Steel: Forging a future

Industry looks to entice younger workers

Steel: Forging a future
2013-04-07T00:00:00Z Industry looks to entice younger workersBy Bowdeya Tweh The Times
April 07, 2013 12:00 am  • 

Randy Hall Jr. never wanted to work in the mill.

Hall's father and grandfather retired from working at Inland Steel in East Chicago.

“I'm not sure that I was interested in hearing about it when we were younger,” said Hall, a 28-year-old Lowell native. “The steel industry to me as a kid was this mystical place. ... I never knew much about it.”

The American steel industry could welcome thousands of new workers into positions on shop floors, in control rooms and in management offices over the next decade as the average worker today is near retirement age.

In efforts to attract new employees, the industry wants to be more active in reaching out to younger workers and what could appeal to them. It also will continue to pitch the prospect of earning an above-average wage.


The main attraction

The younger Hall’s opinions about the industry changed near his 2003 graduation from high school. The promise of earning a wage higher than what he expected to get after graduating college and obtaining good insurance and retirement benefits attracted him.

He is now an information technician at ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor and has worked at the facility for eight years.

Hall’s father, Randy Hall Sr., was shocked to hear about his son’s career decision. His son didn’t show a strong interest in hearing about his workday when he was  growing up. 

“I didn't think it'd be a good job for him,” said Randy Hall Sr., who retired in 2006 after working at Inland for 30 years. “(But) I'm glad he got into the mill.”

After graduating from high school in 1976, Hall Sr. said steel was the only viable career path he saw. The 54-year-old landed a position at Inland Steel — just like his father — in the mobile equipment repair shop.

Tracey Dixon, a Gary native who lives in Chicago, has worked in steel mills as a contractor and said she was attracted to the field because of the earning potential and long-term career stability. Dixon, whose father worked as a U.S. Steel millwright, graduated from the apprenticeship program at Carpenters Local 1406 in Hobart in 2008.

Dixon said children – especially those in urban areas -- need to be exposed to work in the skilled trades. She said there is value to learning electrical and mechanical skills as well as others that could be beneficial in the steel industry.

“We must push training in this area for our kids,” Dixon said.


On the education front

In October, nearly a dozen students ranging in age from 20 to 58 sat in front of desktop computers preparing for a mid-term exam at Ivy Tech Community College in East Chicago.

The students then had a quick safety talk before heading to the shop to practice their work in hydraulics during the fluid power class. Ivy Tech instructor John Pasko walked around group work stations inspecting whether students had correctly removed pressure from cylinders in a makeshift system that could be found in industrial environments such as steel mills.

Pasko, a maintenance electrician at the 84-inch hot strip mill at U.S. Steel Gary Works, said the skills from classes such as fluid power are critical to working in the industry today. They also serve as a test for people who may be interested to determine whether they want to continue in the field.

“If you’re going to work with hydraulics and its dangers and power, it’s elemental to understand the basic physics of it,” he said.

The fluid power class is a requirement for students interested in completing coursework to obtain an associate degree and graduate from ArcelorMittal’s Steelworker for the Future program.

Andy Harshaw, executive vice president of operations at ArcelorMittal USA, said companies are not able to place workers in six-year apprenticeship programs to learn skills while on the job. Technical workers are going to have to be skilled prior to gaining employment, he said.

Steel companies are building partnerships with higher education institutions to ensure workers are prepared. ArcelorMittal’s Steelworker for the Future program now works with 11 colleges after beginning in Northwest Indiana and Chicago’s south suburbs in 2008.


Skills to pay bills

Harshaw admits his company has a “huge” number of people eligible to retire. However, the recession pushed back many workers’ plans to leave the company.

That provided an opportunity for ArcelorMittal, Harshaw said. The company wants to take advantage of the knowledge older workers have and input information into electronic systems as a guide for workers next in line. Technical workers also have been hired in the last few years to work on current problems and help position the company for future success.

“You need to recognize that as people leave, (new workers) don’t have 35 to 40 years experience,” Harshaw said. “You need to make sure they can step into the job.”

Steel industry analyst Charles Bradford said retirement issues could be a weak point for the industry among workers on shop floors and in executive offices.

"We need engineers, metallurgists, and we need them desperately," Bradford said. "These companies could have a significant problem."

Workers in production aren’t the only ones who need to get additional skills.

Future steel executives will have to understand the importance of capital management, said Tom Modrowski, CEO of Esmark Steel Group. Order and payment scheduling demands from finished goods manufacturers and retailers can make it difficult for service centers to manage their cash flow. Modrowski said he sees opportunities for large financial services companies to provide gap financing based on accounts receivable.

Hall Sr. said one problem the industry has is that despite bringing younger people into the fold, many lack the technical skills or understand the metallurgical side of the business to be effective. The mill begs for skills that are hard to replicate and train people to do outside of the mill.

"For a young person, it's a great opportunity because the steel industry is still going strong right now," Hall Sr. said. "It's still a way to make good money if you do a good job and stay safe."

Hall Jr. agrees and sees the mill a lot differently now. He has been able to work in several departments and believes there will be an opportunity for years to come.

"Even if I got my accounting degree, I don't think I'd be making as much as I am now," Hall Jr. said.

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