Workforce Development / Skills Gap / Changing Workforce

Workforce development: Why there's no one-size-fits-all approach to mentoring

In this installment of Automation Zone, a 26-year-old controls engineer leads new approach to workforce development and inclusion.

By Christine LaFave Grace, managing editor

Nandita Gupta remembers her first couple of days on the plant floor as a process controls engineer at a Georgia-Pacific factory in North Carolina. And, in particular, the 26-year-old remembers being mistaken as “the new HR girl” rather than the new controls engineer.

In a time when manufacturers are struggling to recruit young people to the field, having team members make assumptions about new talent in the plant is probably one of the last things that hiring managers want to see. But Gupta, who says that trust has to be earned – it’s not given – was undeterred. She has since led her site’s ergonomics team in incorporating principles of human-centric design within controls engineering and pushed to launch an internal mentoring program for young engineers.

Gupta, a 2019 Influential Women in Manufacturing honoree spoke earlier this year with Plant Services managing editor Christine LaFave Grace for the Manufacturing Tomorrow’s Workforce podcast about her work to build a mentoring network at Georgia-Pacific.

PS: Can you talk about the genesis of the mentor network – the need that you saw that you wanted to address?

NG: I’m very blessed – I had an absolutely fantastic mentor who was assigned to me at my site. I knew so many other colleagues who felt a lack of mentorship at other sites, and I really wanted everyone to have a better if not the same experience as I did with my mentor at site. Our company is amazing; I would hate to see people leave the company because they felt a lack of mentorship.

PS: What is your vision for the program, and how have you gone about communicating that, gaining buy-in, laying the groundwork for success?

NG: That’s really interesting you mention buy-in, right? Because I feel my company already has the buy-in to want to do this. I feel like I was just at the right place at the right time, talking to the right people.

I’ve been trying to advocate for a formal mentoring program – we do have mentoring within our company, but there wasn’t something central. There wasn’t something that, “OK, yeah, this is the role; these are some of the responsibilities; this is what you’ve got to do.” And so I was talking to the engineering development program manager and we had some conversations. And it’s a very natural relationship, right? You meet someone at a conference and you start talking to them, and the next time you follow up with them and say, “Hey, what do you think about doing this?” And, you know, the idea comes into reality. It was a team effort and we got together in launching this.

We wanted to be really deliberate about (this network), because you can’t have a one-size-fits-all mentor. You can’t have one mentor who can give you everything, right? So it’s a network. You might have someone who’s a really good technical mentor but may not be as good of a career development mentor.

The new engineers coming in from school struggle with some of these things (like project management and conflict management) because this is their first real-world work experience. So they don’t know how to work in teams; they might not understand, “OK, what’s the best way to do this?” (We are recruiting mentors with) different skill sets so we can provide our engineers with a network rather than just one person.

PS: That’s such an interesting approach, because what if one mentor moves on to another role in the company or another site or even out of the company, then what happens? For the people who have a network of people to turn to instead of just that one person, I would think that that’s so powerful.

NG: Exactly. ... You’re preparing them for different roles within the company. You want to let (mentees) find their own thoughts without really molding them in your own skin.

To hear the full interview, listen to "This 26-year-old engineer is building a mentor network at Georgia-Pacific."