Steel industry workers melt, mold, and form iron ore and other materials to make the iron and steel used in countless products. These workers operate furnaces, molding equipment, and rolling and finishing machines to make iron pipes, grates, and other objects and steel slabs, bars, billets, sheets, rods, wires, and plates. Iron and steel products range from carpentry nails to building girders and from cars to guitar strings.
History of Steel Industry Worker Career
Civilization changed forever when people first learned to heat and hammer iron ore into iron objects about 3,000 years ago. The first raw iron used was probably that found in meteorites on the surface of the earth. Smelting of iron ore from under the earth’s surface came later. People already knew how to make metal alloys (bronze, an alloy of copper and tin, had been in use since 3800 b.c.), and about 500 years after iron became widely used, steel was being made in India. Until modern times, however, steel was fairly rare. Now steel is one of the most ubiquitous substances in our civilization. Modern blast furnaces duplicate many of the processes used by the ancients, but in quantities they never could have dreamed of.
The Job of Steel Industry Workers
Today most molten iron goes into steel. Elements such as chromium, nickel, and manganese are added to the iron. The material is then tempered— heated and cooled to make it hard and tough. Forged—hammered or squeezed—steel is strong and dense. To produce iron and steel in traditional, integrated mills, the iron is first melted in huge blast furnaces, often more than 10 stories tall. These furnaces are water-cooled steel cylinders heated by blasts from other, dome-topped cylinders that heat air for melting ore.
Skip operators fill railroad cars with raw materials, such as iron ore, coke, and limestone, work controls that hoist the cars up to the top of the furnace, and dump the contents in layers into the furnace. Stove tenders heat air in the domed cylinders (or stoves) until it is the correct temperature and open valves to blast the heated air into the furnace. At temperatures exceeding 3000 degrees Fahrenheit, the materials burn and melt. The limestone purifies the iron, and pure molten iron collects at the bottom of the furnace, while the limestone and impurities float on the top as slag.
Blast furnace keepers and helpers then tap the furnace to remove the molten metal. They drill tapholes in the furnace’s firebrick lining and allow the slag to run out of the furnace. The liquid iron flows through a taphole that is drilled lower into torpedo or bottle cars that keep the iron heated. Keepers and helpers then shoot clay into the tapholes to plug them. One furnace can make as many as 8,000 tons of molten iron per day.
Pure molten iron may be cast into molded forms called “pigs,” which are used to make engine blocks and other items. Pig-machine operators and their helpers run machines that position molds under ladles holding the molten iron. By moving controls, they tilt the ladles and allow the iron to flow into the molds. Workers spray the molds with lime to keep iron from sticking.
Most iron is made into steel in one of three kinds of furnaces: the basic oxygen furnace, the open-hearth furnace, and the electric furnace. To make steel, kiln operators heat minerals such as lime, chromium, or manganese before they are mixed with iron. Mixer operators transfer molten iron from bottle cars to mixers and mix the iron and other elements together. Furnace operators regulate the temperature and flow of coolant in furnaces into which charging-machine operators dump loads of iron and other elements using controls that move mechanical arms to pick up boxes of materials and rotate them to spill the contents into the furnace.
When the steel is ready, the furnace is tilted or tapped to allow the molten metal to run into ladles. Next the steel is formed by pouring it into molds to make ingots. Hot-metal crane operators control cranes that pick up the ladles and hold them above molds. Steel pourers and their helpers assemble the stoppers used to plug these ladles. Other workers maintain the molds. Hot-top liners and helpers line the mold covers with firebrick and mortar. Mold workers remove the ingots from the molds and clean and coat the molds for the next casting.
The steel ingots then go to soaking pits for further processing. In the soaking pits, the ingots are reheated so that they may be rolled. Charger operators and helpers move steel through soaking-pit furnaces, where it stays heated at temperatures of up to 2450 degrees Fahrenheit for as long as 14 hours. The ingots are then ready for rolling or shaping into billets, blooms, and slabs. Bottom makers reline the bottom of the soaking pits with coke dust to keep oxide scale from forming on ingots. The soaking pits are then ready for more ingots.
Rail-tractor operators transport hot ingots and slabs from soaking pits to conveyors that take them to rolling mills. There, massive steel rollers squeeze the hot ingots into specified shapes. In five minutes, a 25″ x 27″ ingot can be rolled into a bloom with a 9″ x 9″cross section or into a 4″ billet. Roll builders and mill utility workers set up rollers for steel to pass through. Guide setters adjust rollers according to the type of shape required. Mill recorders control the scheduling of rolling ingots and record production data. Manipulators operate mechanisms that guide the ingots into the rolling mills. Primary mill rollers and rolling attendants operate machines that perform the first rolling operations. Rolltube setters adjust machines that roll ingots into shapes for pipes and tubing.
Some rolled steel goes to foundries to be made into tools, heavy equipment, and machine gears. Most, however, goes to finishing mills to be made into sheet steel, piping, wire, and other types of steel. Hot-mill tin rollers run machines that roll slabs into sheets and strips. Roller-leveler operators run machines that remove wrinkles from sheets. Roughers, rougher operators, speed operators, screwdown operators, and table operators set up and operate mills that reduce billets, blooms, and slabs to various shapes, depending on requirements. Some finishing operators make seamless tubing by piercing steel billets lengthwise and rolling them into tubing. Reeling-machine operators then round out and burnish the inner and outer surfaces of these tubes. As steel strips are made, coiler operators wind them into coils, checking for defects and cutting them into specified lengths. Tubing-machine operators roll metal ribbon into tubes and solder the seams to form conduit. Finishers roll strips, sheets, and bars to specified gauges, shapes, and finishes.
Most rods and tubes and other solid and hollow objects are formed through extruding and drawing hot metal through a die. Draw-bench operators and their helpers adjust dies to specified dimensions and draw hot metal rods through them to give them a specified shape and diameter. Tube drawers do the same in forming steel tubes.
Other workers process metal that is recovered in powder form from other iron and steel making processes. Much of this powder comes from dust in furnace flues. Batch makers tend equipment that recovers powdered metal and separates it from impurities. Mixers blend batches of powdered metal, and sinter workers make sinter cake, a mass of powdered metal formed without melting. This powder is processed by press setters and operators to make bearings, gears, filters, and rings.
Steel production is recorded by workers to assure that procedures are carried out correctly. Inspectors and assorters check steel products to make sure they meet customers’ specifications. Other workers test samples of metal to measure their strength, hardness, or ductility.
The industry also employs various mechanics and construction workers, including bricklayers who line furnaces with firebrick and refractory tile and repair cracked or broken linings. Millwrights install and maintain equipment and machinery. Electricians install and repair computer controls for machine tools and other equipment. Industrial engineers determine the most efficient and cost-effective methods for production. Mechanical engineers often work in management positions to solve mechanical issues on the production line. Environmental engineers design, build, and maintain systems to control air and water pollution. Metallurgical engineers try to improve or alter the properties of steel, as well as find new uses for the metal. General laborers are employed to feed, unload, and clean machines; to move supplies and raw materials; to hoist materials for processing; and to perform a variety of other unskilled tasks. Other workers bale scrap metal or strap coils.
Steel Industry Worker Career Requirements
In the past, some employers hired workers without high school diplomas, but today most prefer high school graduates. Classes to take in high school include English, communications, general mathematics, computers, and mechanical drawing as well as shop courses.
Most steelworkers learn their skills on the job or through apprenticeships. Apprenticeships are open to high school graduates who are at least 18 years old. Apprentice programs generally last four to five years and teach skills through classroom lectures and on-the-job training. Some employers pay for workers to take additional courses in subjects they can use on the job—chemistry, management, and metallurgy, for example. Other education is available through home-study courses, technical schools, and colleges.
Most of the jobs in this industry are physically demanding, and workers need to be in good health and have strength and endurance. Traits that employers look for include good mechanical skills, computer aptitude, strong reading comprehension, oral communication, and math skills.
Exploring Steel Industry Worker Career
One of the best ways to learn about the steel industry is to visit a steel mill. If this is not feasible, you may be able to invite a union or industry representative to your school to speak with students about careers in the steel industry. Reading publications, such as Iron & Steel Technology (http://www.aist.org/conference-expositions/aistech), put out by iron and steel associations is a good way to become more familiar with the industry and current trends.
Most steel mills are located in Illinois, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Texas, although there are also steel plants in California, Utah, Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida. Most workers are members of the United Steelworkers of America union.
Newspaper want ads and state employment agencies sometimes list openings in steel mills. Job seekers should also apply directly at the mills’ personnel offices. Workers who would like to begin as an apprentice should contact a local union or a state apprenticeship bureau.
Entry-level steelworkers and those new to a plant may start in a pool of unskilled laborers. Because steelworkers have a strong union, advancement is often dependent on seniority. As workers gain skills and seniority, they may move into more difficult but higher-paying jobs. Workers may take five years to learn the work of supervisors or rollers but then have to wait much longer for openings to occur. With further education and training, workers may advance into management positions.
Most steel mills operate 24 hours a day. Workers work one of three shifts: day, night, or graveyard. Late-shift workers receive premium pay, as do those who work overtime (more than 40 hours per week), or on Sundays and holidays.
According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the average weekly earnings for non-supervisory production workers in steel manufacturing in 2004 were $1,028 (or $53,450 annually). The Department of Labor reports the following median salaries for workers employed in and steel mills by specialty in 2004: first-line supervisors/ managers of production and operating workers, $50,620; electricians, $46,675; general maintenance and repair workers, $37,250; rolling machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic, $36,170; crane and tower operators, $34,590; cutting, punching, and press machine setters, operators, and tenders, metal and plastic, $29,575; and production work helpers, $22,630.
Workers receive paid holidays, paid vacations, sick leave, retirement plans, health and life insurance, and other fringe benefits. Many benefits are determined by contracts between the representative union and company management.
Safety is a great concern in steel mills. Furnaces create incredibly high temperatures, and machines handle mountains of materials. Yet the steel industry is one of the safest in America. While steelworkers of the past worked in searing, dangerous conditions, today’s workers often work in air-conditioned spaces and come no closer to machinery than pressing a button. Those who work in close proximity to machines and molten metal wear safety clothing and equipment (hard hats, safety glasses, protective aprons, and so on) provided by the company. Still, some workers are exposed to heat and great amounts of noise. The industry, however, is focused on making mills as safe as possible for workers.
Steel Industry Worker Career Outlook
Strong foreign competition, an increase in imported steel, decreases in domestic manufacturing, and overproduction of steel on the world market has negatively affected the U.S. steel industry and its workers. The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that employment in the steel industry will decline by 13 percent through 2014. Opportunities will be slightly better for workers employed at electronic arc furnace mills, which are more cost-effective than traditional steel mills (see sidebar for more information).