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Advice for Women Getting Started in Male-Dominated Fields: Q&A with Claire Anderson

Claire Anderson is a Chicago-based engineer and manager of track construction at Union Pacific Railroad, which partners with LISC to expand access to stable, livable-wage jobs in rail and related sectors. Anderson recently sat down with LISC to discuss her career journey and why it’s important to her to help more women succeed in traditionally male-dominated fields.

Above, from left to right: Sarai Garza from LISC Chicago, Claire Anderson and Lisa Welling from Union Pacific and Emily Doherty from JARC.

Photos by Gordon Walek.

Talent is equally distributed across communities, but opportunity often is not. To help address that gap, LISC and Union Pacific Railroad embarked on a multi-year national partnership in 2018 to expand access to career pathways in Transportation, Distribution, and Logistics (TDL) sectors that offer stable, livable-wage jobs with room for growth. The LISC-Union Pacific partnership supports skills training through 10 Financial Opportunity Centers (FOC) in four cities, including Jane Addams Resource Corporation (JARC) in Chicago.

Engaging Union Pacific employees to share their industry insights with FOC clients is an important part of the partnership. LISC recently sat down with Claire Anderson, a Chicago-based engineer and manager of track construction at Union Pacific, to learn more about her career journey and her recent participation in a JARC networking event for women just getting started in traditionally male-dominated fields like welding.

What is your job at Union Pacific, and what made you decide to enter this field?

My current position is manager of track construction on the Commuter Operations Service Unit. I handle all the construction projects related to Union Pacific’s relationship with Metra, which provides commuter rail service in the Chicago area.

Claire Anderson
Claire Anderson

I chose to work at Union Pacific because, after I got my degree in civil engineering from Michigan State University, I knew that I wanted to be in the field as opposed to being in the office 100% of the time. I wanted to see the projects that I was helping design from conception come to fruition and be used in everyday life. Union Pacific provides one of those unique opportunities that allows you to have both. I spend about 60 to 80% of my time in the field, which I love.

JARC, like many of LISC’s partners, is committed to supporting their job-seekers and training graduates over the long term to succeed and advance in their careers.  How has your career at Union Pacific grown over the years, and what kind of support does Union Pacific provide to its women employees?

I’m currently on my 4th position since I joined Union Pacific 12 years ago. I started out as an engineering associate, which is basically entering the management trainee program. Union Pacific really took the time to pick a coach/mentor that they knew was going to be a good fit for me. He made a lot of time to answer the questions that I had. I ended up with someone who really cared about how I moved forward within the company. Even though he’s now retired, I still talk to him, which is really awesome.

Beyond the coaching, I also developed relationships with different women in Union Pacific through LEAD (Lead Educate Achieve Develop), the company’s Employee Resource Group for women. When you’re out doing your job in the field, you might encounter other women every once in a while. Being part of LEAD really gave me the opportunity to meet more women who work at Union Pacific. If I ran into an issue with anything that I needed to talk about, I always had somebody I could call. I knew they had a vested interest in me staying with this company.

We hear that you’re really active in other Union Pacific Employee Resource Groups beyond LEAD. Can you tell us a bit about the others?

I’m also a part of two additional Employee Resource Groups: the Black Employee Network (BEN) and the Latino Employee Network (LEN). We do food and clothing drives around the holidays. We also do outreach to schools in the communities we work in. It’s one way to expose more minority students to career paths available at the railroad. I’ve gone to two different elementary schools with a few other employees from BEN and LEN. We talked about our jobs so the kids can see people that look like them who have jobs that they might not know about. That’s a big thing that we try to do – make sure that people know about the good jobs available to them in the TDL sector.

It’s important to me to make sure that women know the opportunities that they have available to them. But you can’t just focus on the next generation. That’s what I love about JARC – they’re connecting adult women to these opportunities now.

Employee Resource Groups are also great because they expose employees to potential job shadowing opportunities. I’ve had people from BEN and LEN job shadow me from other departments inside Union Pacific. If you meet someone whose work seems interesting, whether it’s in the course of your everyday job or as part of a group like BEN or LEN, you can ask to job shadow that person. As long as you get permission from your manager, you’re able to do it. Initially, the people who shadowed me thought my job was extremely easy, but then they learned a little bit different. It takes a lot of work to keep 120,000 commuters getting to work on time every day!

What motivated you to attend the JARC women’s networking event and share your career journey with JARC’s training graduates?

It’s important to me to make sure that women know the opportunities that they have available to them. Through my work with LEAD, I’ve gone out and talked to young women in the Girl Scouts and at the Y to get them interested in math and science. But you can’t just focus on the next generation. That’s what I love about JARC – they’re connecting adult women to these opportunities now.

The networking event in November was not my first exposure to JARC’s work. I had been to the JARC facility on two different occasions to meet with a couple of the classes. Also I went into the workshop. I saw all the different types of welding they learned, and I looked at the projects they were working on at that time. JARC does a great job of giving its students not only the right skills but also the motivation to succeed. My number one fear is having a woman, or anyone, come in and not represent. But you don’t ever need to have that concern with somebody coming from JARC.

As you spoke about your own career path and the opportunities in TDL and related industries like welding, what kind of questions did JARC graduates ask?  Was there anything that especially inspired you or stuck out in your mind as you reflect on meeting the JARC staff and grads? 

A lot of the questions that they asked were similar to the questions that you’re asking me. How do I connect with an employer like Union Pacific? Is it a good company? Are there opportunities to move up? They asked all the questions you should ask a potential employer.

But they also asked questions about how this job relates to their life and their family. As I said earlier, with JARC graduates you’re really getting people who love what they’re doing. Many of them brought their families to the networking event – they know who they’re doing this for and why they’re there. They’ve come out of this program where they’ve been taught how to do everything properly. They’re not going to take short cuts and do things that aren’t safe.

Plus, a lot of the women who attended the networking event aren’t just interested in getting their foot in door. They also want to grow in their careers. So whether they come in as a welder or something else, they’re definitely interested in taking that next step to become a supervisor. To know that people want to go beyond the level where they came in is really inspiring.

What advice would you give women looking to not only get their foot in the door, but to move up the career ladder? 

Never stop trying. Take the time to sketch out what your career path could look like. Do the research to figure out where you want to enter the industry and what moves you want to make from there. At Union Pacific, there are many entry points where it would be easier for you to make transfers to where you want to be, and there are others where it might be a little bit harder.

I would advise JARC graduates to do the research, whether that’s online or whether that’s calling someone like me who can be a resource. Also, as women, you just have to make sure that people know your intentions. Many women are afraid to ask for what they want, especially in a male-dominated industry. A lot of times women think that when we’re doing our jobs well, management will just come and ask us to take the next step. But they might not always know that you’re interested – you have to let them know that you’re interested!

All of the JARC students I have met seem very motivated. You can see they’re so excited and they really love what they’re doing. From an employer’s perspective, it’s just so refreshing to have someone come in who is already in love with their job.

Union Pacific Partners with LISC to Bridge the Skills Gap

Union Pacific gives $3M to bolster U.S. workforce, lift communities

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