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Seeing need, Cleveland program trains steelworkers of tomorrow

October 2, 2015 at 6:15 PM EDT
In Cleveland, a special school-to-work program leads community college students to jobs at a local steel plant where hundreds of workers are expected to start retiring. Special correspondent Amy Hansen from WVIZ/PBS Idea Stream reports in a preview of American Graduate Day on PBS.

JUDY WOODRUFF: This Saturday, public TV stations across the country will Air American Graduate Day 2015, a national public media initiative to help communities address the school dropout crisis.

Tonight, a preview from Cleveland about a school-to-work program that leads to work in a local steel plant.

Amy Hansen from WVIZ/PBS ideastream in Cleveland reports.

AMY HANSEN: Like many Midwestern cities, Cleveland was built on a foundation of manufacturing. Today, Cleveland’s largest steel mill is operated by ArcelorMittal, Which continues to employ thousands in the area.

GARY NORGREN, Manager of Raw Materials, ArcelorMittal: ArcelorMittal back in late 2007 was faced with a huge problem. They were worried that the number of skilled craftspeople, electrical/mechanical, who are eligible to retire, were going to leave in the next five years, and we didn’t have the backfill to be prepared for that attrition.

JOHN PAWLOSKI, Electrician, ArcelorMittal: Well, I am 61 years old. And, yes, retirement has come into mind, and a lot of my co-workers are of the same age. We’re all in that same category.

GARY NORGREN: We are projecting at ArcelorMittal to lose over 200 electricians and mechanics per year for the next five years, so when we lose 200 people, it’s imperative that we find either within our current work force people who want to become mechanics or electricians or we go outside the work force.

AMY HANSEN: So, ArcelorMittal reached out to community colleges near their five Midwestern plants to create a program, combining an in-class curriculum with an on-the-job internship that trains locals to become steelworkers for the future.

GARY NORGREN: The overall objective of Steelworker for the Future is to grow students who have an interest in mechanical hands-on type work to enter U.S. manufacturing and basically fill our needs.

KEIHEN KITCHEN, Intern, Steelworker for the Future: Originally, I wanted to be an engineer. And when I started doing more research and taking engineering classes, I realized that the majority of engineers actually are doing designing. They don’t actually get to work too much with their hands.

And I’m the kind of person, I want to do the work with my hands. I want to be a part of what I’m doing. I don’t want to just design it and hand it off to someone else.

AMY HANSEN: After hearing about the Steelworker for the Future program through a friend, 18-year-old Keihen Kitchen enrolled through Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland. She is now training to become an electrician.

GARY NORGREN: In high school, many students are pushed towards a four-year degree to become engineers and doctors and lawyers, and the whole need for U.S. manufacturers to have electricians and mechanics has kind of been lost.

You go into high school and everyone is talking to you about, well, you have got to go to college to be successful and you have to go to a four-year university, you will be nothing without a bachelor’s degree. It really puts so much pressure on your shoulders to do well at everything you do. And in high school, that was a really hard thing to deal with.

Connecting all of the lights together

AMY HANSEN: Hard to deal with because Keihen faced a host of other obstacles outside the classroom.

KEIHEN KITCHEN: I had a mother who was very sick. She was diagnosed with cancer when I was 7 years old. I had a biological father who wasn’t in my life, so my brother and I really had to take care of our mom. She was on disability, so we were really on the low end of poverty. And it makes you scared, you know, what’s going to happen in the future? What about when I’m done with high school?

And I think that’s some questions a lot of people have. And the Steelworker for the Future program really opened up my eyes to a way of going to school where you were going to have a job at the end of the program.

JOHN PAWLOSKI: The motor has a history of lasting five years before it starts — we change it right before that.


JOHN PAWLOSKI: I have been down here for 41 years, 38 years as an electrician, done a lot, seen a lot.

Because he said the flames were shooting up and…


JOHN PAWLOSKI: Something different happens every single day.

KEIHEN KITCHEN: My first mentor was John Pawloski. He explained to me step-by-step what he was doing and why he was doing it, which was an amazing experience to really get to take what I’m learning in school and apply it to a real career. This is how I’m going to be using what I’m learning in school.

JOHN PAWLOSKI: This way, I can share my experiences with the new generation. You feel kind of proud.

I did my first internship this summer, and every day I wish I could be coming back to work here.

So, just hold it down, turn it on and then let it go?

AMY HANSEN: Now back at Cuyahoga Community college, Keihen is even closer to her wish.

And this is going to be my final semester before I get my associate’s degree. I have been working in customer service, everything from retail to the restaurant business, ever since high school. So, it’s exciting to be looking at a real career where I’m working one full-time job. I’m very excited to start at ArcelorMittal.

JUDY WOODRUFF: The seven-hour American Graduate broadcast can be seen tomorrow, Saturday, October 3, on this and other PBS stations.

PBS NewsHour education coverage is part of American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.