At the end of the 19th century, steel started growing at a rapid pace, and so did employment in steel production. Following the introduction of the Bessemer Process, which was the first economical method of producing steel, the industry took flight. This trend continued all the way up to the 1960s, making steel into one of the biggest employment sectors in steel producing countries throughout the world. Steel plants required such a labour force that workers would often live in purpose-built towns next to steel plants.
Some time in the 1970s, these numbers fell dramatically, resulting in a panic throughout the steel world. Between the years of 1974 and 1999, employment dropped from 521,000 to 153,000 in the US, 197,000 to 31,000 in the UK, and it was the same story in other steel producing countries around the world.
Rather than signifying a decline in the steel market, however, the decrease in employment was actually more of a testament to the increased efficiency in the production of steel.
These days, the steel production process is still advancing in labour efficiency. In one Austrian steel plant, just 14 workers are able to produce more than 450,000 tonnes of steel each year! This may be an extreme example, but considering in 1990 the average steel worker produced only 400 tonnes per year, it really goes to show how far the industry has come.
Not only that, but the drop in employment within steel production has not necessarily removed jobs from the economy, it is more accurate to say that these jobs have simply moved down-steam into jobs such as steel processing and supply (like Pulmans!) or the manufacture of goods using steel. As products using steel are becoming more and more complex, jobs within these down-stream markets have been multiplying. It is now estimated that one employment-year in the steel industry generates 3.5 employment years elsewhere.
It’s undeniable that the consumption of steel worldwide is increasing, and while employment in the steel production industry may not be what it once was, steel continues to stimulate the worldwide economy, promote international trade and breathe life into the next generation of end-use products.