Evanoff: Donald Trump, meet John Correnti — he took a risk on jobs
You heard President Donald Trump on Tuesday night tell Congress — tell the world, really — America must bring back industrial jobs lost to imports.
Hardly any industry in the country has been hit as hard by imports as steel.
Yet on Wednesday a $1.3 billion steel mill opened 40 miles upriver from Memphis in the Arkansas Delta at Osceola.
It’s named Big River Steel, a 550-employee plant capable of pouring enough molten metal to make 1 million Chevrolets every year.
The president can insist we restore lost jobs. Congress can restrict imports. Cities can hand out tax breaks. Bankers can offer construction loans.
But someone actually has to roll up their sleeves, step up and say, “I’ll do it. I’ll manufacture something.”
When was the last time you heard an American had ginned up a steel mill?
John Correnti did. He rolled up his sleeves. He formed Big River Steel.
No one thinks of Memphis and the Mid-South as steel country. But a big chunk of steel originates in this city and up Interstate 55 around Osceola.
There are four steel mills in this stretch. Correnti and his company had a hand in them all.
Here is what is remarkable about what he did: Correnti opened steel mills while the country lost factory jobs.
What Trump is talking about isn’t new. Nearly 6 million industrial jobs have vanished in two decades throughout the nation, including 25,000 in Greater Memphis.
Correnti in his time still created a few thousand steel mill jobs today paying $70,000 and more per year. That’s for average workers. Quality bonuses can push annual pay over $100,000.
Germans bankrolled and designed Big River Steel’s plant. Yet there’s a small lesson in all this about American perseverance.
Correnti once worked for Ken Iverson, the late chairman of Nucor, a Charlotte steelmaker.
Their careers trace to a long-ago era.
In 1970, nearly 90,000 workers labored in steel mills on Lake Michigan’s shoreline near Chicago.
Then something odd happened. Japan had no iron ore, limestone or coal mines capable of sustaining a major steel industry.
America was rich in all these ingredients, but Japan imported what it needed, made steel, shipped it 5,000 miles to Long Beach and railed it to skyscraper, bridge and construction sites throughout the United States.
Remember the office building boom set off by the wacky S&L loans in the 1980s? Nippon Steel could pour molten metal at Hokkaido, ship product here aboard ocean freighters and price it lower than United States Steel’s Gary Works could make it at Chicago.
A lot of fingers were pointed as bankruptcy riddled U.S. steelmakers — the strong dollar, yen manipulation, union greed, steel executive sloth, Wall Street distraction, White House exasperation. Whatever the reason, by 1986 you could walk into a hardware anywhere in America and be hard-pressed to find a common nut, bolt or screw made in the United States.
That’s when Nucor announced it would open a bolt and screw mill in Indiana. I was working as a newspaper reporter in the Midwest and, intrigued a U.S. steel executive would fight imports head on, dialed Nucor and asked the operator for Iverson’s office. He picked up his own phone.
We talked a little while. I asked about taking on imports. He essentially said, “Nucor can make steel better, sell it cheaper and still make money.”
Correnti was Iverson’s protégé.
They simply decided the steel business in America was in poor shape and decided to innovate their way to prosperity.
Correnti died in 2015 in Chicago, not far from the shoreline where about 10,000 steelworkers are employed today.
During Trump’s speech I thought of him, thought we have millions of people who would want work in the mills. We have very few with the know-how and desire to build the mills.
Correnti was a builder.
His legacy, the most modern steel mill in the United States, has just opened at Osceola, Arkansas.