Like other manufacturers across the country, Riverdale Mills Corp. was dealt a blow by the COVID-19 pandemic. But if “Riverdale,” or “RMC,” is known for anything besides the innovation that put the Northbridge-based company on the map in the first place, it is resiliency.

Riverdale Mills’ staying power through all sorts of challenges is a well-known fact. The company has operated for forty years in a renovated 1840s mill on Riverdale St. next to the Blackstone River. The building was first known for manufacturing scythes and then bayonets for the Union Army during the Civil War. Today, 80 percent of all lobster traps used in North America are made with Riverdale Mills’ marine wire mesh.

Now, with the pandemic easing and the demand for steel surging, Riverdale is ready to fortify its traditionally strong position in the marketplace, President and CEO James Knott Jr. and Jane Meehan Lanzillo, who is director of corporate communications for RMC, said.

As CNN Business reported recently, “the reopening of the economy is driving a steel boom.”

This is good news for Riverdale Mills because, Ms. Lanzillo points out, “steel is at the core of Riverdale Mills’ marine mesh product. Sales are up and Riverdale Mills is actively hiring again.”

Mr. Knott confirmed as much during a telephone conversation. Riverdale is eager to rebuild its workforce and looking to return from “a 24/5” operation to “24/7,” he said.

“Everyone is busy right now,” he noted, of manufacturers and the trades. “Lobster, oyster, crab, security mesh, lawn and garden fencing.”

“Riverdale is one of many manufacturers who have felt the post-pandemic jolt of activity and demand for products,” Ms. Lanzillo noted.

The economy is picking up “quite quickly and we have a tremendous backlog” of orders, “the biggest in several years,” Mr. Knott said. “Our biggest problem is the supply chain. PVC from Texas; pipes in Texas froze in February, a lot of plants shut down and had to retool. Manufacturers were begging and borrowing to get the material.”

The availability of steel “is very tight right now but that will change,” he said, noting that Riverdale Mills buys all its steel from the U.S. or Canada and is therefore dependent on those suppliers for raw material.

Like gasoline, lumber, computer chips and chlorine, steel has gotten costly.

The price of steel as of mid-May was $960.00 a ton, Mr. Knott said. “If you go back several months it was probably $640.00 a ton. It’s a problem worldwide. China is at the same rate or close to it and shipping costs have skyrocketed, $13,000 for a container, in early 2020 it was $3800.”

The threat caused by this predicament “is on all the people using steel,” he said.

To get back to full production, Riverdale Mills needs workers.

“We’re short 30 percent,” Mr. Knott said. “We’d like to be 24/7. We are 24/5. We have vacant equipment on the second and third shifts. We are working with the Blackstone Valley Chamber of Commerce and the Ed Hub, designing training programs for people. We have adjusted our hourly wages but you are competing with the government on this one. Everyone is having trouble recruiting. We are also working closely with Lew Evangelidis and the sheriff’s department with their re-entry program. That’s been helpful.”

Spools on the floor at Riverdale Mills. Wire mesh is central to products the company makes for a varied customer base.

While steel is expensive, “I think prices of raw materials, if they spike up, they will spike down, but right now they are still climbing. Hopefully within the next four to five months they will come down.”

Besides revolutionizing the lobster fishing industry with its introduction of Aquamesh, Riverdale Mills is at the forefront in other respects too.

Riverdale’s high-security WireWall fencing wire mesh is installed in more than one thousand locations around the world, and protects U.S. military bases, fishing ports, borders, transit systems, farms and embassies, Ms. Lanzillo said.

“Our GeoMesh is widely used in the construction of highway bridges and earth retention walls,” she said.

The fly in the ointment is the price of steel.

“Stock prices of steel giant Nucor (NUE) alone have spiked 76% this year,” Ms. Lanzillo said. “Lead times and availability of domestic steel are a serious issue for U.S. manufacturers, and the Biden Administration appears in no hurry to remove the three-year-old Section 232 steel taxes imposed by then-President Trump.

A wire technician; Riverdale Mills is actively hiring in an effort to get back to 24/7 production.

“Foreign competitors continue to buy steel at half the price we are paying, and some [of them] are shipping goods into the U.S. without tariffs and with an enormous steel price advantage.

“According to U.S. Customs’ transactional trade data, during 2020, one hundred fifteen shipping containers carrying over 4.5 million pounds of steel intensive wire mesh arrived tariff-free from the European Union; 90 percent of the steel was shipped into the port of Boston, directly competing with Riverdale Mills and taking jobs and business away from our local economy.

“And Chinese-owned factories outside of China usually face lower tariffs than those imposed on factories inside the country—or escape them altogether. This makes it difficult to compete no matter how efficient and technically advanced one’s company is.”

Over the past several years, Ms. Lanzillo said, Riverdale Mills has worked with colleges, technical institutes and the BV Chamber to recruit untapped workers, help set up curriculum for and raise the profile of the manufacturing industry. These efforts have increased the pool of candidates from which new recruits are sourced, while supporting the local community.

“About 10.4 million people are employed in steel,” Mr. Knott said.

Small and medium-sized manufacturers like Riverdale Mills are the backbone of America’s supply chain and the reason for optimism, Ms. Lanzillo said. “There is no playbook for what we are navigating but Riverdale is proving resilient once again. Sales are up, our delivery times are improving, and we are returning to full capacity. Our customers worldwide have acknowledged our efforts and expressed their gratitude.”

Mr. Knott said “the timeline is unknown” in terms of when the workforce including Riverdale’s can regain its full strength. “We have never experienced anything to the level of this pandemic,” he said.

But Riverdale Mills is aggressively pursuing new workers for its plant.

“My sister told me ‘you have [we are hiring] signs all over town,” he said.