A Passion for Rail Leads to an Unexpected Career
August 2021 – Eight years ago, a work-related accident led Osceola, Arkansas, Marine Terminal Conductor Stefanie Gentles on a path into a craft that she is now passionate about: railroading.
Gentles’ husband experienced a work-related injury that left him disabled and left her to find a way to support her family. She started applying for jobs online and was invited to a hiring event for Union Pacific Railroad.
“Everyone else showed up for the interview in work boots and jeans, and there I was in my high heels and a skirt,” said Gentles. “The interviewer asked if I even knew what a conductor was. I had no idea but remembered when my son was small, his favorite show was ‘Thomas the Tank Engine’ and his favorite character, Mr. Conductor, was in charge of the safety of the railroad. So that’s what I said, ‘Yes sir, conductors are in charge of the safety of the railroad.’ They called and offered me the job the next day. It was really quite funny and unbelievable. I still had no clue what a conductor was or what kind of whirlwind of a career I would be encountering, but I have no regrets. I love my job!”
Her response not only got Gentles in the door but describes part of who she is: a railroader that has a heart for safety. This is not only because of her husband’s accident, but because of how necessary it is in her job.
“I love the safety aspect of the railroad, the value and the focus that is placed on it. Some places talk about safety, but we live and breathe it every day,” Gentles said.
A series of furloughs prompted Gentles to seek out the option of contracting to stay working, which eventually brought her to Watco. She signed on with a contracting company as a traveling conductor, and one of the first assignments was with Watco at the Bayway Refinery in Linden, New Jersey.
“UP gave me the license and the fundamentals of the industry, but inside Bayway is where I learned to be a railroader. I already knew I loved the craft, but there I knew I would never want to leave the industry,” Gentles said.
After several years of traveling all over the United States as a contractor and going back to Bayway a couple of years in a row, Gentles ended up at Watco’s Osceola Marine Terminal in Arkansas. There she has earned the admiration of her teammates and supervisors.
“She’s a very hard-working lady,” said Henry Pilcher, Superintendent of Support. “She’s conscientious and very safety oriented. Stefanie’s a true team player and trooper to the heart. Wherever she can help, she’ll be there doing it,” said Henry Pilcher, Superintendent of Support.
Terminal Manager Keith Bowman agrees with Pilcher. “I’ve never known anyone, male or female, who works as hard as Stefanie does. She’s a fireball. She’s eager to learn and has jumped in and helped out with so many of the processes for the locomotives, training, demurrage, and fills in the gaps in many other areas. She is amazing and has so much fire for railroading. That’s all she talks about.”
Gentles does love railroading and says it’s important to recognize the team members for their craft.
“I’m an advocate for the craft. This is something we learn from the ground up; it’s a skill and trade that we should be proud of,” Gentles said. “Railroaders need to be recognized for the hard work and time that is put into honing their skills, it’s truly a craft. We start on the ground as brakeman and switchman, learning the Conductor role and eventually graduating into ‘the seat’ as an Engineer.”
Gentles has accepted a permanent position with Watco as a Go Teamer and will continue to travel to Watco facilities on assignment. She has a great support team at home. Her husband Joe holds down the fort while she is gone, with the help of her son, Tyler, 19, and daughter, Taylor, 13. She is very proud of her family and the opportunity that Watco has given her to support her household.
“I feel confident and excited for what I bring to the table. I think Union Pacific was just a starting point, a learning experience, and they gave me the golden ticket that allowed me to start contracting and led me to find Watco,” Gentles said.
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