As longtime steelworkers retire, younger employees like Rick Pietrick step up.
The faces of steel are getting younger.
In recent years, the median age of a steelworker at America’s mills has been estimated to be in the 50-to 55-year-old range. The dramatic slowdown in the American steel industry prevented some new hiring and caused layoffs, leaving the mills to depend mostly on workers with experience of 30 years or more.
But as the steel industry rebounds, many tenured workers are retiring, and the inevitable changing of the guard is taking place. Younger workers – some with college degrees – are discovering that a modern steel mill provides jobs in advanced manufacturing that also come with good pay and benefits.
Rick Pietrick of Cleveland is one of them.
Pietrick started working production jobs at Cleveland’s thriving ArcelorMittal steel mill at the age of 28. Now 32, Pietrick is on an upwardly mobile path and has embraced the mill and the United Steelworkers (USW) union in a way he never thought possible.
“Once I got in there, I realized I really loved working in the steel mill,” Pietrick said.
After three years as a production work laborer, Pietrick was accepted into an apprenticeship program, and one year later became a certified electrician working in the steel production area of the plant.
“Before I worked with the union in the steel mill, I worked 60 hours plus and worked in my home to make enough money to have the best things for my family,” Pietrick said. “Now with this union job in the steel mill, I am able to work a reasonable shift, learn a craft and I have excellent health care.”
Pietrick is a married father of two young children, and said he rests a lot easier since he began working at the ArcelorMittal plant. He feels a sense of job security and does not have to worry about how the next household bill is going to get paid.
“I have a flexible schedule where I am able to coach my kid’s soccer and football teams and go on vacations, so it really does mean a lot,” he said. “Also, to be the next generation of workers at our mill — which is a survivor mill — is important to me. This mill had been shut down when LTV went bankrupt, but a small group of steelworkers kept the blast furnaces going.”
International Steel Group, led by now-Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, ended up buying the Cleveland facility and put steelworkers there back to work. After a series of mergers in the mid-2000s, the plant came under the control of ArcelorMittal.
“The Cleveland mill is the most productive mill in the world when it comes to per man hour. I’m proud and the guys that work there are proud we are part of that,” Pietrick said.
Pietrick is no stranger to the steelworker lifestyle. His uncle has worked at the mill for nearly 35 years and his wife’s father is a retired steelworker. He is eager to carry on the family tradition.
“Where we are in Cleveland, the mill was not a prestigious job in the 1960s and ‘70s,” he said. “You could hire in at one mill, get fired and hired the same day across the river. That’s how it was.
“Now these jobs are sought after. We just had 24 new hires and I got to meet them at the union hall. I was surprised at how young they were, and that half of them already had college degrees, which is great because education is always important.”
Pietrick is also deeply involved in the USW union, serving as a trustee for Local 979 which represents nearly 1,800 members in the Cleveland area. A majority of local union leaders in recent years have been older, longtime workers, but at the recent USW Rapid Response conference in Washington, D.C., many younger faces were among the attendees.
And the USW is preparing for the future. The union’s Next Generation program, for example, connects younger workers, often with less than 10 years experience with workers who have been on the job for 30 years or more.
“These jobs are sought after. We just had 24 new hires and I got to meet them at the union hall. I was surprised at how young they were, and that half of them already had college degrees, which is great because education is always important.” Rick Pietrick
“You get this older generation mentoring the younger generation,” Pietrick said. “You get to know each other and you become friends, and there is a lot to learn, so one of the greatest things is you have 30 years of knowledge every day. They’ve been working your job so you pick their brains on stuff. They’ve been down there doing the same stuff you do. They’ve made mistakes, they’ve had great decisions to make and they provide a road map of how you might want to set up your future. We keep each other safe.”
ArcelorMittal Cleveland is a fully integrated steel mill that produce among its many products steel for automobiles, home appliances, chassis for air conditioners and coils that are stamped into a variety of products including tools and auto parts.
Pietrick gets great satisfaction when he sees a product on the open market that is made of the highest-quality American steel. He understands the importance of keeping full-capacity steelmaking in America.
“There are many reasons. One, you are putting American families to work and this gives me an opportunity to have my wife stay at home and raise our kids,” he said. “I think family values are important. I think having a mom and dad raise the kids sets up the next generation, not only to take care of their families, but it also gives them a sense of empathy and compassion to take care of other people. You are not alone.
“But you also need to make steel in America for infrastructure and national security. If we don’t manufacture the bones of what makes America, you are totally relying on other countries. In Cleveland, us and the other steel mills, are proud that we make steel that is used and want our politicians to put in policies that encourage people to buy American steel.
“This country is built with workers and families and that’s who I am. You need to protect your American workers.”
Pietrick works hard, long hours, but still has time to spend with his family and even sneaks away occasionally to play in a rock-and-roll band.
Recent trade actions implemented by the Trump administration have helped stabilize the industry, creating security for workers like Pietrick. But when the industry is struggling, it is the hard-working men and women in the mill who are the first to feel the negative impact.
“I listened to an interview with Bruce Springsteen and they asked him about [President] Trump and I was expecting him to bash the president,” Pietrick said. “But Springsteen said he understood. They asked him why all three states he has songs about manufacturing, where he names all the cities, all three voted for Trump. Why is that? Springsteen said ‘These are the forgotten people who have been told we have your back and we are going to take care of you and then they legislate their mills away. When the mills shut down in these cities, it’s poverty. They shut down your mill and they put a Family Dollar store there and that’s what you have. There’s nothing.’”
“As younger workers, we have to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Pietrick said. “We hope we can protect our American industry here. It’s important to me to do everything possible to make sure our plant runs for at least the next 30 years.”