In the town of Donawitz, a steel smelting company is becoming the future of steel mills in Austria, and potentially the world.
With a turnout of 500,000 tons of steel a year, Voestalpine AG has become one of the leading mills in the country.
The kicker is that the mill itself is run by only 14 people.
Clockwork at Voestalpine
In the style of a watchtower, the plant is monitored from a room filled with computers and screens connected to 200 sensors throughout the facility.
The plant itself is a quiet hum as the steel passes through the machines and is turned into wire. Three technicians at a time sit at the screens to supervise functions, but beyond that they have no hand in the production process. It’s just like this that Voestalpine can manufacture as much product as a mill with hundreds of employees, if not more.
Ex-steel workers are making their wages overseeing shipping logistics, internal rail systems, and other positions for getting their product out.
A town that’s worked in steel since the 1400s, Donawitz has a long history with the metal. Its main contributor, Voestalpine, realized long ago that they couldn’t compete with bulk steel giants in Japan, South Korea, and Luxembourg.
They instead began to work with higher quality steel which gave them the money they needed to establish their innovative mill. The company has managed to create over 300 support jobs outside of the mill. Ex-steel workers are making their wages overseeing shipping logistics, internal rail systems, and other positions for getting their product out.
The Future of Machines and Workers
The thing that people fear the most when they hear stories like this is the loss of jobs. But, are machines really leaving people jobless? Is this the end of the average blue-collar, hands on worker?
President Trump has been trying to make steel the product of America, and rightfully so considering the high demand for it in the automotive industry. Recently however, Trump has called for increased import tariffs on it out of concern for the quality of the goods that were coming in. The president has already agreed to cut tariffs for Mexico and Canada and other countries are looking to get exempt as well.
There are programs in colleges that focus on retraining manufacturing workers to fit new jobs
Voestalpine even has a plant of their own in Texas which could mean changes like this might be seen in the US. France and the UK have also been making moves in that arena as well. As mentioned earlier, China is a major player in not only steel but other industries despite their recent criticisms by the president.
The future of the steel industry will be established in coming weeks. But, the question remains, is it worth it to transition manufacturing and mining workers to working at a desk? There are more benefits for employees in an automated manufacturing world than you probably think — and Voestalpine may just prove that.
White-collar jobs in IT and support can present wonderful learning opportunities. It’s plausible that they’d offer exposure to many different skill sets and situations the average steel worker wouldn’t have. Not to mention, desk jobs are less risky and cleaner.
The US has seen this attempted as well, with the famous case of coal miners who turned down retraining in the hopes of a resurrection. There are programs in colleges that focus on retraining manufacturing workers to fit new jobs. Canada has done this too.
Governments all over the world are creating programs to move jobs in these industries towards computer screens and away from the floor.
It’s going to be a long time before manufacturing and industrial companies become fully automated. But when they do, it won’t leave the world without jobs.
No, not all these industries will be saved. Coal has seen a drop in the US and has left thousands of coal miners without jobs. Trump promised back in late 2017 that he would renew the coal industry in the hopes of restoring jobs. The coal industry hasn’t made the desired comeback it’s followers want just yet, but it’s not over.
Maybe the next symbol of freedom and perseverance will be someone with a mouse and keyboard.
As for blue-collar jobs, the end is more than far-off, but a definite one.There are a lot of changes to be made before industries are fully automated. But, that doesn’t mean it’s the end for the hard working American. In fact, it might just be a new mascot for the US in general. Maybe the next symbol of freedom and perseverance will be someone with a mouse and keyboard.
Voestalpine AG gives us food for thought on the nature of “Man vs. Machine.” Perhaps it isn’t a failing in the manufacturing, but a conscious and a practical step into the future. There are still jobs to be filled even if the machines are doing the heavy lifting. Automation is the inevitable way of the future, and Austria could be at the helm.
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