A slide flashed across big TV screens at a massive steel industry conference in Pittsburgh on May 7, and on cue hands from the Butler County table shot into the air clutching cell phones.
The Butler School District's superintendent snapped a photo, as did multiple county commissioners. The slide showed two figures that illustrated well the Butler County representatives' mission for the day: The next decade will bring 3.5 million open manufacturing jobs, but today's predictions indicate that the workforce won't be able to fill 2 million of them.
“That's scary stuff,” said Leslie Osche, county commissioner chairwoman.
Butler County educators, elected officials and a cadre of students arrived at Pittsburgh's David L. Lawrence Convention Center that Tuesday morning for the 2019 Association for Iron & Steel Technology Conference. The trip was borne out of a meeting between county commissioners and AIST leaders at the organization's headquarters in Cranberry Township and is associated with the Butler County Growth Collaborative.
Two students from each school district, the Butler County Vocational-Technical School and both Butler County Community College and Slippery Rock University attended. School districts did not have to pay for their students to attend.
The conference included 18 companies operating in Butler County, according to Mark Gordon, the county's chief of economic development.
Superintendents from Butler County's two largest school districts attended. Tracy Vitale, superintendent of the Seneca Valley School District, said she wanted students to know that steel isn't just a part of the region's workforce history.
“We want them to know that steel is not dead in Pittsburgh,” Vitale said. “Steel is an industry that's alive and well, and we want our students and parents to know it.”
Brian White, Butler's superintendent, said he wanted to demonstrate his district's alignment with the workforce development needed by manufacturing industries.
Nick Neupauer, BC3 president, said the school is trying to flip an old career concept on its head. He spoke about his grandfather and other family members in the steel industry.
“With them, the goal of education was always to not work in the steel industry,” Neupauer said. “Now, that has come full circle. There are incredible jobs in that field that require advanced skills.”
Their efforts were reflected in the overall message of this year's conference. David Burritt, president of U.S. Steel, gave a keynote presentation titled “Steelmaking for the Next Generation.”
“We should not allow this (steel) renaissance to mask the significant challenges we face, including an aging workforce,” Burritt said.
So, what effect did it have on the students in attendance? It depends on which ones you ask.
Some, like Evan Kremer, 16, a sophomore at Knoch High School, walked into the conference already knowing that a steel job is the right path. Evan is in the vo-tech's machine technology program. Steel mills run in his family.
“From a very young age, I knew that's what I want to do,” Evan said.
Ellie Coffield, 16, a sophomore at Mars High School, said she's interested in a science and math related field, but is still trying to figure out her path.
She wasn't entirely convinced that steel or manufacturing would be her future, and she said she thinks there might be a natural hesitancy among her peers.
“You don't just want to follow the path,” Ellie said. “You want to make your own.”
Drew Yecko's summary of his experience suggested that the event at least somewhat succeeded. Drew, a 17-year-old junior at Seneca Valley High School, is interested in mechanical engineering, but said the experience filled him in on the current state of steel.
“I learned just how much the steel industry is relying on new technology,” Drew said. “I thought it was still a more old-fashioned process.”