WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Facing an aging rail industry workforce and an influx of returning military veterans, the U.S. Department of Transportation announced Tuesday an initiative in which the growing rail sector will hire more than 5,000 veterans this year, matching the same number hired in 2011.
"Our veterans have skills and real life experiences that we need to help rebuild America," said DOT Secretary Ray LaHood during a conference call with reporters on Tuesday.
LaHood said veterans are valuable potential employees because of their prior training in the military. He pointed out military personnel have leadership and teamwork training and experience working with heavy machinery in demanding work conditions. Potential industry jobs include operating locomotives, signal maintenance and telecommunications in both freight and passenger rail.
"Today, roughly 23 percent of the railroad workforce is eligible to retire by 2015," said Ed Hamberger, president of the Association of American Railroads, an industry trade group. The railroad industry is offering veterans jobs because its business is growing and new jobs will soon open up as more people start to retire, he added.
The railroad association is working with the Department of Veteran Affairs to make sure that 500 railroad companies -- including freight, inter-city passenger and commuter railroads -- are committed to offering military servicemen and women jobs.
"The railway industry clearly recognizes that hiring veterans is good for their companies, bottom line, and we are appreciative of their efforts to serve veterans as well as they have served the country," said Brad Cooper, executive director of Joining Forces, a White House initiative to provide opportunities and support to service members and their families.
Some 1,600 companies have hired more than 90,000 veterans and military spouses in the past year. These same companies have committed to hiring 170,000 in the coming years. The rail industry initiative was launched last year by first lady Michelle Obama and Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden.
Last month, LaHood and Veterans Affairs Secretary Eric Shinseki announced a new portal on the VA website that will help veterans find jobs in the transportation industry.
"We are proud to offer our heroes transitioning from military service the opportunity for another career in service to our country," Hamberger said. It's a "great mesh of their characteristics and leadership learned in the armed forces. It's a win-win."
Currently, more 15,000 veterans work for the Department of Transportation, including 3,000 with disabilities.