By Thomas Francis on Sep 10, 2018
If you're willing to work hard, you can get good work.
For generations, this belief ruled the small towns of Beaver County, Pennsylvania, 45 minutes drive north-west of Pittsburgh in the USA.
At St. Joe Lead Company, once the country's biggest zinc smelting facility, workers were recruited straight from high school into the toughest jobs, like cleaning the basement of the furnace plant. Known as "the hole", it was so hot that workers couldn't touch their trouser legs with a bare hand.
"On lunch break of my second day, I went into the change house and cried for my mother," says Terry Frank, who, at 18, was shovelling large briquettes onto a belt. But he finished his shift, came back the next day, and the day after that, for 40 years.
"At St. Joe, you never made big money like at the steel mills, but St. Joe never laid you off like they did," recalls Frank, who works at a metal recycling facility today and is nearing retirement. "Once you got in there, they treated you like family."
The "family" lasted 50 years, until 1979, when the plant closed, leaving 1,600 workers jobless. The site would undergo several changes in ownership before finally shutting for good in 2014.
A new chapter
In the USA's rust belt, where heavy industries once powered the nation's rise, this was a familiar story. Plenty of people were willing to work hard, but the good work was gone. Some 8 million manufacturing jobs have left the USA since 1979.
The population of Beaver County, home to St. Joe and close to many of the steelworks that closed around the same time, has fallen by nearly 20% since then. And in recent years its unemployment rate has been consistently higher than the national average.
Yet today some see reason for renewed hope in Beaver County. Four years ago, Shell bought the former St. Joe site, nestled in a bend of the Ohio River in Potter Township, and in November 2017, construction began on a major petrochemicals facility. One of the biggest new manufacturing projects in the USA, it will bring 600 jobs, along with the possibility of a new bond between community and industry
Gas for Shell's new plant will be piped in from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations in western Pennsylvania and neighbouring states. Ethane in the gas will be processed into polyethylene pellets before being shipped to manufacturers, primarily in eastern USA, for use in plastic products, from garden furniture to children's toys to canoes.
It's the first major polyethylene facility to be built in the US outside the Gulf Coast. Some 70% of the North American market for the new plant's products is within a 1,130-kilometre (700-mile) radius, limiting road transport costs for Shell. It is expected to begin operations early next decade and will be one of Shell's largest chemical plants.
21st century employment
As with any manufacturing plant, workers will be crucial to its success. Many of the new jobs will require technical training or the ability to use the latest software.
"The mills could take you straight from high school and get you ready for the workforce, but that's no longer the case," says Don Sheffield, a consultant based in Beaver County who has advised Shell on ways to develop a qualified local workforce.
"Shell exemplifies what I think is the new direction for manufacturing that we need to catch up to."
Young people can gain these technical skills at two-year community colleges courses with low tuition costs, making it a promising career track for students from low-income households, as well as those who go to four-year universities, seeking advanced degrees in engineering.
In the past, high-achieving students have often had to leave Beaver County to find work. Now, local leaders are trying to spread word that high-tech manufacturing jobs today are different from factory labour of the past.
"The hardest problem we have is changing the mindset of parents," says Beaver County Commissioner Tony Amadio. "Yes, these are factory jobs. But they're clean jobs, they're safe jobs, and they pay well."
Yes, these are factory jobs, but they're clean jobs, they're safe jobs, and they pay well.
Connecting to Beaver County
But the success of the petrochemicals plant will not be measured purely by the number of local hires, or even the associated economic growth.
Shell is also seeking to build a deeper connection with Beaver County, like the one residents had with St. Joe. Volunteers from the company, for example, cleaned out abandoned barns to help build an environmental learning centre for young people.
Having learned of Potter Township’s need for a new surface at its fire station, Shell paved it. Staff cleaned up part of the Ohio River and refurbished a children’s playground, and they delivered tonnes of rocks to aid a conservation project at a local creek.
Former St. Joe workers interviewed for an oral history project commissioned by Shell, to be stored in local libraries, have noted the company’s efforts.
"From what I’ve read about Shell in the local paper and how they’ve reached out to the community, I think it’s the best thing to happen in Beaver County in all the time I can remember," says Tom Janeck, who started work at St. Joe in 1964.
Dr Tom Weyand, a former environmental research engineer at St. Joe, agrees: "This has been a depressed area ever since steel went down. But now kids growing up here have a reason to stay home and get a decent job."