WEIRTON — Given the freefall in employment numbers at local mills over the past decade, you could hardly blame someone in their 20s or 30s for dismissing the possibility of earning a living in the steel industry, as his father or grandfather perhaps did. The days of massive steel mills employing 10,000 or more workers appear to be long gone, but ArcelorMittal is looking to train a new generation of employees through its Steelworker for the Future program as a large number of its current workers approach retirement age. Eight colleges around the country — including West Virginia Northern Community College in Wheeling and Eastern Gateway Community College in Steubenville — have partnered with the company to offer courses in mechatronics and electromechanical technology. The program demonstrates how the face of the steel industry has changed. A generation ago in Weirton, for example, new hires often came fresh from high school — but today’s steelworker is required to achieve a higher level of education than his predecessors. “Steelworker for the Future plays an important role in developing a skilled workforce that will continue to deliver on ArcelorMittal’s critical mission of producing safe, sustainable steel in the years to come,” said Mark Langbehn, manager of hourly employee training for ArcelorMittal USA. “The need for highly skilled workers, especially those with electrical and mechanical technical skills, continues to grow as manufacturing companies like ArcelorMittal face vacancies created by retirement. This program is critical in shaping the future of the next generation of steelworkers.” In the Steelworker for the Future program, four semesters of classroom instruction are followed by a 24-week paid internship at an ArcelorMittal facility, and graduates of the program receive an associate of applied science degree. Through the end of 2011, the program nationwide had provided 34 paid internships at ArcelorMittal USA facilities and graduated 24 students, with 18 now working for ArcelorMittal. According to Brian James, general manager of ArcelorMittal Weirton, there are seven students currently enrolled at WVNCC and eight at EGCC. James said he’s pleased with local response to the initiative thus far. Classes at the two schools began last fall, meaning the first local graduates will exit the program in mid-2013. They’re not guaranteed a permanent position with the company, but with the average age of an ArcelorMittal Weirton employee approaching 60, there should be some voids there to fill. “Our first intention will be to fill positions available at the Weirton facility through the Weirton program; however, the opportunity to relocate to another ArcelorMittal facility may also be available,” said James. “Also, program graduates have no obligation to work for ArcelorMittal and have the ability to consider employment opportunities at other manufacturers.” The Weirton mill already is seeing a need to replace its aging workforce, as the facility has called back all of its laid-off employees and also hired 34 new utility workers in late January. It was the first time the plant had hired off the street in nearly a decade. According to Langbehn, more than 130 students are enrolled in the Steelworker for the Future program nationwide. ArcelorMittal plans to sponsor roughly 70 internships throughout the U.S. this year, Langbehn noted.
An ArcelorMittal employee works at the company’s Weirton tin finishing mill. ArcelorMittal has launched a program aimed at training young people to step in for aging steelworkers as they retire.