By Ed Runyan
Hysen Sait of Champion graduated from high school on a Sunday and started work the next day at the manufacturing company Denman Tire not far from home.
He worked there more than two decades, until Jan. 10, 2000, when he accepted an opportunity to continue his trade as a millwright (a worker who installs, maintains and repairs machinery) at Warren’s WCI Steel, which paid more.
It turned out to be a good move, both financially and otherwise.
“I enjoyed it. The people were very good. If they saw a problem, they’d try to solve it. They had a good workforce,” he said.
The mill changed hands several times in the years to come. The Renco Group sold it in 2007 to the Russian company OAO Severstal, which sold it back to the Renco Group in 2011.
By then, the mill was teetering, and in May 2012, Renco closed it along with plants in Maryland and West Virginia.
The current owner, BDM Warren Steel Operations, filed documents with Howland Township last month indicating that demolition of the entire site, including the most saleable part — the hot mill — will begin in late 2014.
Hysen was able to continue working at the mill, then called RG Steel, through June 2012. Then he did what the mill’s other 1,200 workers did: he filed for unemployment and hoped the mill would reopen.
But as a family man, he couldn’t wait forever and seized upon an opportunity to retrain in a new career through the federal Trade Adjustment Assistance program.
He and seven other former RG workers began their classes through the Trumbull Career and Technical Center in January to learn to be machinists.
The classroom portion of the training, which took place at Kent State University at Trumbull, wrapped up a week ago, and Hysen and his classmates moved on to the first of two three-week unpaid internships that will enable them to get hands-on experience in their field and see how they like two of the companies that are hiring.
For Hysen, moving from millwright to machinist wasn’t a big change — he’d taken an earlier class at TCTC, done machining “odds and ends” at Denman and has always liked working with his hands — but there were new things to learn.
“The biggest thing is the math,” he said. “I never had trigonometry and geometry” before this training began. But he and his classmates all “came a long way” and “the whole group is doing a really good job at it.”
Right away, Hysen said he started to worry about his health care, because the company coverage didn’t last long, and then he and his fellow workers were cast into one of several programs that helped them pay a part of their own health care bill.
Hysen said the timing of the mill’s closing wasn’t very good for him. Losing a job at age 40 would be easier than at his age, he added.
“It’s tough losing your job,” he said.
But Hysen said he thinks he and many of the others who worked at RG have a work ethic that should put them in a good position to get hired.
“They’re going to do the best job they can. RG workers were hard workers,” Hysen said.
George Carney, industrial training coordinator for TCTC, said the attitude toward the training he saw among the RG workers was impressive.
“The RG guys, they always came to school all the time — all the time. It’s a work ethic they had. I’ve never seen a group like that,” he said.
In addition to the machine trades class, TCTC also had a welding class with about eight RG workers in it and a few in building trades.
Carney thinks the trainees “shouldn’t have a big ordeal in finding a job,” adding that the Mahoning Valley Manufacturer’s Coalition says there are “hundreds of jobs” available in those fields.
Carney said the hard thing about losing jobs the way the RG workers did is that they “worked their whole life and had the rug pulled out from under them.”
He said the workers’ need to acquire updated math skills is typical of the way manufacturing has changed.
Instead of visualizing manufacturing as dirty and back-breaking work, the picture people should see is of a cleaner environment where problem-solving is important.
Carney, who worked 20 years as a tool and die maker at Delphi Packard Electric, also has a son and daughter working in that field, so apparently his positive attitude toward good-paying skilled-trades work “rubbed off,” he said.
Where they went
Darryl Parker, president of Local 1375 of the United Steel Workers Union, which represents about 1,000 former RG workers, said about 200 of his members have started retraining programs. About 250 have switched to other jobs at factories farther from home than before, such as in Massillon, Canton, Cleveland, Lorain and Pittsburgh.
A former millwright at RG in his 40s who asked to not be identified said he worked for a subcontractor inside the Vallourec Star plant in Youngstown from May until early in October. The work paid about half of what he made at RG.
But that work ended, so he’ll go back on unemployment for a while, figuring the work will pick up again in January because the late part of the year is usually slow, he said.
Mill work is a family tradition. His father and grandfather were mill workers, and he had 25 years at the Warren mill.
“I wasn’t brought up this way,” he said of having idle time. “All I can say is I’m one of the more fortunate ones,” because he has some money saved.
“You’ve got guys who’ve lost houses, everything.”
Dave Milliken of Sharon, Pa., worked 46 years in the steel industry, starting in 1966, making stops in Aliquippa, Pa., Cleveland, Pittsburgh and Warren.
He was a salaried employee, working in production planning most of his 46 years, so instead of having a pension from that whole time, the company started a 401k program in the mid-1980s, then his job became union in 2005, so he has a small union pension.
But the timing was pretty good for Milliken, because he was eligible for full Social Security benefits in 2012, so he retired just before the mill closed.
“I could survive, and I can go and retire and still do some of the things I wanted to do. It didn’t cause any hardship,” he said.
Parker, who continues to serve as president despite no longer getting paid because he wants to keep the union hall on North Park Avenue open, said Trumbull County manufacturing jobs have taken a hit in the past decade.
But many members of the union have found new manufacturing jobs even without retraining, and he still believes in manufacturing work.
“Some people harp on college, but not everybody is college material.
“It would do kids well to go to a technical school and learn a trade,” he said, noting that on-the-job training doesn’t seem to be enough today.
“Manufacturing and steel are still alive,” he said, and they will be good opportunities again some day when the economy improves.