Sparrows Point training

Mike Wight, who worked at the Sparrows Point steel mill for 47 years, shows Varvara Kymbriti paperwork as he enrolls in the Maryland Workforce Exchange program at the steelworker assistance center at Eastpoint. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / December 15, 2012)

The effort to connect former Sparrows Point workers with training for new careers gained more urgency last week as the final hopes of the steel mill reopening were dashed — and as the deadline to apply for the help or forever lose it fast approaches for hundreds.

More than 1,600 of the people laid off from the Baltimore County plant are eligible for federal "trade adjustment" benefits, which cover retraining costs and come with a stipend equal to unemployment benefits once those run out. Only half have enrolled.

State officials figure that some haven't applied because they've retired, but fear many of the rest either are unaware of the help — despite outreach efforts — or have been holding off in the hope that the mill would be restarted.

Now state workers are calling everyone who hasn't already missed their chance to urge them to act fast. The deadline is 26 weeks after the date of layoff, and some 100 or so residents only have until this week. Others will pass the cutoff date soon after.

"Understand, the clock is definitely ticking here," said Leonard J. Howie III, Maryland's labor secretary.

The 125-year-old Sparrows Point plant, which supplied steel for the Golden Gate Bridge, Maryland's Bay Bridge and hundreds of World War II ships, was closed this summer after owner RG Steel went bankrupt. A liquidation company and a redevelopment firm bought the property at auction, but both companies vowed then to look for an operator to restart some or all of the plant.

A second auction was set for January, with a Dec. 21 deadline for bids. It never got to that point.

Hilco Trading, the liquidator, sold the plant's newest and most valuable asset to North Carolina-based steelmaker Nucor, which told a trade publication that it would use the Sparrows Point cold mill for spare parts in its own mills. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz said Thursday that Sparrows Point's owners intend to raze the plant.

Joe Rosel, president of United Steelworkers Local 9477 in Sparrows Point, couldn't believe the steel mill's long history would end this way. He said the union was working with companies interested in operating the plant.

Hilco's chief marketing officer said Thursday that the company tried to sell Sparrows Point to someone who wanted to run it.

Maryland officials also attempted to find an operator and reached out to likely prospects, said Dominick E. Murray, deputy secretary of the state Department of Business and Economic Development. The head of the agency called Jindal Steel in India. Gov. Martin O'Malley called Brazilian steelmaker CSN — long thought to be interested in the plant — to make a personal appeal, Murray said.

No luck. Of CSN, Murray said: "They were not expressive."

No steelmakers showed up to bid on Sparrows Point at the August bankruptcy auction. At the time, workers and some steel analysts attributed it to the tight timeline — RG Steel had just filed for bankruptcy in late May. But to others, the absence suggested that only liquidators and redevelopers saw value in the more than 3,000-acre property that had produced so much steel and employed so many.

At its height, tens of thousands of people labored on the Point. At the end, the plant was down to about 2,000 workers. But even then, the plant was the economic engine of southeastern Baltimore County.

Officials with the state Department of Labor, Licensing and Regulation said they want to ensure that all those eligible for training funds from the Trade Adjustment Assistance Program get them. Workers who already have enrolled are taking or soon will take classes to bridge the way to other types of manufacturing, as well as bigger career shifts such as to health care, state officials said.

The big unknown is whether retraining will help workers land jobs with pay and benefits comparable to Sparrows Point. Generations of employees there could afford to buy a home, raise a family and send the kids to college — assuming the kids didn't intend to go straight from high school to the Point themselves. (Many did.)

But the more immediate challenge is getting workers approved for the training funds.

Rosel, the local union leader, says he's heard "a lot of complaints" from members about long wait times and conflicting information.

"I don't want to say that people aren't trying," he said of state workers responsible for processing the applications and education plans, "but … I think they're overwhelmed."