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Steelworker jobs have been declining since the 1970s, but the job losses in the steel industry that built Northwest Indiana have been accelerating over the last few decades.

Lake County had 26,761 in Primary Metal Manufacturing as recently as 1990, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Steel mill jobs plunged precipitously to 11,245 by 2017, a decline of 58 percent, Indiana University Assistant Professor of Economics Micah Pollak said.

Lake County has lost 15,516 jobs in steel mills including Gary Works, ArcelorMittal Indiana Harbor and East Chicago Tin.

"In 2017, the state of Indiana produced 36 percent more steel than it did in 1991, and did this with 37 percent fewer workers," Pollak said. "This shows how the decline in employment in the steel industry is coming from increases in productivity, technology and automation. If steel production suddenly increased dramatically, it might slow the loss of jobs for some time, but these lost jobs will never return."

As steel mill jobs have become more automated and high-tech, they also pay better.

"When adjusting for inflation, the average annual wage has risen from $76,583 in 1990 to $102,401 in 2017, a 35 percent increase in real wages," Pollak said.

But the wages the mills have pumped into Northwest Indiana's economy have diminished as steel jobs have become more scarce.

"When adjusting for inflation, the total annual wages paid were $2 billion in 1990 and were $1.15 billion in 2017, or 44 percent less," Pollak said. "In 1990, the total wages in the industry accounted for 27.2 percent of all private wages paid in all industries in Lake County. In 2017 it accounted for 14.9 percent."

A recent study by the Center for Economic and Policy Research found that steel mill jobs grew by 0.6 percent nationally over the last few months, but the long-term trend is likely to continue.

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Northwest Indiana leaders should continue to work to retain as many steel mill jobs as possible, educate and train workers for higher-skill jobs that are less likely to fall victim to automation, and work to attract high-paying jobs in other industries are still growing, Pollak said.

"There is no obvious or easy replacement for these jobs," Pollak said. "The number of jobs in goods-producing and manufacturing industries is declining nationally as productivity, technology and automation continue to improve. While tariffs and barriers to trade may help boost domestic manufacturing output in the United States, as in the steel industry, this will likely not translate into a significant increase in jobs. Unfortunately, this is a tough reality to face and there is no simple solution."

The United States had about 450,000 steel mill jobs in the 1970s but only 85,000 today, largely because of automation and new technology, said New York City-based steel analyst Charles Bradford with Bradford Research.

"Basically, there was technological change," he said. "The old line integrated mills used to dominate the industry. Now the electric mini-mills, which employ hundreds instead of thousands, make up 70 percent of the business."

The big integrated steel mills, like those along the Lake Michigan shoreline in Northwest Indiana, also lost many jobs in the early 2000s when an import crisis drove many American steelmakers out of business.

"There was a major confrontation and they eliminated work rules, such as that certain jobs had to be done with electricians on overtime," Bradford said. "That resulted in a substantial reduction in employment."

Employment in the industry likely has plateaued for the time being, but the companies will continue to look to cut labor costs wherever they can, Bradford said. The lost steel jobs are likely never coming back.

"They're going to work to eliminate people wherever possible with automation," he said.

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Business Reporter

Joseph S. Pete is a Lisagor Award-winning business reporter who covers steel, industry, unions, the ports, retail, banking and more. The Indiana University grad has been with The Times since 2013 and blogs about craft beer, culture and the military.