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Duluth, Iron Range lost second-most construction, mining and logging jobs in U.S.

DULUTH -- The Twin Ports and Iron Range lost the second-most construction, mining and logging jobs in the past year of any metropolitan area in the U.S., according to a report released Wednesday.

Carlton, Douglas and St. Louis counties suffered a 33 percent decline in employment in those three sectors from August 2008 to August 2009, according to the Associated General Contractors of America.

Only Reno-Sparks, Nev., at 35 percent, suffered a steeper decline, the association said. Of the 337 metropolitan areas analyzed, 324 lost jobs. The association, using data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, said about 1 million jobs were lost nationwide in those industries during the period.

The bulk of the job losses in the Duluth-Superior metro area were in mining and logging on the Iron Range, said Drew Digby, regional labor analyst with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development. The number of miners collecting unemployment skyrocketed from 300 in January to more than 2,000 in June, he said. About 1,000 miners collected unemployment benefits in August, DEED numbers show.

About 3,600 Northland residents were employed by the mines in September 2008, before the mining companies began cutting production.

What the August-to-August report doesn't show are the recent improvements on the Iron Range, where most mining operations have ramped up production this fall.

The latest bit of good news comes from Minorca Mine in Virginia, where employees returned to work this week after a five-month shutdown. All 290 employees were back on the job Thursday, said David Zasadni, vice president of United Steelworkers Local 6115.

Since the mine was idled in April, ArcelorMittal kept more than 100 workers busy doing $10 million worth of maintenance and repairs. Now that those repairs are done, the company wants the mine operating at full production, Zasadni told Fox 21 News.

Five of the six Iron Range taconite companies are recalling workers, said Craig Pagel, president of the Iron Mining Association of Minnesota. The lone exception is Hibbing Taconite Co.

"They are changing on a daily basis; they are all calling back people," Pagel said. "We are cautiously optimistic and want to keep moving at a steady rate."

Bad summer

August employment in mining, logging and construction hadn't fallen below 9,000 workers this decade -- until this year. Employment in the sectors totaled about 9,400 workers last August, but plummeted to about 6,300 in August 2009, said the association's chief economist Ken Simonson.

"Pretty dreary," Simonson said from his office in Washington, D.C. "This is quite a recent change for Duluth."

While the brunt of the job losses happened on the Iron Range, construction employment regionwide also took a hit and remains weak as fall begins.

The Duluth Building and Construction Trade Council, the umbrella organization to 15 unions and 10,000 workers in the Northland, is mired in about 30 percent unemployment.

Craig Olson, council president, said about 50 of the council's 200 painters were without work on Thursday alone.

"Normally, this time of year, we have no painters available this late in the fall," Olson said. "There is usually a last-minute rush until the snow falls, so when I see 49 painters for one local union, that is troubling."

The construction trades have been buoyed by some of the larger public construction projects in the area, including the new Duluth Entertainment Convention Center arena and the Enbridge Energy pipeline among others.