Despite the title, this week’s column is not about agriculture; it’s about steel, an industry close to my heart throughout my professional career. I spent 17 years managing the Congressional Steel Caucus, first as staff for Senator John Heinz (R-PA) and then for Senator Jay Rockefeller (D-WV). Both of them tried valiantly to save jobs in the industry, and both had notable victories, but the long-term trend in the industry over 40 years has been declining jobs and increased productivity.
There were 398,829 people employed in the U.S. steel industry in 1980, versus 83,170 in 2020. In 1980, producing a ton of steel required 10.1 man-hours, but that number declined to 1.5 hours by 2017, and some highly efficient mills can now produce a ton of steel in 0.5 hours. In other words, since 1980, there has been an 85 percent decrease in the number of hours it takes to produce a ton of steel.