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Just 14 People Make 500,000 Tons of Steel a Year in Austria (bloomberg.com) 175

An anonymous reader shares a Bloomberg Businessweek feature: The Austrian village of Donawitz has been an iron-smelting center since the 1400s, when ore was dug from mines carved out of the snow-capped peaks nearby. Over the centuries, Donawitz developed into the Hapsburg Empire's steel-production hub, and by the early 1900s it was home to Europe's largest mill. With the opening of Voestalpine AG's new rolling mill this year, the industry appears secure. What's less certain are the jobs. The plant, a two-hour drive southwest of Vienna, will need just 14 employees to make 500,000 tons of robust steel wire a year -- vs. as many as 1,000 in a mill with similar capacity built in the 1960s. Inside the facility, red-hot metal snakes its way along a 700-meter (2,297-foot) production line. Yet the floors are spotless, the only noise is a gentle hum that wouldn't overwhelm a quiet conversation, and most of the time the place is deserted except for three technicians who sit high above the line, monitoring output on a bank of flatscreens. "We have to forget steel as a core employer," says Wolfgang Eder, Voestalpine's chief executive officer for the past 13 years. "In the long run we will lose most of the classic blue-collar workers, people doing the hot and dirty jobs in coking plants or around the blast furnaces. This will all be automated."
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Just 14 People Make 500,000 Tons of Steel a Year in Austria

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  • by chubs ( 2470996 ) on Wednesday June 21, 2017 @02:32PM (#54663599)
    I haven't gone looking, but I'd be interested to see what happened to the economy of a 600+ year old steel town.
    • by chubs ( 2470996 )
      I also didn't RTFM to find out, but I'm doing so now...
    • Knowing Austria and how they handle things like that, I bet they are now tourist guides showing Americans how lovely and picturesque steel cooking was back in the old days, or they're sitting in a bank somewhere and counting money.

      Basically, tourism and banking is nearly all that's happening in that country...

      • by NoZart ( 961808 )

        We're not THAT rich ;-)

        I never thought of Austria as a "banking country" like Switzerland.

    • I did a quick dive, and it seems that this is a new plant, not replacing an existing one. However there are existing plants that employ another 2700 people, with another 300 working in shipping and logistics for materials. (Population seems to be in the mid 4,000 people.) If the 2700 employed in the older plants are replaced by automation like this one, there won't be much left to do, it seems.
       
      So no, no data point for the "they'll find other jobs/they need UBI" debate.

    • by c0l0 ( 826165 ) * on Wednesday June 21, 2017 @03:14PM (#54663907) Homepage

      I grew up in Trofaiach, the town next to Donawitz (less than 10km from the steel plant). My grandfather worked there as an electrician from the 1950s to the 1990s. While I did visit the local Erzberg musem (there's an ore mining operation ~30km north of Donawitz in a town called Eisenerz where they have the kind of museums and parks you'd expect a site with such a rich history to have) during my childhood, I can't really remember what it was supposed to be like during the rule of the Austro-Hungarian monarchy - but the latest developments in the are are not very pretty.

      Both Leoben (the city that Donawitz is a part of) and Eisenerz shed a MASSIVE amount of population - in the 1970s, Eisenerz was at ~15k inhabitants, while these days, I think it's less than 7k. Leoben fell from 42k people to ~18k or so. Since the steel industry has been privatized in the 1980s, thousands of jobs have been cut, while corporate profits soared - so whoever is still there and still has a job is pretty well off still. All in all, however, the whole Bundesland (federal state) of Steiermark/Styria (this is where Arnold is from :)), is pretty much perceived to be in a downward spiral since then, due to market forces at work - industry is lot cheaper to do elsewhere, and you can only compete so much on superior quality of product alone.

    • by G00F ( 241765 ) on Wednesday June 21, 2017 @03:16PM (#54663917) Homepage

      Just go look at the older coal towns.(or mining) I've seen many through out the US.

      They've dried up, the place remains a sad shell dependent on outside help. Many state and other officials try making deals with move in other industry, but it's never enough.

      For example: Here in Utah, Price was a once such a town. They got Sorenson Communications to build a TTY(a deaf text to phone service) it still dries up.(w/ text being replaced by video)

      Jobs don't materialize just because there are people wanting work. And not every person can be trained to do every position.

    • I haven't gone looking, but I'd be interested to see what happened to the economy of a 600+ year old steel town.

      That's an interesting question, but not the central one here, looking at the big picture.

      People in the West fret about machines taking their jobs...but it's not people in the West who are going to be most affected. Yes, there will be people who will be stuck "in between" - their jobs will be automated away, but they will be too old / not adept enough to retrain for a new job (or simply, no one will want to hire them even if they do, for whatever reason). Western countries are however rich enough to take car

    • Granted, the smelting plant itself may have moved from 1000 employees down to 14, but I seriously doubt that those 14 also mine the ore from the ground, operate the transport trucks and trains, manufacture and maintain the vehicles and road/railways, do the mine restoration work when the mine closes, personally deliver the finished product to the next step of the supply chain, etc.

    • It's OK, they'll be recycled in the coking plant. Waste not, want not.
  • No worry (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday June 21, 2017 @02:37PM (#54663637)

    It's OK because Donald Trump will retrain the steel workers so they can get a job at Blockbuster Video.

  • by Gravis Zero ( 934156 ) on Wednesday June 21, 2017 @02:38PM (#54663649)

    Why didn't they just employ thousands of people that just work for a few minutes a day? [slashdot.org] Oh yeah, reality kicked in. -_-

    • Given Austria and its rather funny way to deal with unions (they have kinda-like a government run union that everyone who has a job has to be a member of... don't ask) that's probably what's really going on behind the scenes.

      • Paying unemployment insurance is not a union.

          • Second sentence in your link: Membership is compulsory for all employees working in Austria, and it is thus not to be confused with Austrian labour unions
            (*facepalm*)

            • You should know the Arbeiterkammer before you facepalm. They are basically what unions are in other countries.

              • No, they are not.
                My company is forced to be in a "Handelskammer", too.

                You e.g. can not strike on behalf of the "Arbeitskammer", and if you strike while not being in a union no one will pay your "ersatz wages".

                • Ok, you actually found the difference.

                  Everything else you could ask from a union you can get there. Lawyers for work related disputes, information about your rights towards your employer, wage negotiations...

                  • Did not know that unions provide such services in Austria.
                    No idea what services they have in Germany, I know no one who is in a union.

                    • That's some of the services the Chamber of labor provides. Unions provide similar services to their members, too.

                      Austrians rarely go on strike. Personally, my guess for the reason is that you wouldn't notice the difference...

        • by AHuxley ( 892839 )
          The CIA and MI6 had to make sure Communism did not take hold due to post WW2 poverty and free and fair elections into the 1950's-80's.
          People with no jobs and no food take to the streets and demand change.
          So a lot of care was taken to look after workers, their rights, conditions, full health cover, pensions. To have a real wage that covered food, rent, transport for all workers.
          Free market of ideas but full protections to cover education, work, pensions.
          That stopped Communism spreading in the working c
  • by Freischutz ( 4776131 ) on Wednesday June 21, 2017 @02:40PM (#54663665)

    "We have to forget steel as a core employer," says Wolfgang Eder, Voestalpine's chief executive officer for the past 13 years. "In the long run we will lose most of the classic blue-collar workers, people doing the hot and dirty jobs in coking plants or around the blast furnaces. This will all be automated."

    Tell me something I don't know like, for example, how will the economy work when 90% of the jobs are automated. Will we have a situation like in ancient Rome where the rich people who owned masses of slaves they used to bankrupt small businesses and farmers by undercutting them with cheap labour but then ended up feeding the unemployed citizen masses simply out of a deep rooted and very real fear of the unwashed citizen masses rising up, dragging the moneyed classes out of their luxury villas and either throwing them to the lions or just crucifying them in the atrium of their own luxury villa? Will our unemployed kids and grand kids be living off of handouts from the rich oligarchs who own the automated factories? ... and how will an economy work when only 10% or less of the population are employed either designing new robots or staring at flatscreen making sure that things are running smoothly?

    • by chubs ( 2470996 ) on Wednesday June 21, 2017 @02:46PM (#54663699)
      The problem with this argument is it assumes that owning an automated factory = profit. When everyone is unemployed, they stop buying cars. When they stop buying cars, automated factories have to stop making cars. When they stop making cars, they stop buying steel. When they stop buying steel, the steel mill from this story stops making steel. Etc. at some point, they either have to pass some of their savings on to the consumers or close shop, as the consumers will be making next to nothing in the scenario you describe.
      • by chubs ( 2470996 )
        So, while factory owners love the idea of not having to pay salaries, they need people to have enough money to buy their crap. It's in their financial interest to make sure that people are being paid some sort of wage. So the rich would then hire people to further enrich their lives (back to artist patronage, perhaps?), and a new economic sector would be born. Make no mistake, it's still done in the spirit of greed and exploitation, but the rich don't really get rich without the rest of us working.
        • by mysidia ( 191772 )

          So, while factory owners love the idea of not having to pay salaries, they need people to have enough money to buy their crap.

          Yep... which means they will have to lower the prices of the crap they are selling to almost nothing;
          at that point, even if all you can find is one-off gigs for a few hours of work a week at minimum wage, then you can still buy stuff,
          because the employment deflation will have lowered prices, perhaps.

          • That's a nice utopian vision you've got there... I can imagine several other possible outcomes, none of which seem better for the majority of the population.

      • Don't worry, we'll all be gainfully employed as artist-prostitutes.

      • Wait, why can't a robot "purchase" things for itself? I am sure software can be written to mimic a person buying things. Why can't robots be participants in the economy? Of course the wealthy can store their robots' purchases somewhere.

        I mean if you think an employee's value comes about from what they purchase in addition to what they make .. why can't a robot do that part too?

        I think though that a person is only useful to the wealthy if they can produce something of value to them. They won't need factories

        • by JonnyCalcutta ( 524825 ) on Wednesday June 21, 2017 @03:29PM (#54664013)

          Why should robots bother doing all that hard work in the first place? They could just hire all the unemployed humans to do it for them.

        • by chubs ( 2470996 )

          Wait, why can't a robot "purchase" things for itself? I am sure software can be written to mimic a person buying things.

          I mean if you think an employee's value comes about from what they purchase in addition to what they make .. why can't a robot do that part too?

          Because in order for the purchase to be of any value, money would have to be transferred, which means the robot would need a salary in order to make purchases, which means it's no longer cheaper than an employee. This argument makes no sense.

          • The factory owners don't need the plebs to buy things. They can just get their factories to make what they want for themselves.

        • Artists, scientists, doctors to will be automated away. Now what've you got pal?

          Factories aren't needed to produce one-off products, those are mainly artisanal, cottage manufacturers. So essentially, factories will become obsolete if there aren't masses of people ready, willing, and _able_ to make purchases.

      • Money in the end, flows from pocket to pocket and can be viewed as tokens of working time, sure some peoples time is worth more than others, but on average that's how it is. Now if something can be created without wasting any working time, how much is it worth? Why, nothing at all. Say you live in 1800-s and want to know how many people live in Kenya, that's going to cost you, best case scenario someone has to go to library and look it up, worst case scenario someone has to go to Kenya and start counting. T
      • The problem with this argument is it assumes that owning an automated factory = profit. When everyone is unemployed, they stop buying cars. When they stop buying cars, automated factories have to stop making cars. When they stop making cars, they stop buying steel. When they stop buying steel, the steel mill from this story stops making steel. Etc. at some point, they either have to pass some of their savings on to the consumers or close shop, as the consumers will be making next to nothing in the scenario you describe.

        That sounds an awful lot like a situation that will reach some sort of equilibrium.

      • The Rich don't need you to buy their crap when they already own everything. Take a look at Apple, who became the most profitable company in human history by selling low volume, high margin items to the upper class (save for the occasional poor person trying to keep up with joneses).

        Face it, the Rich don't need you or me. They'll claim ownership of everything and we'll give it to them because we can't bear the thought of somebody having food they didn't work all day for while we toil all day in the few j
    • Freischutz, great questions. It really is up to us. We are moving to an amazing time of blue collar productivity (abundance/unit of sweat). No doubt we will soon move to time of white color productivity that will make many slashdotters redundant too. We understandably get very hung up in our existing economic structures, but as you clearly point out, those structures are changing. Look at how much of our economy is devoted to ever expanding non-essential activities such as sports, pleasure travel and e
    • by mspohr ( 589790 )

      Universal Basic Income... it's coming.

  • Terrible Jobs (Score:5, Informative)

    by Thelasko ( 1196535 ) on Wednesday June 21, 2017 @02:49PM (#54663733) Journal
    I know people that used to work in steel mills years ago. You don't want those jobs! They are horribly dangerous!

    One of the stories involved two coworkers walking on a catwalk above the blast furnace in full heat suits (think Jamie's suit from Mythbusters). One of the workers leaned on the railing and it let go. He was vaporized before he hit the surface of the steel.

    The stories like this go on and on. People crushed between rail cars, etc. Sure, the steel industry paid really well, because it had to. The working conditions were so terrible, no one would work there otherwise.

    This kind of extreme work environment is ideal for automation. I'd rather see a robot get destroyed in an accident than a person killed.
    • by mjwx ( 966435 )

      I know people that used to work in steel mills years ago. You don't want those jobs! They are horribly dangerous!

      One of the stories involved two coworkers walking on a catwalk above the blast furnace in full heat suits (think Jamie's suit from Mythbusters). One of the workers leaned on the railing and it let go. He was vaporized before he hit the surface of the steel.

      The stories like this go on and on. People crushed between rail cars, etc. Sure, the steel industry paid really well, because it had to. The working conditions were so terrible, no one would work there otherwise.

      This kind of extreme work environment is ideal for automation. I'd rather see a robot get destroyed in an accident than a person killed.

      There's a reason unions are strongest in trades like construction, logistics and fabrication. Its because traditionally these were exceptionally dangerous jobs and employers really didn't care as they could easily replace one pleb with another. It took a lot of industrial action to change that.

      Also, this is why spending money trying to return basic metalworking and manufacturing to developed nations is a huge waste. The only way these industries can return and remain competitive is by being almost comple

      • Also, this is why spending money trying to return basic metalworking and manufacturing to developed nations is a huge waste. The only way these industries can return and remain competitive is by being almost completely automated.

        You've just made the strongest possible argument for why we should spend money returning those industries to developed nations, if indeed it'll force them to automate. Do you enjoy being responsible for the deaths of developing world workers through your purchases?

        • Once the capital costs of blast furnaces in China are sunk, it's going to take an improvement in technology before anybody can take the industry back. Even if they change their environmental regulations to parity.

    • by Jodka ( 520060 )

      One of my favorite neighbors is a WWII U.S. Navy veteran. Sometimes I see him out with his Shih Tsu when I am walking my German Shepherd I always take the opportunity to chat.

      You do not see many of those out and around today but he is younger than most because he lied about his age to enlist in the Navy young. He grew up in Pittsburgh where the only job he could get was working in the steel mills. He says it was deadly, his fellow workers were so often maimed or killed that he was desperate to get out

    • by moeinvt ( 851793 )

      "I'd rather see a robot get destroyed in an accident than a person killed."

      That's one way of looking at it. Another perspective is to consider the 1000s of people struggling financially & working long hours at restaurants and Wal Mart with low pay & no benefits. Think of how much sickness, misery and death is caused by financial stress and poverty? Would you rather see that, or a bunch of well paid people with benefits working jobs with a higher risk of workplace accidents? There are tens of mi

    • I find it interesting that people drop all pretext of The Perfection of The Market when it comes to automation and elimination of jobs. In many other market situations, it's "hey it's the magic of the market, cheers huzzah!!!". But not for eliminated jobs for some reason...

      Job gets eliminated. Do we think "this employee took a rational view of their skillset, jobs available to them, and made the best risk/reward choice they had". No, it's "that's a sucky job, we're doing you a favor by eliminating your

  • For most people, labor is the only thing they have got, to sell. It could be intellectual or manual, but labor is all most people in the world have to sell.

    There is only one thing to do to give some hope the wretched masses yearning to breath free.

    Make it legal for people to sell any surplus organs they might have. The lazy bums don't need both the left eye and the right eye. Right?

    • With the pace of technology given what it is, even body parts won't be worth much for long. Also, the obese type 2 diabetics who are most likely to need organ transplants are mostly the poor who got obese by eating a high-carb (cheap) diet. They aren't going to be able to pay a decent price for kidneys or livers. Or eyballs if that were a feasible transplant. Yes, there are rich fat-fucks like tRumpF around but he is clearly not a person who makes good life choices at any level.

  • by Pezbian ( 1641885 ) on Wednesday June 21, 2017 @03:13PM (#54663893)

    If it's dangerous and/or boring, it's better to have a machine do it.

    Machines are getting better at a lot of things. My first time through college, I got a decent amount of PLC training, but those units are now entirely obsolete. Machine vision was a thing back then, but you needed a highly-specialized $6,000 ISA card just to grab frames and analyze them. Now, you can do it with a potato-grade webcam and a Raspberry Pi.

    I went back to school to get updated on as much as possible since I want to do maintenance now that Electronics and PC Repair have both taken a massive shit with everything moving toward being disposable. The maintenance guys I've met are all retiring and companies are aching to hire young blood. On top of that, industrial control boards still use through-hole components for durability reasons and I can repair that stuff in my sleep.

  • We need to fight for those 14 jobs! We need companies like these! We should give them like 14 million dollars in tax breaks per year so we can have 14 jobs that pay 75K per year. Bring jobs back! Or we can do something reasonable and start planning on a very generous Universal Basic Income.

  • Now where can I get myself some assembling machine threes...

  • by dbIII ( 701233 ) on Wednesday June 21, 2017 @09:38PM (#54665855)
    Incredibly misleading headline.
    They are not making steel.
    They are rolling steel already delivered in billet form into rod and wire.

    The thing is called a "mini-mill" and I saw one running some time around 1989 with around twenty people total running the site.

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