By DENNIS GRUBAUGH
Madison County is working with U.S. Steel Corp. to process applicants for the 500 positions that are supposed to be filled during the next few months at Granite City Works.
Hundreds of people showed up for a mid-March career fair, but the majority of the jobs are expected to go to those workers who were laid off since December 2015. Those who apply are required to pass a drug screening and background check before moving to the next round, which includes testing being done by Madison County Employment and Training.
Worker recalls were expected to begin in late March and continue over four months.
Starting March 15, county workers were on site, learning the testing protocol from human resources staff from U.S. Steel in Pennsylvania. The county is being paid by U.S. to conduct the testing.
Madison County personnel were expecting to spend about three days a week at the plant for many weeks, said Sarah Lorio, the work-based learning coordinator for Madison County Employment and Training.
Essentially, the county is acting as an employment agency.
Both Granite City Works blast furnaces and its steelmaking facilities were idled in December 2015 and the plant’s hot strip mill was idled in January 2016 in response to what the company said was global excess steel capacity and unfairly traded imports. The pickle line, cold mill and finishing lines at Granite City continued to operate in line with customer demand. The hot strip mill was restarted in February 2017 as the company adjusted the hot strip’s operating configuration to meet customer needs. The mill’s “A” blast furnace remains idled.
Madison County’s new role became apparent in a hurry once U.S. Steel made the announcement the first of March, on the heels of the president’s announced plan for tariffs against countries — primarily China — that were dumping cheaper steel on the U.S. market.
“We’d heard rumors the last couple of months that there were indications things were going to be starting back up, but there was no official announcement to us that it was coming, and especially not this quickly,” Director of Employment and Training Anthony Fuhrmann said.
“Right now, there is a huge recruitment push. Madison County is administering, or proctoring, the testing that they are doing for all applicants,” Lorio said. “They are really pushing the online applications.”
She said the majority of 500 new workers are considered to be “utility workers” for which one year of practical experience would be needed, in areas like operations, production or manufacturing. A high school diploma or GED is required.
Part of the county’s efforts is in creating a “talent pipeline,” she said.
The county has done large-scale testing previously.
“When Phillips 66 (in Roxana) has big hires they’ll reach out to us and we’ll do the testing. We’ve done it on site for them, and we’ve also done it at our facilities in Wood River,” Lorio said.
The testing is done on a fee-per-person basis with U.S. Steel reimbursing Madison County Employment and Training, Fuhrmann said.
Lorio said she did not yet know what the county’s role would be after the testing facet ends, since the mill will have its own office personnel in place.
Besides the union positions, U.S. Steel is also hiring more than a hundred nonunion, administration positions, including HR people, Fuhrmann said.
The salaried and wage jobs available include those in production, maintenance, management, safety, quality and more. Several of the positions are for shift managers, safety and industrial hygiene, security and fire officers, electrical maintenance technicians, mechanical maintenance technicians and utility persons.
Many of the jobs are swing shifts.
It is hard to pin down just how many people might be hired for the first time at the mill. At one point some 1,500 workers were idled of 2,000 who had been employed. Many of those laid off have retired, moved away or gone on to new jobs.
Anyone interested can find the job listings at www.ussteel.com/work/jobs.
Following layoffs at the plant in 2015, Madison County Employment and Training, in association with the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and Local Workforce Investment Areas, provided a range of services to displaced workers, including job retraining.
“This is something different than we normally do, quite honestly,” Fuhrmann said. “We tend to work with businesses more one on one, as opposed to anything this large.”
Some of the workers will be new to the trades, others will have some experience, but all will have to pass a drug test.
“They do require a urine drug test, as well as a hair follicle test,” Lorio said. “And then they have a pretty thorough background check. I would imagine most of the (hires) are already going to be working (somewhere), if they are going to be eligible for these positions, especially if they are looking for at least a year of experience.”
Fuhrmann and Lorio were asked if companies were more concerned now about those they hire being able to pass a drug test.
“I don’t know if touchy is the right word,” Fuhrmann said. “Socially you see differing opinions, especially in the marijuana area. A lot of people don’t view it as anything wrong until they get to situation like this where a company does have drug-testing policies.”
“A lot of employers also complain about a lack of soft skills,” Lorio said.
To which Fuhrmann added: “Showing up on time. Getting your first paycheck and coming back. Working as a team with other people. There’s a whole list of those (desirable traits),” Fuhrmann said.
Does the county have the manpower to hire this many individuals at once? In this case, yes, because people are always looking for good paying jobs. The starting rate for an entry level utility worker at the mill is more than $20 an hour.
“The issue is not going to be the first wave at U.S. Steel, but it’s going to be the backfilling of positions they are coming from,” Fuhrmann said. “We’re at a point now, with the unemployment rate where it is, that we’re struggling to get people in the door (at the county) to get into our program to be able to train them for things. And the employers we talk to are struggling to get qualified employees to do the jobs that they need done.”