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Steelworker for the Future 2

Andrew Sweeney, of Matteson, Illinois, stands in front of a blast furnace in 2010 at the ArcelorMittal steel mill in Burns Harbor. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reported employment in the U.S. steel industry has plunged from 135,000 nationally in 2000 to about 87,000 today.

The layoffs at U.S. Steel's Gary Works on Friday were just part of an ongoing trend that's afflicted the steel industry, which was once Northwest Indiana's largest employer and a ticket to a comfortable middle class life.

Steel jobs nationally have fallen more than 35 percent to 87,000 jobs last year, down from 135,000 jobs in 2000, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The United States lost another 4,000 steel industry jobs in 2015, as compared to the previous year.

The U.S. steel industry has been declining since the 1970s, but federal data shows job losses have accelerated rapidly in the 21st century. Health care has since eclipsed the steel mills as the Region's biggest employer. 

Since 2000, the U.S. steel industry has weathered two import crises that have resulted in bankruptcies, closed mills and pink slips nationwide. The United States is however now enforcing 161 tariffs against dumped foreign steel, to try to protect the domestic industry.

"At the U.S. Department of Commerce, we are fully committed to enforcing U.S. trade laws and ensuring that our trading partners comply with their obligations under the World Trade Organization and our free trade agreements," U.S. Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker wrote in a letter to the Cleveland Plain Dealer after touring an ArcelorMittal mill there. "We are cracking down on companies and countries that don't play by the rules in record numbers."

Many steelworker jobs were lost during the unprecedented consolidation of the industry during the early 2000s, when more than 30 U.S. steelmakers went bankrupt. But the biggest issue facing employment at steel mills is automation, ArcelorMittal noted in its 2015 United States Integrated Report.

Technological improvements have enabled steelmakers to crank out more metal with far fewer workers.

"Steelmaking processes have transformed at a rapid pace, reflecting the industry’s improvement in operating practices and investment in state-of-the-art equipment to increase productivity," the report stated. "In 2015, one employee accounted for approximately 1,000 net tons of raw steel production, an increase of 20 percent."

 

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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.