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Northwest Indiana's steel industry, which once drew immigrants from the world over and put bread on many tables for generations, has lost a third of its jobs since 2000.

Employment in primary metals manufacturing – in Northwest Indiana, steel and, to a lesser extent, aluminum – has declined by 8,700 jobs since 2000.

The 33 percent plunge is the result of the domestic industry's struggles and an increasing amount of automation at the mills that ring Lake Michigan's southern shore.

"While this sounds terrible, nationally over the same time period, the United States lost 36 percent of its jobs in primary metal manufacturing, so here in Northwest Indiana the decline is slightly less worse than nationally," said Micah Pollak, assistant professor of economics at Indiana University Northwest.

Local employment in the sector has actually rebounded over the the last few years. The number of metal manufacturing jobs in the Gary metropolitan area has risen by 3.5 percent to 17,900 last year from 17,300 in 2010.

But that's a far cry from the 26,700 Northwest Indiana residents who earned their living as steelworkers back in 2000.

Nationally, employment at U.S. steel mills stood at about 135,000 in 2000. After LTV Corp. and a dozen other integrated flat-rolled producers filed bankruptcy and went under within the next few years, the number of workers who forged steel fell to about 91,000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The bloodletting is even worse in the primary metals manufacturing sector as a whole. As many as 625,000 workers across the county made, smelted or refined metals such as iron and copper 14 years ago. That workforce has been gutted to about 400,000 today.

The steel industry consolidated, but also became more efficient as the result of automation and improved operated practices. A single steelworker accounted for 831 tons of raw steel production a year in 2000, according to ArcelorMittal USA's recently published 2013 Fact Book.

Today, each worker is responsible for 1,054 tons of raw steel production, or about 27 percent more than at the turn of the 21st century.

Steelmakers have been doing more with only about two-thirds of the workers they had a decade and a half ago. U.S. mills produced 95 million tons of steel last year, or about 10 percent less – due to weakened demand and increased imports – than they made between 2000 and 2007.

Employees are expensive. ArcelorMittal USA estimates its average worker earned $72.53 per hour, from wages, benefits and social insurance programs. That's more than twice as much as the $34.18 per hour the average manufacturing worker made last year.

The steelmaker, based in Luxembourg internationally and Chicago in the United States, spent $162,134 on each worker's salary, benefits and pension last year, a 12 percent increase over the cost in 2008. Labor is far and away the biggest cost ArcelorMittal USA has, followed by power, gas and utilities.

"The biggest areas for improvement remain labor costs and retiree obligations," the company noted in the annual report. "ArcelorMittal USA's labor costs account for 39 percent of the total conversion cost of steel, or the cost to transform raw materials into finished steel products, minus the cost of raw materials."

The company, which made 16.2 million tons of steel last year, employs around 18,000 workers nationally, including around 12,000 in Northwest Indiana. Its overall employee costs added up to $1.98 billion in 2013.

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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.