If you’re curious as to how Andrea Biesecker started working as a machinist for a railroad, thank her upbringing. Her father introduced her to the Rough and Tumble Historical Engineers Association, a living museum which showcases the nation’s farming and industrial history. Those childhood visits blossomed into a love of the past and trains and discovery of her mechanical aptitude. She was hooked on steam engines by age 10 and purchased a steam tractor at age 18.
As she considered her post high school education her father’s career advice to choose something you truly enjoy hit home. Following in his footsteps she completed the Computer Integrated Machining program at Thaddeus Stevens College of Technology. The program develops students’ skills in the operation of industrial equipment and tools including computer numerical controlled machines. Computer-aided machining software is introduced as well. More detail about the program may be accessed at Stevens College website.
After graduation her first - and current employer - was the Strasburg Railroad, a steam locomotive heritage railroad first chartered in 1832. Hired as a shop machinist she began making replacement staybolts, a threaded rod that connects plates. “As with everything else on the railroad you can’t buy these so we make our own specially,” she says. All their equipment is maintained in-house.
Manual machining, working directly with raw material to fashion it into a complex shape, she says better matches her hands-on and old-school style and is fun.
When she first joined the railroad part of her job was to run the miniature steam locomotive that circles the property. Learning to run this scaled-down version, called the Pint-sized Pufferbelly, included on-the-job training and a written test. It also acts as a training ground for the full-size locomotives.
Earning your engineer’s license to run one of the big engines requires multiple tests, lots of hand-on training, supervision and experience at various levels. It’s a fairly lengthy process that takes five years. Biesecker and others at the railroad take turns running an engine three to four times a month during the season to help share the workload.
After gaining experience as a machinist Biesecker was promoted to her current position of Repair and Restoration Project Coordinator as the assistant contracts administrator. In this capacity she fields inquiries from potential customers who need custom parts. She works with Erich Armpriester, chief mechanical officer, and two shop supervisors and assists in developing a completion time frame and total price based on time and materials. Her knowledge of the machinery and how much work is involved helps develop the estimate. From there she coordinates the efforts and communicates with the customer.
Jobs are completed for railroads across the world and almost every state. As the railroad grew and acquired more equipment and repair machinery they realized they could offer those same restoration services to other railroads. “Nobody was making these parts so Strasburg stepped up to fill the gap,” Biesecker says.
The contract business took off in the early 2000s and has doubled the size of the mechanical shop in the last few years. Right now there are 30 people on the shop floor and more would be hired if they could be located.
It has been a struggle at times to find qualified skilled tradesmen. The unique nature of what they do contributes as they are not a production shop. Everything is custom fit which is one of things that attracted Biesecker. Many times the part they make is replacing one a hundred years old. Another shouldn’t be needed for at least another hundred years.
Applicants need to be qualified, but years of experience doesn’t necessarily guarantee success. Since they’re using manual machinery for the most part a CNC background may not fit. Right out of school can be the right ticket, but Armpriester adds that “even with talent there is no substitute for attitude, motivation and being a conscientious employee.” Bring those skills and qualities and they’ll provide training.
Biesecker has hit a number of firsts throughout her schooling and her career. She was the only female in her Stevens’ class. She remains the only female machinist at Strasburg although she has been joined by a female welder. And she is also the first and only female engineer at the railroad with one firelady on the locomotive. She recommends consideration of skilled craft jobs to everyone and encourages women not to discount the trades. It all boils down she says to pursuing what you like and what you’re good at. Her father would agree.