Rich Rojeski knows everyone at Hibbing Taconite, and everyone knows him. He's an oldtimer, with more than 30 years on the job in HibTac's maintenance shop.
Rojeski is eligible for retirement and he's got a lot of company. Over the next five years, half of HibTac's 540 production workers could retire. Or, Rojeski says, they might stay. No one knows.
"It's very hard for the company to predict if we're going to lose 50 this year, 20 this year, or whatever," Rojeski says. "But if we end up losing 50 craft people, there aren't that many craft people out there, that I see, that can fill the positions right now."
It's the same story at taconite mines across the Iron Range -- an older workforce ready to retire, and few young workers ready to step into their jobs.
Now, consider the new industries proposed for the area. Minnesota Steel Industries will create 700 full-time jobs, and thousands of support jobs. PolyMet Mining, another 400 full-time jobs. Rojeski's worried.
"Yeah, I see a real big problem," Rojeski says. "In talking with even the building trades, and stuff like that, if all these projects take off at the same time there's going to be a shortage -- a workforce shortage -- up on the Iron Range like nobody's business."
And it might be tough recruiting workers from other places. A home on the Range doesn't appeal to everyone, even to Rojeski's two kids, who grew up here.
"They both say that they won't come back to the Range," says Rojeski. "My son said he would never come back. He just doesn't think that there's anything up here for him. He's a big-city person, and he says, 'I just don't want to come back to the Iron Range.'"
The president of Cleveland Cliffs mining company, Joseph Carrabba, is finding the same thing. He says it's difficult to attract new workers to remote, rural places like the Iron Range or Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
"We are short of people throughout our organization, in almost every mine except Northshore (Mining) at this point in time," Carrabba says.
If all these projects take off at the same time there's going to a workforce shortage up on the Iron Range like nobody's business.Rich Rojeski
The shortage is most evident in people with marketable skills.
"There are just not enough people in whatever discipline that you're looking at right now, from engineering to accountants, for professional staff, all the way through to the valued technicians that maintain our equipment all the way through, that are willing to go into some of the remoter sites of the facilities that we have, as well as of the world," says Carrabba.
Mining is still the leading single employer on the Iron Range. But it's reaching a significant milestone. Many of the mines opened or expanded 30 years ago, offering contracts with the steelworkers union which allow retirement after 30 years.
Matt Schoeppner is a labor market analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development in Duluth. Schoeppner thinks many mine workers are ready to step down.
"I think people just like to retire sooner up here," says Schoeppner. "They like to get on the golf course quicker, or get out and cast some for walleyes. That's going to put northeast Minnesota's workforce on kind of a strain relative to the rest of the state."
So, young people will be needed. The question is, where to find them? The most likely place to look is the Twin Cities, which Schoeppner says, has the young people with the needed skills. The challenge, he says, is getting them to consider a life in the north.
"How are we going to get them out of the Minnetonkas, and out of the Hopkins, and bring them into the Duluths and the Two Harbors and the Grand Marais and the Virginias, and really use some of our natural scenic resources to help with that?" Schoeppner says.
The Range isn't for everybody, according to Joe Sertich, who oversees five of the region's two year colleges under the Northeast Minnesota Upper Education District. Sertich says jobs in the northeast will draw people who appreciate the region's lifestyle.
"I think those who understand the good quality of life; of being able to literally cross country ski out your back door, and ride some of the best snowmobile trails, with some of the best ice fishing and summer fishing and camping, and enjoying the beautiful forests and lakes that we have here," Sertich says. "You either get it or you don't. It's pretty tough to try to convince somebody that that's why you need to be here."
And there might be another potential pool of workers out there -- former Iron Rangers. This region lost 40,000 people since the 1980s. Many left for the Twin Cities when jobs evaporated on the Range.
"There are a good number of people, especially in the '80s, who moved out against their will," Sertich says. "I mean they really left their home and left their families behind; left the quality of life behind. And, if they could return they would."
But others, especially young people, will have to be trained. Sertich says the colleges are planning to do much of that training, but they can't start the programs until the jobs show up.
"The problem is, nobody wants to plan for certain, because we've lived these ups and downs for so long, that no one's willing to really put the money on the table and actually bet on the come that this is all going to happen," says Sertich.
It's a classic chicken-and-egg dilemma, he says. Which comes first, the jobs, or the training?
"We can't make definite plans as to how we ramp this up yet, so this chicken and egg does get to be a bit of a challenge," Sertich says. "Most of us are perhaps as comfortable as we can be with the ambiguity that surrounds this kind of growth."
The "help needed" signs could be out soon. Construction could begin within a year on Minnesota Steel Industries, Mesabi Nugget, PolyMet Mining, and an expansion at UMP-Blandin's paper mill. Thousands of construction jobs would open up quickly. Permanent workers would be in place just a few years later.