Tuesday | 23 April, 2013 | 2:39 pm

Train to gain

By Nick Wright

ArcelorMittal turns students into steelworkers, whether they stay on board or work elsewhere in the industry

April 2013 - When a business brings on trainees to cultivate skills they need for the job, the classic assumption is that they, in turn, agree to work for the company. But steelmaker ArcelorMittal, Chicago, has a different deal through its Steelworker for the Future program: It trains students for jobs, but doesn’t require them to become ArcelorMittal USA employees. 

At a company where the average age of its hourly and salaried employees is 50.5 and 47.2, respectively, there is a need to keep talent in the pipeline for positions that looming attrition will leave vacant. That’s why ArcelorMittal, partnering with the United Steelworkers, began Steelworker for the Future in 2008. Once recruits pass the company’s exam to determine mechanical or electrical aptitude, the company turns them from prospect to producer.

The approach certainly is unconventional, but it addresses several issues. For one, Steelworker for the Future educates vocational students for success in steel and related industries. It also targets high school and college students, skilled workers looking for a change, and former military personnel. The skills they get don’t limit them to one company’s needs, says Gary Norgren, ArcelorMittal’s divisional manager of raw materials, who directs new workforce training.

“Obviously we want them to select us as their employer of choice, and hopefully we can convince them that opportunities we can give them are better than our competitors’,” he says. “But we’re committed to working with schools to develop a curriculum that is fungible in the industry.”

Second, by broadcasting its needs to advocacy groups, educators, and vocational and community colleges, ArcelorMittal makes sure the right content is being taught to pass its basic screening exam. The 2.5-year associate degree program promotes a combination of classroom learning and hands-on training.

“We want to get them engaged so they can see what they actually will be faced with if they come work for us as an intern or employee,” Norgren says.

Transferable skills

Steelworker for the Future began in northwest Indiana, where about 10,000 of ArcelorMittal’s 18,000 employees are based. As of September 2012, the program has flags planted at 10 community college in five regions around the country—including Purdue North Central in Indiana, Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland and Penn State Harrisburg—all near ArcelorMittal’s largest facilities.

Last fall, 280 students were enrolled in the program. Sixty percent of the program’s graduates, who become United Steelworkers members, were hired by ArcelorMittal as of June 2012. The projected vacancies from retirements has grown exponentially in the last three years, says Norgren. The needs are imminent, which led ArcelorMittal to get more involved on the high-school level.

“We’re very actively pursuing our partnerships at the two-year college level and also reaching into the high school arena to connect with students on what opportunities the steel industry and manufacturing have for them,” he says.  “It’s an alternative career path where students can make a very good life for themselves without having to invest in a four-year university.”

The positions are mechanical, electrical or operations related, depending on the students’ interests and aptitude. Electrical workers could be programming PLCs one day and maintaining circuit breakers the next. On the mechanical side, there is drivetrain and hydraulic system upkeep, as well as welding, pipefitting or building. After a year of training, they can bid on open positions as people retire. For example, an electrician can bid on becoming a line operator. It’s not a loss for a trainee to work in one area and decide on pursuing another.

“There’s nothing more valuable than an operator who can talk to an electrician in terms they understand,” says Norgren. “Someone with that skill set gives a much more valuable explanation of a problem, which can cut troubleshooting time down by a factor of 10.”

ArcelorMittal isn’t shouldering all of the effort, however. It works with advocacy groups and unions, as well as parents, to generate interest. Approaching mom and dad directly is a particularly helpful tactic. The company brings them on plant tours without the students to show them what work is like.  

“They’re a big part of explaining that the steel industry is alive and well,” Norgren says. “Their children can provide excellent standards of living for themselves.” MM

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