Years ago, Northwest Indiana residents could get out of high school and find work at a mill or on the factory floor.
Ivy Tech Northwest professor Tom Box, who is nearing retirement, recalls how steelmakers used to say they would take anyone who could lift 50 pounds and fog a mirror.
But today's manufacturers want more than brute muscle and a pulse.
Would-be manufacturing employees have to choose a career path sooner, earn more credentials in the classroom and pursue more continuing education to keep up with the latest technology. Programs such as ArcelorMittal's Steelworker for the Future and BP's process operator training at Ivy Tech Community College are training modern-day workers for high-skilled jobs at increasingly automated factories, where brains are becoming more valued than brawn.
A resident who receives a two-year associate degree in process operations could monitor computer consoles at a local factory, and earn as much as $60,000 for a starting salary.
In the globally competitive manufacturing industry, machines have in many cases replaced the waves of immigrant laborers who flocked to Northwest Indiana factories. Two men used to strap a binding band around a newly made coil of steel, but now a robotic arm does. Such automation means fewer jobs overall, but the positions that are left are more highly skilled and better paying, Box said.
"U.S. manufacturing is the most productive in the world because of a high level of automation," said Mark Maassel, president and CEO of the Northwest Indiana Forum, a regional economic development corporation. "That automation requires a high level of skills. It's not just lugging heavy things around anymore. Workers have to be able to think, and to have a command of a high level of details."
Modern-day factory jobs often involve the use of computers, CNC (computer numerical control) machines and robotic devices that stack inventory on warehouse shelves, Maassel said. Working with such equipment often requires more than a high school degree, whether a certificate program or a two-year associate degree.
Education can be crucial to landing a job, whether as a lineman at NIPSCO or a maintenance technician at a steel mill. BP recently posted 60 openings at its Whiting Refinery, and received 2,300 applications. College gives applicants an educational edge and prepares them for the entrance exams they have to pass, said April Moehl, Ivy Tech Northwest's chairwoman for process operations.
BP sponsors the process operations program at Ivy Tech, which prepares students to monitor cracking units at its massive refinery on Whiting's lakefront. Graduates also have found work at Cargill, Praxiar, Union Pacific and even water parks, Moehl said.
Classes start every fall, and the waiting list is currently about 15 to 20 people long. About 96 percent of the graduates of the process operations program find employment.
"There are good job opportunities for process operators not just here in Northwest Indiana but all over the United States," Moehl said.
Local employers often have a hard time filling open positions because they cannot find qualified candidates, said Erin Trzcinski, director of strategic development for Staff Source in Hammond. Companies ask for applicants with at least six months of forklift experience or a welding certification and get flooded with resumes from unsuitable job-seekers who apply to anything and everything.
"They definitely struggle with quality over quantity," he said.
Manufacturing companies need skilled workers because their employees are aging and retiring, said Sherman Johnson, executive director of the Ivy Tech Corporate College.
More than a quarter of manufacturing employees in Northwest Indiana are between the ages of 55 and 64, compared to the state average of 19 percent. Those older employees have amassed a lot of skills and knowledge but will retire in the next five to seven years.
Major local employers — including ArcelorMittal, BP and NIPSCO — have partnered with Ivy Tech and other colleges to offer job training programs. Students enrolled in the programs receive hands-on experience with the state-of-the-art equipment they will encounter in the workplace — and also a foot in the door.
Students who graduate from the NIPSCO program and pass an employment test are guaranteed a job interview with the Fortune 500 company, and ArcelorMittal offers paid internships through its Steelworker for the Future program.
The steelmaker, which employs 11,000 workers in Northwest Indiana, wants employees who have a technical foundation and can hit the ground running, said Gary Norgren, who oversees the workforce training initiative.
ArcelorMittal's program trains workers how to be maintenance technicians in today's highly automated steel mills, where conveyor belts ferry all the raw materials into the blast furnaces, stretch the steel into thin sheets and carry it through heaters that anneal all the brittleness out of it.
"The steel industry is highly automated, sophisticated and alive and well in the United States," Norgren said. "It isn't the fire and brimstone industry I joined 27 years ago. It's much more demanding from a skills level. Fewer people are involved in the different steps."
ArcelorMittal launched the program a few years ago at Ivy Tech, Purdue University North Central and other schools, and it already has produced 97 paid interns and 18 full-time employees. The company will increase its outreach in high schools because it needs an ample supply of prospective employees to replace the workers who will retire in next five years, especially as the economy recovers more, Norgren said.
High school students often have misconceptions about the steel industry, such as that they would be stuck doing the same job for 40-plus years or there are limited career opportunities. They do not appreciate that steel is a stable industry that is not going anywhere, Norgren said.
"The health of the industry is so much better after the consolidations over the last five to 10 years," he said. "Mills scaled back in the consolidations, and left a healthier industry. Fewer mills are competing, but they're healthier than they were in the past."
The ability of ArcelorMittal and other companies to find skilled employees will be crucial to the future economic vitality of the region, said Donald Koliboski, economic development director for the Northwest Indiana Forum.
A skilled and educated workforce is essential for growth, Koliboski said. Companies will not move to an area or expand, if they cannot find the skilled workers they depend on.
"All the traditional incentives — low taxes, a friendly business climate — only take you so far," he said. "Companies need to be confident they will have the workforce necessary to operate."