With the recent election of Dick Schubert as its new president, Bethlehem Steel appears to have marked the beginning of a new era of corporate leadership in the industry.

"I think a generational change is occurring," said Schubert, 42. "As a generalization, the younger executives (in the industry) are not quite as isolated, not quite as caste-conscious and have a greater awareness."

And perhaps no one typifies the changes in the industry's executive suites more than Schubert.

"There's a greater sensitivity among businessmen today to human obligations, a greater awareness of ethical behavior... businessmen have become more sensitive," said Schubert.

Unlike Bethlehem Chairman Lewis Foy, who began his career as a clerk in the Johnstown plant and worked his way up the corporate ladder without a college degree, Schubert is a Yale lawyer who began work at Bethlehem's corporate headquarters and twice advanced his career by leaving the company for government service.

As a result of that government service in the Nixon administration -- first as solicitor and them under secetary of Labor -- Schubert comes to his new job with a political savvy generally lacking among his peers.

It is this experience in government that many believe make Schubert a leading contender for the Beethlehem chairmanship with Foy retires next year. In the past, the Bethlehem presidency has been an automatic stepping stone for the chairman's post.

As undersecretary of Labor from June 1973 to February 1975, Schubert has been credited by many both in and out of government with keeping the Labor Department operating. Insiders claim that it was Schubert who ran the department while former building trade official Peter Brennan served as Labor secretary.

And it was while Schubert served as undersecretary that he gained a wide circle of contacts both on Capitol Hill and in the labor movement.

Schubert's political contacts and his knowledge of government have become critical assets to an industry that often sees itself under seige from import competition and government regulators.

In a recent interview in his office, Schubert reflected on the future of the industry and the role of government.

"There is no question we are not going to be a dramatically expansive industry," said Schubert. But he added that the key will be whether "government policy recognizes the importance of a domestic steel industry."

Without such government recognition, the nation could be faced with an OPEC-type situation in which foreign producers dictate steel prices and supplies, Schubert warned.

Despite the special protection the industry has received from the trigger price mechanism (TPM) adopted by the Carter administration more than a year ago, Schubert sees a need for more concrete government action against import competition. And here he looks for help in the current trade negotiations in Geneva.

A specific concern of the industry is any new antidumping language in the trade agreement.

The Carter administration agreed to the trigger price system to avoid a legal showdown with the steel industry over enforcement of the law.

The antidumping law is designed to prevent foreign manufacturers from selling their goods in the U.S. at below cost in an effort to establish a share of the market.

Schubert insisted that if the eventual antidumping language worked out by the administration in connection with the trade negotiations is not to the industry's liking, the industry would oppose it. But he tempered any potential opposition by noting "we're not anxious to see the TPM thrown out the window."

Echoing the same language used by organized labor in its demands for an import quota ystem, Schubert said "we sincerely believe in the necessity for free trade... but we've got to have a shot at fair trade." Schubert called the industry position a response to "changing realities" in world trade.

Domestically, Schubert is optimistic about the future of the industry despite foreseeing no dramatic expansion.

"We are constantly working on new steel products," Schubert said, adding that Bethlehem is developing a light-weight steel for the auto industry to use in its new "down-sized" cars.

"We are trying to help them (automakers) meet their mandated EPA targets," Schubert said.

In the environmental area, Schubert sees longrange help from the Carter administration's latest easing of environmental restrictions. Under the new regulations, which were worked out with the Business Roundtable more than a year ago, the government created a "bubble" system for industry.

This means, for example, that a steel maker would be allowed to conduct operations within a plant that did not meet environmental standards provided the overall air quality in the plant area met the standards.

Schubert claimed the new policy will not help Bethlehem in the short run because the firm already is committed to more than $1 billion in capital investments for environmental control equipment over a 10-year period. He said the cost of such equipment represents 25 percent of the company's investment spending.

And the new environmental policy will help the industry in the long run only if the federal government resists future attempts to "ratchet down" environmental standards, he added.

Schubert said Bethlehem's other major concern is federal policy toward capital formation. The Carter administration, and the Nixon and Ford administrations before it, all talked of the need to change the nation's tax laws to increase investment incentive, but Congress, so far, generally has rebuffed most efforts in that direction.

As for Bethlehem itself -- a company that recorded the biggest loss in U.S. corporate history in 1977 -- Schubert's hopes appear modest.

"We're still around the bottom of the Citibank list of American industries," he said. "Our goal is to get somewhere in the middle of the pack."