Automated systems have replaced thousands of workers at the steel mills that ring the southern shore of Lake Michigan over the last few decades, to the point where you can walk through a cavernous rolling line without seeing a single worker.
The automation lets the mills operate more efficiently and compete with a flood of foreign-made steel. But a heavy reliance on machinery means that a glitch can shut the whole operation down, and steelworkers need to have enough technical skill to troubleshoot the problem and get the production line back up right away, said Gary Norgren, who oversees ArcelorMittal's Burns Harbor-based Steelworker for the Future program.
"The bad news is that if the line is down, zero tons are being produced," he said. "That's why it's imperative we have skilled, capable mechanical and electrical technicians who get figure out why an operation line isn't working correctly, and fix the problem quickly. That's a reason why they get production bonuses, so there's a financial incentive to get it working safety but quickly."
Steelworker for the Future is an example of a modern training program that combines hands-on experience with classroom instruction to prepare workers for increasingly sophisticated and skilled manufacturing jobs. Steelworkers of yore needed muscle and a high tolerance for heat and soot, but today they need a detailed understanding of electrical and pneumatic systems, Norgren said.
The average maintenance technician at ArcelorMittal's Northwest Indiana facilities is now 57 years old, which means many are over 60 and nearing retirement. ArcelorMittal USA saw that its graying workforce would create a wave of openings, and partnered with community colleges to launch Steelworker for the Future, a 2 1/2-year associate degree program that prepares workers to be maintenance technicians. The steelmaker needs to graduate an estimated 200 technicians a year locally to replace retiring workers.
A big selling point is after three years, they can earn $90,000 a year if they put in enough overtime at Indiana Harbor, Burns Harbor or other local ArcelorMittal facilities.
The program has taken off over the last six years, spreading from Ivy Tech Community College in Valparaiso, East Chicago and Gary to nine different community college systems in five different states. Locally, people can also enroll at Purdue University North Central in Westville, Prairie State College in Chicago Heights and the recently added Moraine Valley Community College in Palos Hills.
Three more colleges – two in Pennsylvania and one in Ohio – will soon offer the program. Interest is soaring. The most interns the program has produced at any given time in Northwest Indiana and Riverdale had been 12, but 41 students have applied for internships.
About half likely will end up shadowing a maintenance technician at a local plant, where they can earn money to offset the cost of tuition and learn how to maintain operations and service equipment. ArcelorMittal added a barrier to the program – a requirement that they have a 2.8 grade point average after the first semester – to ensure students do not waste their time if they are not later able to pass the company's entrance exam.
The work is not for everyone, and that's partly why it pays so well, Norgren said. ArcelorMittal hopes to attract top talent, but they workers also will have to work 12-hour shifts and put in overtime when needed.
Young people may not gravitate to manufacturing jobs as much as they once did, but some mills and factories still offer highly desirable positions, said Morton Marcus, a retired professor who taught economics at Indiana University for three decades. The bottom line is they pay well.
"It's a nice, steady job," he said.