Courtesy of Torrence Williams
The author and his Granny.

Adults Showed Up for Me as Mentors. Now I’m Trying to Do the Same.

May 21, 2024
My parents were in and out of jail when I was a kid. But at each stage of my life, there were people who helped make my professional success in manufacturing possible.

I still remember the day when an astronaut came to visit my third-grade classroom. I was in awe – he looked just like me. 

That day, I saw someone with my color skin who had traveled to space, a place beyond what I could imagine. But looking back, I know now that I also saw a model of what I was capable of accomplishing. The astronaut was proof that I, too, could achieve big things.

Our greatest leaders have been molded and inspired by people they look up to. Approximately 75% of executives said in a 2018 survey of 3,000 professionals that mentoring played a key role in their success. But while 76% of individuals believed mentors were important, only 37% of professionals said they’d had a mentor during their career.

These mentorship pathways are even more unpaved for Black professionals. This is especially true in industries like manufacturing, technology, and engineering, and creates clear inequities that are reflected in their lack of diversity. Almost 79% of the manufacturing industry is white. According to research from Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labor Relations, mentoring programs improved promotion and retention rates for minorities by 15%, compared to non-mentored employees.

Mentoring is one of the most important, proven strategies to maximize employee potential and improve diversity within our industries. As the manufacturing sector faces a daunting 2.1 million unfilled jobs by 2030, increasing diversity in the industry may in fact be the workforce solution the industry needs. By creating new pathways to career growth for those traditionally overlooked, we have the potential to bridge the labor gap. But the work to build this skilled workforce must begin now.

While becoming a mentor may seem overwhelming, time-consuming or not important – this is not the case. All it takes is showing up for someone. At each stage of my life, I learned valuable lessons from those who helped to make my professional success in manufacturing possible. Together, these individuals have shown me the qualities of an effective mentor.

Someone to Care: Youth Mentorship

Lesson: Mentors help others recognize their potential for greatness 

I grew up in the impoverished neighborhood of Smoketown, outside of Louisville, Kentucky. My mother and father were in and out of jail, so my Granny raised me while working two jobs. 

One of her jobs was police dispatcher. Whenever she received a call about a young Black man, she always feared it was me. That’s why she always wanted to know exactly where I was at all times. 

She kept me on a path that helped me find my potential. She dedicated herself to ensuring I was surrounded by positive influences, despite living in poverty. She kept me busy with programs and activities every summer, and she instilled in me a competitive edge that kept me heavily involved in academics and extracurriculars. 

Poverty kills talent and potential. But having Granny to guide me, to furiously care about my future, was the game changer. She saw me for who I really was and my potential. Because of her, I was able to pursue my career in engineering. Every kid, especially Black kids and those who grow up in poverty, need these positive and encouraging influences.

Opportunities Unlocked: Mentorship in College

Lesson: Mentors open doors and possibilities that would otherwise remain unknown 

I was keenly interested in math and science throughout my educational career, eventually earning a degree in industrial engineering. But upon graduating, I didn’t know how I wanted to apply my STEM education.

I found manufacturing and engineering sales through the recommendation of a college professor. She recognized not only my deep understanding of engineering principles, but also my inherent skills as a relationship-builder and people person. I could be in a room with anyone and find a way to connect. My professor even told me that she could tell when I wasn’t in class because it was so quiet!

This career path might have never come into fruition without the direction my college professor provided me. Her attention in recognizing my talents and interest in building a relationship with me helped these skills to flourish in ways I could have not imagined. 

Growth Where You Least Expect It: Mentorship in Adulthood

Lesson: Often mentoring is as simple as showing up and listening 

Today, you can often find me on the basketball court at my alma mater University of Louisville playing a pickup game with current students. As these students feel comfortable, casual chit-chat off the court (and fierce competition on it) often turns into informal, yet equally as impactful, conversations about their careers.

While this isn’t a formal mentoring program, I value and take seriously the trust that these students put in me. Through these conversations, I have helped students find career paths, apply to jobs and strengthen their interview skills, and I also share my network with them, like so many have done for me. 

I didn’t actively seek out to create these relationships or mentor students in this way – and that’s why I enjoy it so much. But more importantly, I think it validates that sometimes others just need someone who can meet them where they are—in this case, on the basketball court—and show up for them.

Mentorship for All

What you see is what you’ll be. It’s imperative that more Black youth see people who look like them achieving success, and see that people are there for them. 

Sometimes students just need someone to care. For example, in my hometown, there are currently 600 kids on the waitlist to be part of the Louisville Big Brother Big Sister program. Whether or not you want to join a formal mentorship program, the opportunity to mentor is everywhere. It all starts with caring about someone else’s future.

Investing in the success of Black posterity is vital to manufacturing’s overall growth. It’s time for all of us to put mentorship at the forefront – whether that’s volunteering with a community group or simply asking a young person how they are doing.

Torrence Williams is an industrial engineer and a partnerships manager at Pico MES.

Main photo: The author and his Granny.

About the Author

Torrence Williams

Torrence Williams is a partnerships manager at Pico MES. His previous roles include industrial engineer at GE and senior sales engineer at Emerson Automation Solutions. 

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