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.

Georgia Tech and the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership name John Zegers Northwest Georgia Region Manager

John Zegers is the Northwest Georgia Region Manager at the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership.
John Zegers is the Northwest Georgia Region Manager at the Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership.

Rome, Ga. — The Georgia Manufacturing Extension Partnership (GaMEP), an outreach program of the Georgia Institute of Technology, is pleased to announce John Zegers as the new Northwest Georgia region manager.

 

In this role, Zegers will serve manufacturers in 15 counties across Northwest Georgia, with his office based in Rome. He and his team of project managers will work closely with local manufacturers to help them develop top-line growth and reduce bottom-line costs through process improvement efforts, ISO management systems, energy and sustainability initiatives, innovation growth strategies, and connections to Georgia Tech. These valuable services contribute to Georgia’s economic growth because they support Georgia’s strong manufacturing sector and bring new jobs to Northwest Georgia.

 

Zegers, a manufacturing industry veteran with more than 26 years experience, was former director of the Georgia Center of Innovation for Manufacturing at the Georgia Department of Economic Development, a role he held for eight years before joining GaMEP in 2015. In that role, Zegers expanded the focus of the Center of Innovation for Manufacturing by opening an office at the Georgia Tech Manufacturing Institute and developing close ties with the resources at Georgia Tech and Georgia’s other universities and technical colleges.

 

Zegers succeeds David Apple, who has taken on a project manager role within GaMEP.

 

“I’m going to carry on the great work that David has done in the region and just remain focused on continuing to provide the assistance, expertise, and access to the resources our manufacturing clients have come to expect from GaMEP and Georgia Tech,” Zegers said. “We focus on the true needs of every individual manufacturer and determining what their greatest challenge is and how we can best help them by bringing in the right resources and services to them.”

 

In this position, Zegers will work closely with the local chambers and economic development groups, as well as connect local manufacturers to the variety of programs that Georgia Tech offers to manufacturers across the state.

 

“John has truly understood the industry from an early age because he grew up in it with his family-owned manufacturing business,” said Karen Fite, GaMEP director. “He’s passionate about the industry and serving Northwest Georgia to create real impact with the companies we serve.”