- Associated Press - Wednesday, October 15, 2014

BURNS HARBOR, Ind. (AP) - Valparaiso resident Dave Arzola had a bachelor’s degree in secondary education from Indiana University Northwest but decided teaching wasn’t the field for him - his heart just wasn’t in it.

A billboard promising $90,000 a year at the steel mill intrigued him, especially since both his parents worked at ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor. So he enrolled at Ivy Tech to participate in ArcelorMittal’s Steelworker for the Future program.

He worked a part-time job to support himself while taking classes and studying motors, instrumentation, programmable logic controls and electrical systems. The internships he had at ArcelorMittal during the 2 1/2-year program paid enough to cover his tuition.

Arzola, whose grandfather was a bricklayer at the coke ovens at U.S. Steel, said it was like winning the lottery when he got an offer to work as a maintenance technician at the Burns Harbor mill.

But the odds were heavily in his favor. He is one of 93 percent of the Steelworker for the Future graduates who now work at ArcelorMittal, the world’s largest steelmaker. As of last month, 275 students were enrolled at the program’s 10 campuses, including Prairie State College in Chicago Heights, Purdue University North Central in Westville and Ivy Tech Community College in East Chicago, Gary and Valparaiso, The Times reported (https://bit.ly/1w8wzMq ).

The Luxembourg-based steelmaker has launched a fresh ad campaign for the program, including radio spots and billboards that say “Let us steel you away” in a bid to ensure qualified workers replace soon-to-be-retiring employees.

ArcelorMittal USA’s average hourly worker is more than 50 years old, and the average maintenance technician is 53 years old. About 44 percent of the hourly operations workforce is now eligible to retire, as is 46 percent of the hourly craft workforce.

About 215 maintenance employees are retiring each year, but they can’t just be replaced by anyone off the street because today’s steel mills are too high-tech, said R.D. Parpart, team leader for the Steelworker for the Future program.

“Thirty years ago, there were people who got off the train and went up to the gate with a backpack,” he said. “They told them to put their backpacks down and worry about where they would sleep later, they had a job. Now you can’t do that.”

Parpart said a lot more training is required.

“The story I tell students all the time at outreach is that you can’t go into a McDonald’s drive-thru and ask them to give you a Big Mac and fix your iPhone. That’s what we’re looking at. We can’t just grab anyone to work on our equipment.”

Steel mills employ only a fraction of the workers they did 30 years ago because so much is automated and computerized.

A major selling point is that the maintenance technician jobs at ArcelorMittal facilities at Indiana Harbor, Burns Harbor, Riverdale and New Carlisle can pay up to $90,000 a year after three years if workers log enough overtime. Newbies just starting out can make about $20 an hour with profit-sharing and good benefits.

Younger workers have been starting on the shop floor while there are still veterans around to guide them. While automation has reshaped the steelmaking process, some of the equipment in local mills dates from the 1960s — or earlier.

ArcelorMittal Burns Harbor has been able to land a few good-caliber employees through the program, said Sam Totten, manager of maintenance for the hot strip mill. The company has been investing in its employees, and it’s paying off, he said.

“The talent is really decent,” Totten said. “Overall, they come in with some experience, but they are in a classroom atmosphere and they are learning what it takes to do the job they have applied for, the career they would like to take on, so they are coming in with an attitude and an energy and a work ethic that I like to see.”

Arzola, who started with the hot mill after interning there, finds the work stimulating. He might perform maintenance on motors in the finishing mill one day, and build pressure switches for pumps the next.

“Sometimes I’m up to my neck in grease and sometimes I’m able to stay clean. It’s just whatever job is lined up. … I’ve been on the job a few months, and am still learning something new every single day.”

Some people might not like going into a work shift unsure of what you’ll be doing, Arzola said.

“(But), if you’re willing to embrace that, it’s a great job,” he said.

___

Information from: The Times, https://www.thetimesonline.com

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