For the first time in 15 years, Bethlehem Steel Corp.'s Sparrows Point steel mill has asked for applications from the general public to fill up to 200 jobs at the Baltimore County plant.
The request, which has been met by an avalanche of more than 4,500 inquiries, comes as the steel mill is working at full capacity and workers -- whose average age is 50 -- are putting in an average of five to six hours of overtime a week.
"We want new people," said Duane R. Dunham, president of Bethlehem's Sparrows Point Division. "I think it's important to have young people with new ideas, looking at new challenges today."
The deadline for applications was Nov. 7, and the company plans to hire the new workers by the end of the year. The jobs, which pay between $11.74 and $17 an hour and include extensive benefits, are production and maintenance positions.
Arthur Roth, a spokesman at the company's Bethlehem, Pa., headquarters, said he did not know of any outside hirings by other Bethlehem plants.
Bethlehem's initiative in Sparrows Point is the latest sign of a resurgence in eastern Baltimore County's old industrial base. Employment at Bethlehem's adjoining shipyard is expected to reach 1,000 by the end of the year, five times what it was three months ago, and Marietta Corp.'s Middle River plant recently received a $298 million contract to build rocket launchers. Economic development officials were elated at the latest news.
"If this is a bellwether, Maryland manufacturing will look better and better," said Mark L. Wasserman, Department of Economic and Employment Development secretary.
Employment at the 2,500-acre Sparrows Point mill, which had 30,000 workers 35 years ago, has dwindled to 5,500. The last time new employees were hired was in 1979, a company spokesman said yesterday. The company has hired sporadically since then, to fill specific, specialized positions, but has not widely advertised the jobs.
The plant is riding the crest of a rising demand for steel. Last year, the mill had sales of $1.6 billion as it shipped 3 million tons of various flat rolled-steel products.
But Mr. Dunham warns that the new hiring does not signal a large buildup at the plant. Rather, he said, it represents the replacement of an aging work force. The mill's hourly workers are retiring at the rate of 30 to 50 a month.
"We are doing some selective hiring, is probably the best way to describe it," he said, declining to give any numbers.
But United Steelworkers of America officials said they have been told the mill will hire from 100 to 200 workers.
"I think it's great," said Donald E. Kellner, president of Steelworkers Local 2609, one of five Steelworkers locals at the plant. "We just need some new blood to pick up the slack when old guys like me leave."
While the company is actively seeking new workers, most of the positions likely will be filled by former Bethlehem workers, who get preference in hiring, and laid-off workers from Bethlehem operations in Johnstown and Steelton, Pa., says another Steelworkers official.
"So it's not a windfall at large," said William F. Nugent, assistant director for the Steelworkers district that covers Maryland and New Jersey.
In the last few months, Sparrows Point has added about 100 workers from closed Johnstown facilities, and 50 chosen from summer interns who are children of current workers.
But Bethlehem cast its net much further this fall when it sought applicants through the Eastpoint Job Service operation, which is run by the state Department of Economic and Employment Development.
"The response was tremendously overwhelming," said Rebecca A. Tucker, manager of the Eastpoint office. "People are very anxious to work in the steel mill."
With the job openings listed in the agency's computerized job bank since Oct. 24, more than 4,500 applications were received at the Eastpoint office. The applications had to be postmarked between Nov. 1 and 7.
Besides Maryland, responses were received from Pennsylvania and Ohio, and there is even a letter from a soldier stationed in Germany, Ms. Tucker said.
The letters were separated into three groups -- former employees, military veterans and other job seekers, Ms. Tucker said. Letters from about 500 former workers were then passed on to Bethlehem for first consideration. The letters from veterans will be considered next, she said.
While there is no formal educational requirement, Mr. Dunham said some post-high school education may be necessary to land a job.
"It's going to take a different type of individual than we had in the past," he said, adding that the criteria is going to be "significantly different" because of advances in technology.