion, 37, a source in our Public Insight Network, dropped us a line a few weeks ago to tell us her business was doing well despite the recession. She wrote:
I work as an on-camera and voice-over actress. I gotta say that, as the on-camera work has dried up here for union talent, the voice-over market is booming. However, it is rarely local projects on which I am working. My employers are all over - from the Pacific Northwest to Europe, even Asia.
We were intrigued. Voice talent might seem like a relic in a video age. But podcasts, satellite radio and the Internet have opened huge new markets for digital audio.
Campion caught the acting bug at a young age, working in productions at the Children's Theatre Company, although she says it goes back further -- as an 11-year-old in Mary Strickland's improv class at Annunciation Catholic School in Minneapolis, where her classmates included TR Knight of Grey's Anatomy fame.
Campion graduated from the University of Minnesota's college of agriculture, thinking she'd pursue something in the sustainable environmental field. Acting, though, was a passion and in voice overs, she found a way to earn a living.
She works now out of Los Angeles and St. Paul, where a tiny closet does double duty as a recording studio.
You can check out more of her work on her YouTube Channel.
Craig Johnson once saw teaching as his life's work. But the lure of pirates and knights proved too great. As a kid, he loved those swashbuckling movies of Errol Flynn. It fed a lifelong passion for swords and sword making.
Johnson, 46, is production manager for Arms & Armor, a company that makes several thousand historical weapons a year, from small knives and rapiers to big two-handed swords. Customers include collectors, movie prop masters and theaters.
We spent an hour recently at the Arms & Armor shops in the basement of an old industrial building in Minneapolis. An audiotape of "The Hobbit" played overhead.
The recession's hurt the sword making business. Ancient weapons aren't a necessity these days. Collectors who might have bought several pieces in a year have pulled back.
Given the economy, it's been "an ongoing struggle to keep it all together and try not to lose a staff which would take years to recreate," he says. "It's tough and not getting any easier."
Johnson, a source in MPR's Public Insight Network, says he also faces international competition with cheaper work "of dubious quality being done in places like China."
Staying competitive, he says, means staying focused on quality and customer service -- "We need to be the Nordstrom's of the sword business."
While the future's never certain, the business has managed to ride out the tough times. "If your doors are open," says Johnson, "you're a success in the sword business."