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I recently took a tour of a value-added steel fabrication plant in the Portland area that takes raw steel products and welds and shapes them into finished products for buildings, bridges, and other critical infrastructure. I had forgotten how much I loved manufacturing as an act of creation and permanence.
The plant itself is a nearly 200,000-square-foot cavernous facility that allows for assembling large and complex products, like suspension arches in bridges that are assembled on site.
Workers were busy welding finished products or using plate processors. plasma cutters, and some very powerful steel drills. I kept thinking during my tour how critical steel manufacturing was to the rise of United States. Today, the U.S. steel industry faces a wave of subsidized foreign imports. One CNN story reported that nearly 12,000 U.S. steel jobs were lost in 2016, mostly due to pressures from overseas producers. Since 1960, the steel sector has lost nearly 400,000 jobs, according to the news show Marketplace.
As someone who used to work in blue-collar jobs, I know how brutally tough they can be and how the body is dead tired after an honest day’s work. The plant was cold, and I was clearly not ready for being in that environment. I felt great admiration for the crew on the factory floor. They were creating products made of something permanent, to last decades, if not hundreds of years. I do not know what the crew itself felt about their jobs.
The great American oral historian Studs Terkel perhaps best explained what people feel like having a real hands-on job, where they produced things that mattered. In 1995, the then-83-year-old Terkel was asked to name one issue America had most neglected or ignored throughout the years, he responded: “The big one is the gap between the haves and the have-nots—always. … the key issue is jobs. You can’t get away from it: jobs. Having a buck or two in your pocket and feeling like somebody.”
Walking the plant that cold day, I felt like the crew making these beautiful works of steel were genuine, proud craftsmen.