Nicole Jefferson woke up 20 years into her career as a Metra Electric clerk in need of change.
“My daughter was off to school and I said to myself, ‘What are you going to do with your life?’” Jefferson recalled.
She found the answer in a familiar place. Jefferson decided to become a locomotive engineer, a goal she’d have to work years to realize. First, she had to become an assistant conductor, then a conductor. Each role required weeks of training and at least one year on the job before she could move on to the next step toward becoming an engineer. After three years of onboard service, continued training and rigorous testing, Jefferson was qualified as an engineer on the Metra Electric and Heritage Corridor lines a little more than a year ago. She hasn’t looked back from the cabcar since.
“I love my job. I love all the freedom I have. I love it mostly because I’m the captain of my own destiny,” Jefferson said. “If I study hard and work hard, then I’m going to get rewarded and if I don’t, I won’t get rewarded.”
From the offices at Metra headquarters to our trains, railyards and police cruisers, Metra is proud of the driven women who have forged careers at our railroad. In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re celebrating these hardworking women by highlighting a few of their careers.
Hard work also paid off for Manager, Customer Communications Corinna Gallardo-Jerbis. With just her experience as a data entry clerk for a food distributor and a high school diploma, she started at Metra 15 years ago as an extra board clerk on the Metra Electric Line. Within 18 months she became a GPS administrator, and now she’s leading Metra’s GPS Center, which is responsible for monitoring all train movement and notifying customers of service changes.
“I look at all the kids, the young adults trying to be something and become someone, and I want them to know there is hope,” Gallardo-Jerbis said. “You just have to work really hard to get there.”
For women, especially those entering a traditionally male-dominated industry such as the railroad, Gallardo-Jerbis said it’s important they stay focused and remember their voices have power.
“Sometimes I’ll go into meetings and it’s predominately men,” Gallardo-Jerbis said. “You have to realize that you are here and you are setting an example. You have to know that you matter and what you do does not go unnoticed.”
When SouthWest Service Line Conductor Beth Birkenfeld started in train service 25 years ago, she was part of a very small group of female conductors. She had made a quick change from the secretarial work she had been doing at Metra headquarters for two years into train service.
“One day I was in heels and skirts and the next day I was in boots,” the fourth-generation railroader joked.
Birkenfeld went into train service at the urging of her mother, a railroad clerk, and eventually saw the opportunities the job would afford her, such as being able to support her family and keep a schedule that fit her life. She loved being a conductor from the first day, getting hooked on learning the particulars of the railroad and developing her career.
That’s not to say the job has been without its challenges. In those first years, Birkenfeld felt she sometimes had to work twice as hard as her male counterparts to prove her worth, and she remembers one occasion when she was told she should be home baking cookies. Her resolve never wavered.
“You have to stand up for yourself,” Birkenfeld said. “You have to keep your head in the game, work hard and show them that you deserve to be here as much as they do.”
Education and support have been key to moving through the ranks for the Metra Police Department’s highest-ranking sworn female member, acting Lt. Sonya Smith. A former police officer for the now-dissolved Chicago Housing Authority Police Department, Smith found motivation in stories about high-ranking female members of the Chicago Police Department, and in advice from a female captain with the Amtrak Police Department.
“I asked myself which role I wanted to play in law enforcement. Did I want to be in patrol and community service? Or did I want to walk up the ladder and be able to function as a leader?” Smith said.
She completed her bachelor’s degree in law enforcement management in 2006, a year after she joined the Metra Police Department. She was promoted to sergeant in 2011, and a year later earned a master’s degree in law enforcement administration. She’s also been to the prestigious School of Police Staff and Command at Northwestern University. She was promoted to acting lieutenant in January.
Her advice: “Keep a positive outlook and absolutely, if you do nothing else, educate yourself. Every day is a training day. We can all learn, and if we continuously train and build off what we learn, we’ll find ourselves in a great position.”
At the 49th Street Mechanical Shop, electrician Hilary Krippel said she finds her job and all that she’s learned empowering. She came to Metra two years ago after 18 years with a company building high voltage cabinets and lockers. She’s now on the other side, testing and troubleshooting the very same equipment.
“My kids and my family are very proud of me,” Krippel said. “They came out and saw me crawling under things getting all dirty and they thought that was so cool. It’s very rewarding.”