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Mines Dig for Talent

Times Staff Writer

Rich Rojeski is mulling over his exit strategy. Maybe a second career selling machinery? What about home prices in Arizona?

Rojeski isn’t the only one at Hibbing Taconite Co. practicing his golf swing and surfing the Internet for real estate in warmer climates. Already this year, four colleagues in the maintenance department have retired and at least two others are poised to follow.

“I think they’re going to have trouble filling those jobs,” said Rojeski, 49, a third-generation miner who celebrated his 30th anniversary at Hibbing Taconite in March.

Northeast Minnesota’s iron mining industry is sitting on a demographic time bomb: In the next few years, close to half its workers are going to become eligible for retirement, just as customers in China and India are spurring a boom in demand.

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A looming labor shortage has become a concern in many parts of America, as baby boomers exit the workforce en masse, taking with them decades of expertise. In a survey of American manufacturers released last year, 90% reported experiencing a moderate to severe shortage of qualified machinists, technicians and other skilled workers.

Minnesota’s sparsely populated Iron Range is particularly vulnerable because its mining and wood-product industries have slashed thousands of jobs in the last two decades and have not brought in younger workers. More than 70% of the region’s workers are older than 45.

“It’s an old, old workforce,” said Matthew Schoeppner, a labor market analyst for the state’s Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Although mine managers have seen this retirement exodus coming, planning for it has been difficult because of uncertainty about how many employees will actually head for the door. Protected by seniority clauses in their union contracts and faced with limited alternatives, the production workers have tended to hold onto their jobs.

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But mining companies said they could no longer afford to watch and wait, given the strong global demand for their ore. More than half a dozen mining projects are under development, and they are expected to require thousands more workers for construction and operation.

To gear up, the mines are casting more widely to recruit talent, establishing training programs with local colleges and looking for ways to keep experienced workers on the payroll longer.

“This is just a reality we are going to be facing,” said Ed LaTendresse, general manager of Hibbing Taconite, which is co-owned by Cleveland-Cliffs Inc., Mittal Steel Co. of the Netherlands and Stelco Inc. of Canada.

Filling those jobs has gotten tougher. In northeast Minnesota, mining jobs have historically been handed down like family heirlooms; it is not uncommon to find two or three generations collecting paychecks from the same place. But after watching their parents struggle with shift work and layoffs, many children of miners are reluctant to follow.

Carla Maki, a psychology student at North Dakota State University, has worked two summers at United Taconite, where her father is employed. Maki said she couldn’t beat the pay of $18 to $23 an hour. The first summer she worked six weeks and made $8,000 including overtime -- more than her earnings an entire previous summer at Dairy Queen.

But Maki, currently employed in the iron pellet plant, has no plans to stick around after graduation.

“It’s not a guaranteed job,” she said of working in the mining industry. “Even my father tells me I shouldn’t do this.”

Workers at United Taconite know that uncertainty all too well. Two years ago, the mine, then known as EVTAC, filed for bankruptcy protection. The pensions of the 400 laid-off workers were turned over to the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corp., which will pay a fraction of what they expected to receive.

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When the mine was later resurrected by Cleveland-Cliffs and Laiwu Steel Group, a large Chinese steel company, the rehired workers had to start the clock over again on retirement, adding years to their work lives. Employees now throw themselves “retirement-get-over-it parties” complete with cakes and handmade medals.

“A lot of people are very bitter about what happened,” said Joe Strlekar, a crusher operator and former president of Local 6860 of the United Steelworkers of America. “It delayed their retirement, and they lost about 25% of what they were expecting to get.”

The mines also suffer from a reputation as dirty, unsafe places to earn a paycheck.

But Todd Roth, general manager at United Taconite, said tougher safety requirements, improved training and the addition of technology such as computerized assembly lines and sophisticated surveying equipment had made iron ore mining much less dangerous and physically demanding.

In the old days, United Taconite’s Fairlane mine tracked trucks by radio as they moved chunks of rock from the blasting site to the crusher. Today, thanks to a new tracking system, a user at a computer screen can follow the movement of every vehicle on the mine’s site and monitor the quality and amount of ore being delivered.

Mines can no longer hire someone right out of high school, given the technical skills required for most jobs. To boost their supply of incoming workers, the mines are working with the Northeast Minnesota Higher Education District, which includes five campuses, to develop a two-year mining technician’s program that will start this fall.

The mines also are trying to spruce up their image.

In the spring, Amber Nettleton, 16, was among a group of students invited to tour the Cleveland-Cliffs facilities and share an Italian dinner with mine employees. The high school junior said she had never considered a job in the mines, although her father worked in one until he was injured many years ago.

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“We didn’t realize how technical many of the jobs were,” said Amber, an honors student.

The mines are under pressure to bring more women onto their payrolls.

Two decades ago, a group of women at EVTAC filed the nation’s first class-action sexual-harassment lawsuit. After detailing numerous incidents of lewd conduct and physical harassment, they won that case, portrayed last year in the movie “North Country.”

Managers said they had worked diligently to ensure that their mines were no longer hostile territory by implementing tough sexual-harassment policies.

At Hibbing Taconite, where women make up 6% to 8% of the mine’s workforce, the company finds it a challenge to attract female job seekers. “In heavy production and maintenance jobs, we’re not finding the applicants,” said Michael Kern, the personnel manager.

Katie Laird, a recent hire, took a pay cut to move from El Segundo to take a job at Hibbing Taconite as an environmental engineer. But with so many people set to retire, the 23-year-old former Raytheon employee sees lots of opportunities to move ahead.

Laird, who had been resigned to a lifetime of renting in California, just bought a three-bedroom house with a large flower garden in Hibbing for less than $100,000. And her commute is less than 15 minutes.

“I plan on staying for a long time,” said Laird, who earns a starting salary of about $55,000 a year plus bonuses and benefits.

One of Hibbing Taconite’s challenges is to figure out a way to transfer knowledge quickly to newcomers such as Laird, general manager LaTendresse said. He is giving newly hired engineers mini-apprenticeships throughout the mine so they can soak up as much experience as possible. Key staffers have been asked to draw up detailed explanations of their activities, particularly duties not contained in routine job descriptions.

Mine operators also are trying to slow the exodus of star performers, although they said the incentives they could provide were limited by union contracts.

To protect their aging workers, the mines have started installing motorized lifts and other devices to reduce physical stress. But Rojeski said the super-sizing of all mining equipment -- the trucks are twice as big as when he started -- put a severe strain on his aching body.

Once his youngest daughter graduates from college in a few years, Rojeski hopes to move with his wife to a warmer climate where he can play golf year-round. He said his pension should pay about $1,950 a month -- enough, he says, to live comfortably if he combines it with savings and a part-time income.

“Maybe Nevada or Arizona,” he said of his future home. “I’ve shoveled snow for 49 years.”


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