A few years ago, Torres Hughes had never heard of manufacturing or engineering. After finishing his first year of high school, he admits he lacked direction and was potentially heading down a bad path. He knew he needed to change his life so when sophomore year started he signed up for every club he could find.
One of those activities was Project Lead the Way, a national nonprofit that brings science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) curricula to students of all ages.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” Torres said. But, then he started to learn about electricity and how to build a circuit. He learned about soldering and computer programming. It was hands on. He liked it and was good at it.
“It helped shape me,” Torres said. “I had exposure to a career that I had never heard about before, but now I know I can do.”
He kept taking engineering classes and earning professional certifications at his high school, which is now the Austin College and Career Academy on the west side of Chicago. The Academy runs a broad career pathways program with Manufacturing Renaissance, a Chicago-based non-profit organization.
“I was on the verge of failing out of high school before I was exposed to these opportunities,” Torres said. “It’s changed my life completely.”
After graduation, Torres went on to work for several manufacturers, including Freedman Seating Company, a more than 100-year-old employer right in his own neighborhood. The company helped pay for Torres to go to school, get more certificates, and work his way up to training other employees on the machinery.
“I had a lot of opportunities to advance through the company. I felt like an asset and more than just a number,” he said.
Torres spoke with emotion about what the education pathway and workforce development experience did for his life. For example, at a young age he was able to travel. He learned to speak to groups about his experience, gaining self-confidence and a belief in his future. In his community, he said, too many people’s lives headed down unfortunate paths due to the lack of such opportunities.
“Words cannot express how grateful I am,” he said, emphasizing that he wants more people in the Chicago region to have the same options.
Now 23 years old, Torres is back where he started, counseling high school students in Austin as they learn about manufacturing and transition to the working world. He’s passionate about bringing together young people who need a career path and business who need strong employees -- and the benefits those connections will bring to communities across the region.
“Imagine we had 100 Torres Hughes who started out in high school learning about engineering and manufacturing, and they’re inspired to go to school and go to work. They feel confident that they can provide for themselves and they are prepared for life after school. It would be a much better place,” he said. “Part of the reason why the neighborhood that I lived in is in the condition it is in, is a lack of opportunities and a lack of exposure to these kind of careers. If I’ve never seen someone who looked like me in this position, how can I tell that I can do it?”
By 2050, Torres hopes programs and experiences like his are the norm, not the exception. He’s starting classes this fall at Harold Washington College with plans to major in Political Science and dreams of lifting more people up through workforce development programs.
“These are the programs where people go to build their skills, gain knowledge, and access, and that can change a community. It can build wealth, spread it, and share it,” Hughes said. “If there was more of this en masse, it would definitely bring communities up.”