Experience Is the Best Teacher: The Importance of Mentorships in Manufacturing

Engineering apprentice consulting with his mentor

January is National Mentoring Month. To celebrate this tried-and-true training method, Thomas Insights will highlight the benefits of mentorship and discuss the ways it can be leveraged to address one of the manufacturing sector’s most pervasive challenges — the skills gap.


Ask a manufacturing or industrial executive about the biggest challenge their company is currently facing, and there’s a good chance that they’ll say, “the skills gap” without much hesitation. With over 47 million open job positions requiring specific technical skills, it’s easy to see why these leaders are anxious about the current workforce.

Part of the issue is a generational one. As baby boomers retire in droves, they’re leaving a massive void in the workforce that isn’t being replenished by the younger generations at the same rate. Furthermore, many of the applicants currently in the labor pool don’t have the specified qualifications necessary to perform many of the open positions.

The future isn’t looking too bright either; the oldest members of Generation Z will be entering the workforce in a few years, and, unfortunately, due to lack of visibility and poor perception of the manufacturing industry, they have shown very little interest and awareness in manufacturing as a viable career option.

In order to bridge the gap, some companies are taking an old-school approach, investing in their own mentorship programs.

The Anatomy of a Mentorship

Mentoring is an ongoing relationship in which an individual with industry experience, insight, and wisdom imparts their knowledge to an inexperienced protege. In contrast to a formalized academic education, this relationship is designed to help develop the protege’s skills in a more relaxed, straightforward manner by providing hands-on practice and real-world advice.

As an experienced professional with years of industry knowledge and insight, it’s the mentor’s responsibility to guide the mentee’s progress by working closely with them to develop clear-cut, actionable goals. The mentor also helps the mentee develop a plan of action on how to achieve their goals. While this is being established during the beginning stages of the mentorship, mentor and mentee will also begin the process of getting to know one another on a personal level and hash out logistical details such as contact information and meeting schedules.

The main duty of the mentee is to be open-minded about themselves and the process. The mentee should also play an active role in the mentorship, and not act as though they are a jar waiting to be filled with the waters of knowledge. A successful mentorship is built on a mutually enlightening relationship, so mentees must work equally as hard to cultivate strong connections with their mentors.

As the relationship progresses, mentor and mentee will meet regularly to discuss the student’s progression and any challenges they have experienced or expect to experience. After a certain amount of time has passed, mentor and mentee should examine themselves, each other, and the mentoring process as a whole to determine whether the relationship is working beneficially for both parties, and also to identify areas for improvement.

The Benefits of Mentorships

Within the manufacturing industry, mentorships provide a tremendous amount of value for both mentors and mentees. For mentees, working with a mentor can provide access to a wealth of knowledge beyond what is offered through traditional academic sources. It’s one thing to read about the mechanics of flight, and entirely another to actually fly a plane. Although school and books offer indispensable information, nothing can compare to the hands-on knowledge of experience.

Kevin Segebarth, general manager of Manor Tool and Manufacturing, a custom metal stamping company located in Chicago, believes that mentorship “is the best way to educate a mentee of solid proven practices” in manufacturing.

“These practices are not always found in books or on the internet,” he continues. “A lot of this is learned through manufacturing experiences, good practices, and the actual on-the-job training.”

Manor Tool President Tom Simeone added, “[Mentorship] allows the student to see people perform at their actual occupation and how they interact with others, which is rarely exposed in the press or in school.”

He also pointed out that mentorship “demonstrates the diversity of careers that are available in a manufacturing environment: accounting, logistics, order processing, purchasing, human resources, engineering of various levels, quality control, shop technicians, shipping and receiving, CNC machining and tool making, and building and machine maintenance.”

Mentorships can also groom pupils for future leadership positions. Leadership qualities are sometimes discussed and analyzed in the classroom, but it can be difficult to understand how to develop them without witnessing effective leadership firsthand and having someone to advise you through real-world scenarios. In addition to providing leadership guidance, mentors can also help quell any anxieties that arise.

However, mentorships aren’t just beneficial for mentees. “I think it builds pride and morale in the hosting companies’ workforce,” said Simeone, “because they are able to demonstrate how what they do every day matters — not only to the company they work for, but the fellow workers that they work with every day.”

Plus, in mentorships, oftentimes the student teaches the teacher something new. “The best benefit of this relationship is that both mentor and mentee get to learn something new,” says Segebarth. “The mentor is challenged by the mentee (especially today) in new ways and thoughts on how tasks, problems are approached and solved.”

Final Thoughts

According to the Center for Economic Research, U.S. businesses lose approximately $160 billion total every year as a result of the skills gap. It’s imperative that companies play a more active role in addressing this, and one of the most engaging, effective ways to do so is through mentorships — cultivating meaningful relationships between experienced pros and ambitious novices. By imparting the education and wisdom of experience, companies can build a strong, highly skilled team set for continued success in today’s ever-shifting industrial landscape.


Image Credit: Pressmaster / Shutterstock.com

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