Finding Purpose and a Career After High School

Northwest Georgia initiative helps high school seniors not going
to college get 
prepared for professional opportunities and jobs

CARTERSVILLE, Ga. — As a newly minted graduate of Cass High School, Zak Gibson could be forgiven if he didn’t exactly have the next phase of his life figured out just yet.

But now, Gibson, a warehouse technician at NOTS Logistics in Cartersville credits his career trajectory and increased sense of motivation to Project Purpose, a program that shows graduating high school seniors opportunities they have to maximize their potential if they choose a path other than college.

“Project Purpose helped me realize who I am as a person. It molded me into a more mature adult than I thought I was,” Zak said. “One thing that I did learn was no matter who you are, what you’ve been through — you do have a purpose and you can do anything you want to. You just have to set your mind to it.”

For employer participants, finding students like Zak allows them to work with students, invest in their professional futures, and build up pipelines of potential employees from the local community who can fill open jobs.

A program of iWORKS Northwest Georgia, in partnership with Worksource Georgia, Project Purpose launched in Bartow County in 2022, and expanded to Polk and Whitfield counties in 2023. In that two-year period, the program has worked with 35 students, Zak among them.

As designed, participants engage in a series of hands-on courses including résumé preparation, essential skills, workplace safety, and financial literacy, among other abilities they are taught to master. The program, which runs from 10 days to two weeks, includes classroom instruction, as well as on-site visits and training with potential employers.

It’s an offshoot of years of work of coordinated efforts at the regional, state, and federal levels to address the manufacturing needs of the 15-county region that is  northwest Georgia, said John Zegers, who is iWORKS co-chairman and the northwest Georgia region manager with the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP) at Georgia Tech’s Enterprise Innovation Institute.

“We are experiencing tremendous growth in the manufacturing sector in northwest Georgia,” Zegers said, noting Bartow County alone expects an influx of 4,000 new jobs in the next two years. There’s already low unemployment, so that, coupled with the expected bonanza of jobs means the region is facing an urgent workforce shortage, he said.

“Forty-eight percent of graduating high school students in our region will not immediately go to college — that equates to roughly 4,000 students per year,” Zegers said. “Our manufacturers are ready to train young adults who have the motivation. This program benefits industry, the local community and most importantly the young adults we are setting up for success.”

GaMEP, along with the Center for Economic Development Research (CEDR), another program of the Enterprise Innovation Institute, have been working on northwest Georgia’s high-demand career initiative since 2014.

iWORKS is comprised of industry, workforce development and economic development experts, K-12 and post-secondary, community nonprofits, and economic development representatives. It was formed to help the region create and implement a strategy to draw those jobs — and fill them, said Leigh Hopkins, CEDR senior project manager and member of iWORKS’ leadership team.

“Manufacturing is the top industry sector in northwest Georgia, and they need workers desperately. iWORKS makes connections between the needs of employers and regional training resources across the region to create jobs and generate investment,” Hopkins said.

“When industries see industry-led coalitions like iWORKS, they know that they’re being supported and heard and that’s an important aspect in business retention and expansion, which is one of the main pillars in economic development.”

Project Purpose is just one of the many iWORKS efforts aimed at addressing those workforce needs, she added, noting one major goal is to expand it to all 15 counties in the region.

Courtney Laird, a recruiter with Shaw Industries — a flooring conglomerate and one of the region’s major employers — said Project Purpose is a worthwhile economic development initiative both for industry and personal growth of workforce newcomers.

“This very beneficial to the organization and industry — more importantly for the students to provide a leg up in their career for their future,” she said.

Jacob Herron, a 2022 Project Purpose graduate, and an extrusion associate with Shaw Industries, agreed with those sentiments. “The most valuable take-away for me was the communications skills,” he said. “How to communicate with your teammates, how to get along with them to work better together.”

It also gave him a boost in self-assurance, he said.

“I had a lot of self-confidence issues,” Jacob said. “The program helped me build up my self-confidence and allowed me to do more things.”

Interested in learning more about Project Purpose or know a northwest Georgia high school senior who might be good fit for the 2024 cohort? Please contact Leigh Hopkins: leigh.hopkins@gatech.edu or John Zegers: john.zegers@innovate.gatech.edu.

Enterprise Innovation Institute Hosts Visit from French Embassy for Workforce and Economic Development Discussion

Christophe Bonneau (right), deputy economic counselor of business affairs for the Embassy of France to the United States, discusses his group’s desire to better understand how universities and the private sector collaborate to support workforce and economic development, as Jérôme Vouland (left), the embassy’s counselor for transportation and sustainable cities, listens. (Photo: Péralte C. Paul)

The Enterprise Innovation Institute (EI2) recently hosted three representatives from the Embassy of France who visited the Georgia Institute of Technology campus as part of a multi-state tour to better understand how universities interconnect with the private sector to support workforce and economic development.

 

EI2, comprised of a dozen programs, is Georgia Tech’s economic development arm. Through those programs, it supports commercialization of campus research and technology entrepreneurs, as well as industry and communities through business development extension services.

 

“It’s very important for us to understand the common challenges between France and the United states,” Christophe Bonneau, deputy economic counselor for business affairs at the Washington, D.C.-based embassy, said during the March 15 visit.

 

“One of them is filling the gap between what academic institutions have to bring in terms of training, in terms of skills, and the ever-evolving needs of companies, including manufacturing and technology.”

 

Georgia and France trade more than $3 billion in goods and services a year. That includes more than $592 million in Georgia exports to France each year, according to Georgia Department of Economic Development figures.

 

Georgia Tech and France have deep ties. Georgia Tech-Lorraine was established in 1990 in the eastern French city of Metz. The year-round campus — home to 600 each year — offers programs that create synergies between academics, research, and innovation. And since 2010, the Consulate General of France in Atlanta and Georgia Tech have collaborated together to present a multidisciplinary series of events each fall centered on innovation and designed to foster French-American cooperation and synergetic exchange in the Southeast.

 

The Institute also has strong ties with the southern French city of Toulouse with initiatives in aerospace and bioengineering, and the annual Startup Exchange, where startups from Atlanta go to Toulouse and vice versa to better understand international opportunities.

 

(From left) Melissa Heffner, VentureLab program manager, Chris Downing, EI2 vice president and director, and Lynne Henkiel, director of Innovation Ecosystems, listen as officials from the Embassy of France to the United States ask questions about Georgia Tech’s work with private industry to drive economic and workforce development. (Photo: Péralte C. Paul)

The French delegates learned how different EI2programs, such as the Economic Development Lab (EDL), work with communities to drive innovation at the local and regional level. For example, they learned about EDL’s Soft Landings Program, which helps foreign companies seeking to establish themselves in the United States understand how to do that and the different factors they need to consider before making that decision.

 

They also gained insight into other efforts, including VentureLab and I-Corps South, which help foster commercialization of research beyond campus labs at Georgia Tech and universities across the Southeast, respectively.

 

And, as part of their visit, they toured the Institute’s Advanced Technology Development Center (ATDC) to better understand how the state supports technology entrepreneurs who want to create scalable and viable companies in Georgia.

 

“Georgia Tech has had a really long history in — and was founded to spur economic development in Georgia,” said Chris Downing, EI2vice president and director. “We do have a lot of programs that serve different needs and customer sectors, but they all highlight what Georgia Tech is doing directly to have some influence in the economic viability and sustainability of the region.”

 

Bonneau and his team were particularly interested in Georgia because of the state’s urban and rural makeup.

 

“There is the urban-rural divide that we are facing to a certain extent in France and it’s interesting to see how Atlanta is driving not only wealth, but innovation training, better skills for people, and what’s important is how it connects to the rest of Georgia and the rest of the southeastern United States,” Bonneau said.

 

“We thought Georgia Tech was very interesting in how it connects with other incubators in the region, how it manages to bring companies and connect the with the local ecosystem, how it helps manufacturing plants, attracts research and development centers, and to that extent it’s been a great inspiration for us.”