Nucor Steel sparked the growth of the steel sector in northeast Arkansas more than 25 years ago, and the manufacturer is continuing to ignite expansion with a recent announcement that it will add yet another production line.
The concentration of mills in Mississippi County makes the area the second-largest steel-producing area in America, and that role will only expand with Nucor's plans to add a new coil paint production line by 2022.
That comes on top Nucor's recently completed construction of a specialty cold-mill complex and the building of a galvanizing line that is to begin operating in 2021.
Nucor is not alone. Steel is an economic powerhouse in the remote corner of the state traditionally known for its lush farmland. The sector employs more than 3,000 workers, and at least another 1,200 employees work in businesses that directly serve or support steel mills in the region.
This year, Big River Steel's Osceola plant also is adding a production line that will double employment to well over 1,000 workers.
Nucor alone already churns out 2.6 million tons of hot-rolled sheet steel for automotive, appliance, construction, pipe and tube, and many other applications.
The new coil line will expand Nucor's capabilities and allow the company to compete in new markets such as roofing and siding, light fixtures and appliances, and strengthen existing markets in garage doors, service centers and heating, ventilation and air conditioning.
Investments by the steel industry exceed $3 billion in the area. Those investments are building infrastructure in the region, already strong with easy access to the Mississippi River and Interstates 40 and 55. Big River built 14 miles of rail line to connect to major rail systems that allows goods and materials to flow across the nation.
Last fall, U.S. Steel paid $700 million to take 49.9% ownership of Big River Steel, with an option to buy the remaining interest within four years. Nucor and U.S. Steel are the top two steel producers in the U.S., and both now have major operations in Mississippi County. U.S. Steel valued the Osceola plant at $2.3 billion at the time of the transaction in October.
The Big River mill in Osceola opened in January 2017 with a $1.3 billion investment. The mill today has about 550 employees, with average annual pay of at least $75,000.
The 21st-century steel industry no longer carries the stigma of smokestacks and fiery furnaces. Plants are embracing robotics, computerization and artificial intelligence, working to become smart mills powered by technological advancements as much as by human labor.
Big River Steel has set a goal of becoming the nation's first smart mill by using artificial intelligence to detect and correct production errors swiftly, creating greater operating efficiencies and reducing downtime at the facility.
Another evolution is an emphasis on becoming friendlier to the environment. Big River's Osceola facility was the first steel mill to receive the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design certification.
That designation is a green initiative more commonly associated with office buildings or public spaces. In Arkansas, for example, the Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer International headquarters in Little Rock, along with Gearhart Hall at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville, have such certifications.
Arkansas is not only a leader in production, it also plays a key role in training the steel workers of tomorrow. Arkansas Northeastern College in Blytheville provides the only advanced training for steelworkers in North America, and it is one of the leading steelworker training centers in the world.
The community college has a unique partnership with a German steel manufacturer to provide advanced skills training to steelworkers in North America, the only training satellite that the company has established outside of Germany. The Arkansas Steelmaking Academy offers 40 hours of training on a specific topic -- subject matter is adjusted based on the needs of a business -- to steel industry workers from the United States and Canada. Training focuses on existing employees, improving their skills as work requirements evolve.
In addition, the steel-making academy provides online training for its steel-tech program. Folks living anywhere in Arkansas can now get a degree from the program, which allows graduates to enter the workforce with an annual average salary of $93,000.
The college offers an associate of applied science degree in steel industry technology to students who want to build careers in the steel industry. Moreover, the school offers unique career-advancement training for steelworkers from across North America.
Forging ahead to take a national leadership role is not uncommon for the Arkansas steel industry.
ON THE ROAD AGAIN
The Conductor, an entrepreneurial support organization in Conway, is continuing its offsite "office hours" to help spread the startup spirit across Arkansas.
Conductor's team will provide free one-on-one consulting for current and aspiring entrepreneurs in Searcy on Thursday. The organization will have its leadership team available for mentoring and consultation from 1-4 p.m. at the Searcy Regional Chamber of Commerce at 2323 S. Main St.
This year, the Conductor has taken the office hours road show to meet and support entrepreneurs in Cabot, Morrilton, Russellville, Heber Springs and Clarksville.
Those in the Searcy area interested in setting up a meeting in advance can schedule time online at www.arconductor.org/officehours. Time slots are 30 minutes each, and entrepreneurs meet one-on-one with a Conductor consultant to discuss any issues related to their businesses.
Aspiring entrepreneurs are encouraged to schedule time to discuss their ideas and learn more about starting a business. All one-on-one consultations are free.
Look for coming office hours in Clarksville on Feb. 20, Morrilton on March 5 and Paris on March 19.
YEAR-END EARNINGS CALL
Simmons First National Corp. has scheduled its fourth-quarter earnings call for Jan. 23. Bank executives will outline and explain the company's four-quarter and year-end 2019 earnings.
Earnings will be released before the stock market opens, and management will conduct a live conference call to review the information at 9 a.m.
Dial (866) 298-7926 toll-free to join the call and use conference ID 9397974. In addition, the live call and a recorded version will be available on the company's website at www.simmonsbank.com.