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Everyone in Northwest Indiana has seen the Steelworker for the Future billboards that tout the opportunity to make $90,000 a year.

ArcelorMittal launched the program eight years ago to train workers for the increasingly high-tech work at its steel mills, and is now considering making some changes.

So far, 48 people have graduated from the program, 15 are ready to graduate and in process to be hired, and nine are in final testing, R.D. Parpart, Steelworker for the Future team leader, told an Indiana Manufacturing Association gathering at Avalon Manor last week.

But about half of ArcelorMittal USA’s hourly employees are eligible for retirement, and the the steelmaker expects that more than 500 will leave every year.

“It would be more if not for the Great Recession that turned everyone’s 401(k)s into 201(k)s,” he said.

So Luxembourg-based ArcelorMittal is considering modifications to the Steelworker for the Future program to interest more students and especially their parents, to counter negative perceptions about manufacturing and the steel industry, Parpart said.

ArcelorMittal could change it to a cohort program, let students get hired on before pursuing their college degrees or make it into a multi-company endeavor, perhaps rebranding it as Manufacturing Technician of the Future, Parpart said. Other companies could partner with ArcelorMittal so it could offer a broader program to train students for careers at NIPSCO, BP, Pratt, Praxair and U.S. Gypsum.

That might have broader appeal that would attract more students, Parpart said.

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The steelmaker also could let students start earning college credits while still in high school, which might make make parents more willing to allow their children to participate. A struggle has been that so many parents push their children to get four-year bachelor’s degrees, regardless of the job prospects afterwards, Parpart said.

“I was just at a college fair in Crown Point,” he said. “Why not a college and career fair? There were over 100 tables and it was all colleges, except for us and the carpenters union. They’re selling you to pay them $50,000 a year and at the end you might get a job. I’m not selling you anything. You can come get a job.”

Steelworker for the Future is a 2.5-year program that’s offered locally at Ivy Tech, Purdue University Northwest, Moraine Valley Community College and Prairie State College. Students have to maintain a 2.8 GPA and pass drug tests while training for careers as electricians and maintenance technicians.

About 97 percent of graduates are now working for ArcelorMittal, and the few that are not decided they didn’t want to work in a steel mill, Parpart said.

About 10,000 people apply to any ArcelorMittal job openings at WorkOne, but what the company really needs is skilled employees. Forty years ago, the steelmaker’s predecessors employed 40,000 at Indiana Harbor, but today it’s just 4,600.

The mill runs with only 15 percent of the employees it once had because it’s so heavily automated, but that also creates the need for better trained, higher skilled workers, Parpart said.

“Now we need someone who can operate GPS tracking for a locomotive that once had five people but now has one,” he said. “Now we need someone who can run a programmable logic controller for a rolling mill that once had 15 people but now has two, and they’re just watching it. We need someone who can work on robots. Forty years ago, no one would have imagined that. Robots were a thing of the future.”

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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.