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Steel Industry Job Descriptions, Careers in the Steel Industry, Salary, Employment

Definition and Nature of the Industry, Education and Training Requirements, Getting the Job

The U.S. economy depends heavily on its steel industry. Thousands of products are made of steel or are processed by steel machinery. Automobile bodies, for example, are made of steel sheets. Steel bars are required to make machine parts and to reinforce highways. Pots and pans, razor blades, and home appliances are all made at least partly of steel. In addition, steel machinery helps to process our food and manufacture our clothing.

Many steel-producing establishments in the United States are found around the iron deposits and nearby coal mines of the Great Lakes region, with more than 40 percent of the industry's workers employed in Ohio, Indiana, and Pennsylvania. Steel-producing mills range from specialized plants that employ fewer than 100 workers to huge plants that cover several square miles and have more than 10,000 employees. These large plants are known as fully integrated plants because they perform all the operations needed to convert iron ore into finished steel products. Besides the fully integrated plants, the industry includes mills that melt scrap metal into molten steel and shape it into finished products. These are called electric arc furnace (EAF) mills, or minimills. This is a growing segment of the industry, and in 2006 more than half the steel produced in the United States came from EAF mills.

As of 2004 approximately 156,000 people were employed in the U.S. steel industry, with 48 percent working in production jobs. Some production workers have maintenance, transportation, or plant service jobs. Most plant workers, however, are involved in the many processing operations that turn iron ore into steel and eventually into finished steel products such as sheets, bars, pipes, and wire.

Many workers are involved in the operation of blast furnaces, which are huge steel cylinders lined with a special brick that heats the raw materials to high temperatures. Scale car operators drive railroad cars to bins filled with the needed raw materials. They load these cars, weigh them, and then dump the material into skip cars, which carry it into the blast furnace. In some plants, the

About 80 percent of all employees in the steel industry work in production, primarily in processing operations that turn iron ore into steel and, eventually, finished steel products. (© Brownie Harris/Corbis.)

blast furnace is fed automatically. In other plants, skip car operators are needed to operate the cars with electric and pneumatic controls.

The raw materials—iron ore, coke (a form of coal), and limestone—are heated in the blast furnaces. A blast of hot air helps them to reach extremely high temperatures, which cause a chemical reaction that separates the liquid iron from the other materials. Stove tenders operate valves that adjust the flow of heat to the blast furnace. Skilled workers known as blowers are responsible for the operation of the blast furnace and for the quantity and quality of the iron produced. They supervise other workers, including keepers and their helpers, who remove the liquid iron from the furnace. These workers separate the slag, or impure material, from the iron. Some of the iron is used to make finished products such as frying pans and automobile engine blocks. Most of it is used to produce steel, however, because steel is stronger than iron and goes into making many more products.

Three kinds of furnaces are used in steelmaking: electric furnaces, open hearth furnaces, and basic oxygen furnaces (BOFs). The furnaces heat iron or scrap steel to remove some carbon and other materials and to add ingredients such as silicon and manganese. Details of the steelmaking process vary depending on the kind of furnace, but most of the jobs are similar. At a BOF, workers known as melters direct the loading and melting of ingredients and the taking of samples for testing. Furnace operators supervise helpers and control the furnace. Like the blast furnace, the BOF is a huge steel container lined with brick that can withstand high temperatures. The BOF, however, can be tilted to receive or pour out materials. Scrap crane operators add scrap steel, and charging crane operators add liquid iron to the BOF. The furnace operators must blow in oxygen and add other materials to the furnace at just the right time because steelmaking is a precise operation. If the furnace overheats, the operator has to make it rock to cool it down. Samples of the steel must be tested from time to time by metallurgical engineers. When the steel is exactly as needed, the operator has the furnace tilted so that the steel can be poured out through a hole. Later, the slag, or waste, is poured out separately into a slap pot. Some manufacturers use slag to make cement.

Hot metal crane operators carry the containers full of liquid steel over a long row of molds shaped like large blocks. Steel pourers control the flow of steel into these molds. They are also responsible for keeping the molds clean and smooth and for collecting samples of the steel. Once the steel is hard enough, the blocks, known as ingots, are removed by ingot strippers, who operate large overhead cranes.

The ingots are not ready to be made into finished or semifinished products. Usually, steel is shaped by one of three methods: rolling, casting, or forging. Some of this work is done in forge shops or foundries, but most of it is done in steel mills. Most of the steel shaped in steel mills is processed by rolling. Before they are rolled, steel ingots need to be heated in furnaces known as soaking pits. Workers called soaking pit crane operators lift the ingots into the furnace. Other steelworkers known as heaters control the soaking pit operations. Along with their helpers, they operate controls that regulate the air and fuel flow and the temperature in the soaking pit. When the heated ingots are ready, the crane operator lifts them onto an ingot buggy that carries them to the rolling mill. Here, they are rolled between giant rollers into smaller pieces, called blooms, billets, or slabs, depending on their shape. Workers who are known as rollers control operations in the mill from a glass-enclosed control booth. Some mills have highly automated rolling operations. Rollers are responsible for both the quality and the amount of steel that is produced. They are often assisted by manipulator operators. As the red-hot blooms, billets, and slabs leave the rolling mill on conveyors, workers known as shear operators use heavy machinery to cut them into pieces of the needed length.

Continuous casting is a new process that is increasingly being used in the steel industry. It eliminates the making of steel ingots. Instead, the hot liquid steel is poured directly into molds in the shape of blooms, billets, and slabs. This process requires fewer workers than the older method.

Semifinished steel is usually processed further in various finishing mills. A wide variety of workers take part in the different finishing processes. They include roughers, speed operators, and piercing mill operators.

Education and Training Requirements

The education and training you need to work in the steel industry depends on the kind of job you want. Some companies prefer to hire high school or vocational school graduates for processing jobs. Most training is done on the job, however. Usually, workers start in unskilled jobs and learn by helping experienced workers. It takes up to four years to learn some of the most highly skilled jobs, such as those of blowers or rollers, but you may have to wait much longer for an opening in one of these positions. Steel companies often encourage their employees to take courses in subjects such as chemistry, physics, or metallurgy to upgrade their skills.

To qualify for one of the maintenance trades such as those of machinists, millwrights, or pipe fitters, you usually have to serve a three- to four-year apprenticeship. Generally, apprentices are chosen from among high school or vocational school graduates already employed in the plant. To qualify for a job as an administrator or engineer, you usually need a bachelor's degree in the appropriate field. New professional employees often go through a formal training period in the plant before they are fully qualified.

Getting the Job

The best way to get a plant job is to apply directly to steel plants. They often list openings on a sign outside the plant or in newspaper want ads. Check with your school placement office or local union centers for information about getting a job. Your state employment office may also know of companies that have openings.

Advancement Possibilities and Employment Outlook

Advancement in plant jobs in the steel industry usually follows a set pattern. For example, a worker may start as a laborer and become a second helper, a first helper, and then a keeper before advancing to a job as a blast furnace blower. Companies usually consider such factors as experience and leadership ability when promoting workers into positions that require the supervision of other workers. Some steelworkers advance by getting into an apprenticeship program and learning one of the maintenance trades. Professional employees can advance in their departments. Many engineers become executives in the industry.

The number of jobs in the steel industry is expected to decline by 13 percent by 2014 as larger companies purchase smaller companies and establish more efficient operations. More opportunities should be available in EAF mills, which are expected to increase their share of the market, than in integrated mills. Throughout the industry, productivity is anticipated to improve through the automation of tasks formerly handled by lower-skilled workers, and remaining jobs will require higher levels of skill and education. Opportunities are expected to be good for computer scientists and for mechanical, metallurgical, industrial, electrical, and civil engineers. Skilled production jobs will increasingly require associate's degrees in technology.

Working Conditions

Working conditions depend on the kind of job. Many steelworkers are exposed to intense heat and noise. Remote-control devices allow some employees, such as furnace operators, to work at a distance from the most extreme conditions. Many processes in the steel industry must be operated around the clock. Therefore, workers work in shifts. In general, the workweek is forty hours long. Most production workers in the industry are members of a labor union.

Where to Go for More Information

American Iron and Steel Institute
1140 Connecticut Ave., NW, Ste. 705
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 452-7100

United Steelworkers of America
Five Gateway Center
Pittsburgh, PA 15222
(412) 562-2400

Earnings and Benefits

Production workers in the steel industry earn wages that rank among the highest paid to manufacturing workers. Benefits in the industry are better than average. They include long paid vacations for senior workers, retirement plans, and plans for retirement after thirty years of service, as well as health and life insurance. In 2004, 32 percent of steel industry workers belonged to unions or were covered by union contracts.

Additional topics

Job Descriptions and Careers, Career and Job Opportunities, Career Search, and Career Choices and ProfilesManufacturing & Production