A few years ago Torres Hughes was so frustrated he almost walked away from a good job in the manufacturing industry.
Hughes, 24, was working on the manufacturing floor at Freedman Seating, a West Side Chicago company that makes seats for passenger buses and trains, among other things.
He loved the work, but Hughes says the workplace often left him feeling confused and isolated. Hughes started at the company when he was still a teenager, working with colleagues who he said were largely in their 30s or older. Hughes, who is black, said he often couldn’t understand the largely Spanish-speaking Latino workforce. Hughes said the tension came to a head one day when he was sweeping up behind his machine and a manager, who Hughes said is Latino, walked past and remarked: “Attaboy, sweep it up!”
“At the time, I took offense, I thought he was being racist,” Hughes said. “I was fired up. I was really angry and upset.”
Hughes’ run-in with his manager is not an uncommon story in Chicago manufacturing these days. After decades of decline, the industry is now growing. Bosses are looking to young people of color to fill those jobs and stave off a “gray tsunami” of retirees. But younger workers often aren’t sticking around long: In 2016, 22- to 24-year-olds left manufacturing jobs at a rate four times higher than their 55- to 64-year-old counterparts, according to data analyzed by the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Experts say navigating manufacturing workplaces can be challenging without guidance from a support network with experience in the industry. And young black workers aren’t as likely to have that network: The percentage of black people in the Chicago area who work in manufacturing fell from 14.2 percent in 1994 to about 6.5 percent in 2017, according to data from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Hughes didn’t end up walking out. Instead, he reached out to a mentor at Manufacturing Connect, a career program that operated at his alma mater, Austin College & Career Academy High School. That mentor, Hughes said, helped him think through his manager’s intent — Hughes said English was his manager’s second language. The following day, Hughes said, the manager came to him and apologized.
That experience helped inspire Hughes to help found the Young Manufacturing Association — a group of young people involved in manufacturing that meet to offer each other advice and counselling on how to navigate the industry. Supporters say it could ensure that young black workers not only obtain jobs in manufacturing, but thrive in them as well.
“I don’t have a lot of family members and friends who see themselves going into these careers — but they first have to be educated,” Hughes said. “We have to let them know that there is organizations out there that care about manufacturing and care about young people … who have not been truly invested in.”
“Don’t quit, just call”
Dee Dee Jones has a go-to mantra for when young manufacturers reach out to her angry or frustrated about something that happened on the job: “Don’t quit, just call.”
Jones is Industrial Coordinator for Manufacturing Connect, which houses the Young Manufacturers Association. She’s part career coach, part therapist: helping young manufacturing workers parse out things like how to ask for a raise, when to use a personal day, and whether a boss’s comment was malicious or misinformed. Jones said her mentees do often have to deal with real racial tension or outright racism. But she said many of the issues she helps them navigate are more related to the “soft skills” required for a manufacturing job: skills that previous generations of workers may have picked up from family.
“If you don’t have that situation — the uncle, the cousin, the mom or dad that’s been in there — then, it's all new,” Jones said. “How do I get through the day? How do I talk to those people who are two or three times older than me? They don’t understand my language, they don’t understand my culture, they don’t understand where I am coming from.”
Jones said those challenges drive many young black people out of manufacturing. In Cook County in 2016, 12 percent of 22- to 24-year-olds working in manufacturing left their job that year. Five percent of 35- 44-year-olds left their jobs, while just 3 percent of 55- to 64-year-olds did. Young people generally change jobs more often, but Matt Wilson, economic development planner with the University of Illinois at Chicago’s Great Cities Institute, said that’s because they’re more likely to work jobs in retail or food service. Manufacturing, by contrast, offers stability and higher wages, which makes the turnover rate for young people surprising, he said.
The Young Manufacturing Association was launched in 2016 to try and change that. The informal group has about 235 members ages 18-29, who are generally either working in manufacturing or pursuing it. The group meets every two weeks in Manufacturing Connect’s offices at the Austin College & Career Academy High School. At a recent meeting, members commiserated over a provided dinner, gaming out the best way to deal with things like annoying coworkers in between cracking jokes and planning a party.
Tyrenick Scott got involved with the group after she graduated from high school in 2014.
“When we have those meetings every other Wednesday, we all sit around and talk about something getting underneath your skin at work, or what you think, or what’s going on, what you need help with,” Scott said.
Scott said the advice and guidance of mentors like Jones, and the peer support of other YMA members, was invaluable in helping her flourish in her position at a local candy company.
“It’s very hard to work in manufacturing as a young black female,” Scott said. “You are underestimated a lot. So you get in that field, you have no choice but to thrive in it. You can’t give anybody a reason to think otherwise.”
“Ghosting is a thing”
Manufacturing companies have a vested interest in the success of initiatives like the Young Manufacturer’s Association — they’re struggling to get their employees to stick around.
“Ghosting is a thing — not just in dating, but in employment,” said Marisela Martinez-Williams, human resources manager at Freedman Seating.
Freedman has been growing rapidly in recent years. The company, which is on its fourth generation of family ownership, began at the 1894 World’s Fair, and as recently as the mid-1990s, had only about 50 employees. Now, more than 900 workers assemble seats at its manufacturing plant, which stretches across blocks on Chicago’s West Side.
Martinez-Williams said for decades the company often recruited family members of current employees to fill open positions.
“But now, with the unemployment market the way it is, that no longer works. We have to get very creative.”
Martinez-Williams says to do so, the company is reaching out to younger, black recruits. She said the company’s workforce has shifted from being “highly Latino” to about 55 percent Latino, 40 percent black. Martinez-Williams says Freedman has hired about 10 to 15 people affiliated with the Young Manufacturing Association.
“The advantage is that they have this outside mentor,” she said. “Someone who is helping them deal with the outside issues of ‘how do you start a bank account’ or ‘what is budget planning.’ It keeps them coming here.”
Martinez-Williams acknowledged that young black employees at Freedman may face the additional challenge of navigating a workforce where they are a minority.
“We try and teach our supervisors and managers the right language, right? Try and teach cultural diversity and cultural awareness. But a lot of times, you are dealing with a language barrier,” she said.
“After today, I’m excited”
On a recent Thursday afternoon, Freedman Seating was making its pitch to a group of high-school age Chicagoans visiting the company on a tour organized by Manufacturing Connect.
The group toured every department and even got hands on experience on the manufacturing floor. Prosser Career Academy student James Duke, 17, smiled as he held up a piece of burnished metal bent into an L shape.
“I just welded this for the first time,” Duke said. “I’ve never welded before, and it's actually pretty good.”
Duke, who is black, has no friends or family members who have worked in manufacturing. But there are internships or other job training opportunities available for him to pursue if he wants a job in the industry. And he’ll have the mentors and peers available through the Young Manufacturers Association to lean on if he needs help.
“Before coming here, I was pretty nervous,” Duke said. “But after today, I’m excited.”
Miles Bryan is a General Assignment Reporter for WBEZ News. Follow him @miles_bryan.