Last November, ArcelorMittal's Mark Langbehn stood in a United Steelworkers union hall in Cleveland and announced the local launch of the steel giant's Steelworker for the Future workforce development program. The effort's aim: to develop the next generation of mechanical and electrical technicians.

It wasn't the first such announcement by Langbehn, ArcelorMittal USA's manager of hourly employee training, or even the second. The company has 11 such programs in place in collaboration with community colleges in five states, with the first pilot launched in mid-2008. To date, the company has hired 16 of 22 graduates.

Combine baby-boomer retirements, increasingly sophisticated technology and a significant misperception by the general public about manufacturing as a career choice, and signs of impending trouble become difficult to miss. The ArcelorMittal training manager estimates that over the next three to five years the company's U.S. workforce will lose 200 to 220 craft people (mechanical and electrical technicians) per year by attrition alone.

"We knew and we had enough foresight three or four years ago to say, 'We are going to lose x amount of our workforce, and we need to do something about it. We have to grow our own,'" Langbehn says. "The way we decided to grow our own is through the two-year associate degree program with internships, so that we could evaluate the people in the program, and they could evaluate us as a company."

Like Permac, ArcelorMittal has collaborated on curriculum development at the schools with which the manufacturer partners. Unlike Right Skills Now, however, the Steelworker for the Future is two-and-a-half-year program, which includes four semesters of classroom training, plus two paid internships, one after the first semester of classroom training and another after the third semester.

Students shadow an electrical or mechanical technician during the first internship to gain a better understanding of the field they choose to pursue. During the second internship they perform hands-on work. Students earn an associate's degree upon successful completion of the program. Graduates who are hired as full-time employees then enter a one-year training effort at ArcelorMittal.

In Critically Short Supply
Nearly every level of manufacturing workforce development is experiencing some level of worker shortage, according to a skills gap study presented last year by The Manufacturing Institute and Deloitte. Nowhere is the need greater than among skilled production workers. More than 80% of U.S. manufacturers report a moderate to serious shortage.

Availability of qualified skilled production workers (machinists, operators, craft workers, distributors, technicians):
No shortage -- 5%
Low shortage --12%
Moderate shortage -- 38%
Serious shortage -- 45%

Source: Deloitte, The Manufacturing Institute, 2011 Skills Gap Study

There is no commitment by ArcelorMittal to hire a graduate of the Steelworker for the Future program. By the same token, graduates are not obligated to join the steelmaker as a full-time hire. They may even go to a competitor, which is okay, says Langbehn, because the program is meant to support manufacturing as a whole, not ArcelorMittal exclusively.

"Our job is to provide opportunities for young men and young women in our community, and make them more employable," he says. "On the other side of that coin, it's our job also to sell our company during that two-and-a-half-year program."

"We feel very comfortable that the majority of the students that go through the program, that make the grade, will come to work for ArcelorMittal when they're done," he says. "Up to this point, we've been very, very successful."