Joseph Dent right an apprentice in ArcelorMittal39s Steelworker for the Future program ArcelorMittal

Joseph Dent, right, an apprentice in ArcelorMittal's Steelworker for the Future program.

ArcelorMittal Revisits an Old Favorite: Apprenticeships

Steel companies dismantled their apprenticeship programs decades ago, but ArcelorMittal put a new spin on the old ways when a maintenance technician shortage got dire.

Shannon Bolden is a think-on-his-feet sort of guy who likes fixing things. His grandfather was a steelworker and his family owns a hydraulics company, so it wouldn’t have been a stretch for him to go into manufacturing. But two decades ago, his high school counselors steered him away from that, saying it was a dead industry, and into a four-year computer science degree.

Once he graduated and started working in IT, however, Bolden decided the job was too solitary for him. He didn’t like being tied to a desk—he wanted to be out there solving problems and interacting with co-workers.

So he shifted to a retail career, working his way up to project supervisor for a remodel division at a big-box store. He liked the people part of the job, but the pay wasn’t great and eventually he maxed out his opportunities for advancement.  

At age 37, Bolden found himself at a crossroads. Stay in a dead-end job, or take a gamble: Dip into his retirement fund to support himself, his son, and his disabled wife, and go back to school for two years. He chose the latter, enrolling in a craft training program, Steelworker for the Future, which trains mechanical and electrical maintenance technicians.  ArcelorMittal conducts the program in partnership with community colleges near five of its plant sites, four in the U.S. and one in Canada.

Steelworker for the Future has been around since 2007. That was when the steel industry emerged from years of consolidation and plant closings and the furnaces were roaring again. Apprenticeship programs, where trainees were actually hired on as employees before they went through training, were a casualty of all that shuffling. The technicians who repaired and built machines, who could weld together a replacement part on a dime or troubleshoot a communication glitch between machinery, were retiring--and no one had the training to replace them in this very specific and complex job.

“We realized we would be losing in excess of 200 mechanics and electricians per year,” recalls Gary Norgren, ArcelorMittal’s manager of raw materials, who took over the craft training program in 2012. “We decided we would never be able to keep up with that with internal candidates, so we needed to do something new.”

ArcelorMittal developed a curriculum with partner colleges that includes coursework in welding, metallurgy, physics, hydraulics and pneumatics, as well as a sprinkling of liberal arts classes. During their two years of schooling, students who qualify for the program can take up two eight-week internships at their local ArcelorMittal plant, essentially working alongside an experienced technician.

“The internships do a couple things: Show them what the mill looks like and what it is to be a steelworker and give them some practical experience,” says Norgren.

During their schooling and their internship, candidates are not yet employees. To make it through the hiring process, they are required to complete their studies and pass an entrance exam, which they can take during their internship. That way, if there are areas they feel they’re weak in, they can get extra help from their mentor right on the spot.

Interns make $20.40 an hour for a 40-hour week. Once hired, they make a $22.39 base pay and enter a one-year internal training program to build on what they’ve learned. They then become fully qualified maintenance technicians at a base rate of $25.91, but they can earn far more than that with shift differential, overtime, production bonus and profit sharing. In fact, the average pay at ArcelorMittal for technician jobs is $90,000, Norgren says. Bolden, says in his first year as a full hire, he’s earning “well above” that with all the overtime.

At ArcelorMittal, the average age of a maintenance technician is 53, so even with the current downturn in the steel industry “we still are seeing a fairly large number leave the workforce every year,” says Norgren. “So fortunately we have been able to keep with the need.” Thus far, 44 graduates have made it through the hiring process and 90% have accepted Arcelor Mittal’s job offer.

As part of the recruitment effort, Norgren and some of his co-workers—mechanics, electricians, managers, HR people-- spend a considerable amount of time visiting middle and high schools.

“We’ve trained a group of people to be ambassadors, to go into the high schools and present the opportunity and answer questions and kind of help students become comfortable with what this opportunity looks like,” he says.

Last October, the group spoke to more than 5,800 high school students, less about specific opportunities at ArcelorMittal than about possibilities in manufacturing.

“Our needs are essentially the same needs that every manufacturing company has in this country,” says Norgren. “We all have in essence an aging workforce. We all have the need for these highly skilled mechanical and electrical technicians, and we’re all competing for the same limited resource.”

Outreach videos show the modern-day automated steel plant, a far cry from the molten underworld that workers from Bolden’s grandfather’s era inhabited.

“Most of the work’s being done by equipment now, with people sitting in pulpits and control rooms controlling the equipment,” says Norgren, who began his career as an electrical engineer at Inland Steel and was wowed by the massive equipment and technology even back then. “So the videos have been a huge tool for us to introduce students to the plant.”

A good number of the students he speaks to have steel in their bloodlines. “We know that when we walk into a high school located near one of our mills, there’s going to be a percentage of people in that audience who are very familiar with steel mills,” says Norgren. “Over the years we’ve changed names, so often we need to clarify that ArcelorMittal is comprised of a bunch of other steel mills that went by other names. When they say, ‘My father worked for Inland,’ they don’t understand that Inland and ArcelorMittal are one and the same.”

Bolden, who’d done some research on his grandfather’s time at a steel mill in Indiana, says he was “completely floored” the first time he walked into ArcelorMittal’s Cleveland operation. “The technology is very eye-opening the first time you see it.”

He calls his job “exciting”-- he likes the family environment and the slew of different tasks, from lubricating bearings to fabricating walls and parts of the hood for the furnaces.

Although steel prices are falling, his particular job is in high demand.  “Steel traditionally goes through cycles,” he says. “I feel very, very secure that the market’s going to rebound. We’ve got high strength steel that we manufacture on our West Side facility, and we’ve had a lot of orders with a specific manufacturer.”

That said, if he ever needs to make a change, computer science is a pretty good fallback.

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