Industry Outlook

The steel industry faced a threat from imported steel in the late 1990s and early 2000s. This international dumping of steel in the United States was the result of a worldwide oversupply. These imports, along with other domestic factors, caused the bankruptcies of over 42 U.S. steel companies beginning in 1998, according to the United Steelworkers of America. In 2002, the Bush administration imposed tariffs on steel imported into the United States from other countries in an attempt to improve the health of the industry. However, these tariffs were lifted in 2003, in a move that many in the steel industry considered to be premature, citing that U.S. steel producers did not have enough time to effectively confront the glut of foreign imports. In 2018, the U.S. President issued a proclamation imposing a 25 percent tariff on steel imports from most countries. This resulted in the prices of steel products in the United States rising by about 10 percent. To date, steel companies continue to struggle and concern remains about the steel industry's long-term growth.

The coronavirus pandemic, which began in late 2019 in Wuhan, China, caused major disruption to the metals industry, particularly impacting the steel production industry. Business lockdowns and transportation restrictions at the beginning of the pandemic caused pauses and slowdowns in metal production plants around the world. According to a Deloitte report, global steel production in 2020 was expected to decrease by 2.8 percent, and steel consumption was expected to drop by 4.3 percent. With a second wave of the coronavirus that was predicted for late 2020 and early 2021, demand and prices for steel were projected to be volatile. On a positive note, the accelerated rollout of the COVID-19 vaccine in 2021 and business reopenings will strengthen the economy and demand for metals is expected to grow. The report predicts that, with successful distribution of the vaccine by the end of 2021, "demand will continue growing in 2022 as a result of suppressed demand in 2020 through 2022, the necessity of stock replenishment, and government investments."

In late 2020, the U.S. iron and steel manufacturing industry was valued at $76 billion, employing more than 66,000 people. After pandemic-induced lows, the world price of steel is expected to increase annually through 2025, due to rising consumer demand and growth in business investment.

The AISI reported that labor productivity tripled through the 20th century, dropping from 10.1 man-hours per ton to less than 1.9 man-hours per ton by 2017 (the most recent data available). By the beginning of the 21st century, productivity had reduced the number of man hours required to produce one ton of steel by as much as 90 percent in some instances. This is due to the industry's investment in new plant and equipment, which streamlined every step of the steel-making process. This streamlining, although good for industry production and profits, has resulted in a drastically reduced workforce. Iron and steel mills and other ferroalloy manufacturing directly employed a total of 82,060 workers in 2018, which was a decline from the 90,000 employed in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The American Institute of Steel and Iron Workers reports that the iron and steel industry accounts for more than $520 billion in economic output and supports nearly 2 million jobs.

The U.S. Department of Labor predicts that overall employment will decline in the steel industry, with an 8 percent decline predicted through 2028 for metal and plastics workers. There will continue to be good opportunities, however, for the following professions: engineers (including mechanical, metallurgical, industrial, electrical, and civil), computer scientists, and skilled production workers. Those with knowledge and experience working with computer numerically controlled machine will also have an edge in the job market. Computerized and automated manufacturing methods, global competition, and a steel surplus will contribute to lackluster employment. Technological improvements will also continue to be made, further leading to a decline in demand for low-skilled workers and increased demand for workers with advanced education and skills.

Employment is also affected by the health of other industries that depend on steel production, such as automakers, manufacturers of household appliances, and the construction industry. As a sluggish economy slows employment in those industries, jobs for steel production workers will be more at risk. Foreign competition is another factor contributing to low employment prospects.

There is an ongoing search for new applications for nonferrous metals. Lightweight aluminum is increasingly being used in vehicle manufacturing, and aluminum producers expect to see an increase in shipments as a result. They have saturated the beverage market, but are experiencing an increased demand from aerospace companies.

U.S. copper production declined slightly in 2018 compared to 2017, whereas copper consumption remained steady from 2016 through 2018. Copper and copper alloys are most often used in construction, electronics, transportation equipment, and consumer products. Since copper usage is associated with industrialization and economic development, demand for copper from developing countries has been promising.

Many metals companies are joining in partnerships with other companies, with partnerships between domestic and foreign producers becoming more common. The industry as a whole is expected to undergo many changes, and companies will need to make the most of technological trends in order to survive.