With hands-on, technical training and a big-time corporation on her resume, Cindy Blair is getting more than she bargained for the last few months.

But only time will tell whether the 27-year-old mother of two can pass muster and reach the all-important milestone she's been focusing on so intently: making train dispatcher.

BNSF Railway's joint dispatch building with Union Pacific in San Bernardino is buzzing 24-7 with dispatch controllers and oversized computer screens so they can direct railroad traffic all over California.

And thanks to San Bernardino County's Workforce Investment Board - a federal Workforce Investment Act initiative - seven locals are jumping aboard the rail giant's operations.

Blair and her co-trainees were selected out of more than 300 people after passing aptitude tests at San Bernardino Valley College, which works with BNSF to target potential employees.

For the Hesperia resident, it's a big step in a career path that seemed to be going nowhere.

She used to work in the senior assisted-living industry.

Her prospective yearly salary isn't bad either. She'd start off at about $60,000 as a dispatcher - wages anybody would goggle over in slow economic times like these.

Getting the work force board's program off the ground was a challenge, though.

"Some of the training had to happen in Fort Worth, Texas (at BNSF's headquarters)," said Kevin Anderson, director of the Transportation


Training Center at the college. "It's difficult for students to support themselves with no job."

That's where the county stepped in. After considering the program's potential, it rolled out $35,000 in tuition to help trainees with out-of-state living costs.

Now they have between three and six months to hone their skills. Plus, they have to clock in 60 full work days of managing train traffic by themselves. It takes about two years to get a dispatcher up to full speed.

"It's paying attention, learning territory and making sure everything is safe," Blair said while taking a break from training last week.

Trainees could be guiding three trains one minute, then coordinating 25 to 30 locomotives on multiple-track lines an hour later.

Blair never thought she'd be in the railroad business, but she's keeping a family tradition chugging along. Her father and grandfather were BNSF mechanics for years, and her brother picked up the same job they did.

The work force investment board is about to launch seven new students into the program.

Natasha Mcswain of Barstow, another trainee, knew the industry was her calling.

"This is what I wanted to do - a good career," the 20-year-old said on her break at work.

She eventually wants to get a business degree.

But for now, managing huge trains loaded with millions of dollars worth of cargo is her sole focus.

"You gotta' think ahead," she said. "It's a little challenging but worth it."


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