Isaiah McMullen, Lucy Minturn at FosterWorks.
What’s it like to work in a manufacturing job in Chicago? How can young people prepare themselves for opportunities in this sector?
Those questions came up on March 16 during Manufacturing Renaissance’s Job Shadow Day. During this event, participants in the organization’s Manufacturing Connect program had a chance to learn directly about manufacturing from professionals who shared their experience in the field. Manufacturing Connect is a nationally recognized career pathways program for teens that exposes, inspires, and prepares in-school youth, ages 14-18, for careers in manufacturing. The program creates and expands the linkages between communities, social service agencies, schools, and the manufacturing sector.
“We can walk past these businesses and never know what goes on inside,” said Dee Dee Jones, Industry Coordinator, during this event. “On Job Shadow Day we learn about different career paths, areas where you can be employed and grow and have support in a company, as well as mentorship, which is very important for young people.
Isaiah McMullen, who completed the Manufacturing Connect program last year, started working at FosterWorks on a part-time basis in the shipping and receiving department a week after graduating from the Academy of Scholastic Achievement in Chicago. He is now working full-time for the company. McMullen, who wants to be a welder, thanked Jones and Manufacturing Renaissance during this event. He said he learned “how to do measurements” and other skills in the program, including “how to prioritize.” In addition, he took a 14-week course in welding at the Jane Addams Resource Center after participating in Manufacturing Connect.
Lucy MInturn, Founder and CEO of FosterWorks, shared her experience with the company and what it’s like to work in the field. She started taking welding lessons while she was an investment banker in New York. As the owner of FosterWorks, where the company’s work includes making components for the lighting industry, she says “I enjoy learning immensely, and also enjoy helping guide this team and business, so it thrives and grows.”
Minturn shared that there are a wide range of jobs in manufacturing, including positions in shop maintenance, production, customer, relations, and more. “The biggest tip I have for young people is to stick to it. It took us a year to buy the business, and almost a year to negotiate a lease for a new shop location. Work at a business like the one you want to own. Learn what it takes to run it.”
During a tour of the company’s shop, she showed how employees work off blueprints, recycle scrap metal, and use shearing and bending machines. She also showed a computer numerical control machine that programs information at the company.
When asked what it takes to work at the company, she emphasized motivation, wanting to learn, being consistent, and being willing to ask questions and accept directions.
John-Paul Paonessa, Marketing Manager at Freedman Seating, shared his experience of working at the company, a fourth-generation family-owned business that employs about 600 people. The company, which has been in business for over 125 years, is located on Chicago’s west side and has a second facility in Indiana. Paonessa said sales and marketing are among the career paths of people who work at Freedman Seating, and that the company has six salespeople throughout the country. When asked about the company’s culture, he said it emphasizes “inclusion, communication, being proud of the work, and building strong partnerships.”
“I had no experience in manufacturing when I came to Freedman,” he says. “I saw that physical products were being made by hand with machines, and I fell in love with it.”
Later, he introduced Karen, a young woman who is a mechanical engineer at the company, where she “fixes issues so we can ship on time.” Karen grew up in Mexico, moved to the Chicago area when she was 17, went to community college while working full-time, and then earned a mechanical engineering degree at the University of Illinois Chicago. She is now pursuing at MBA at Loyola University while working at Freedman, with support from the company’s tuition reimbursement program.
One of her suggestions to students was to seek out advice from people who have knowledge about manufacturing. “I found advisors and learned that there will always be someone willing to help you. Find a mentor who is going to speak to you in a positive manner. And never be afraid of asking for help – ever.” She also emphasized the importance of working out and reading in her life.
Karen reflected on her journey to Freedman. “I am here for a reason,” she said. “I learned that I just have to push myself and do it.”
Paonessa told students that “you are already taking the right step by being in a program like Manufacturing Connect. You are networking and being exposed to opportunities.”
David Curry, a participant in the Manufacturing Connect program, said about Job Shadow Day that he learned “it’s like a family environment at Freedman.” Jones told the group that students who want “to be connected to a professional or even a college student” about a particular field, students should ask staff with the Manufacturing Connect program. Yazmin Barajas, who also participates in the program, asked if she can be connected to someone in the field of interior design.
What’s next after Job Shadow Day? Mieka Matthews, Program Coordinator for Manufacturing Connect said that participants should “continue to challenge yourself. You will be charged with being your biggest advocate.”