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: firstname.lastname@example.org or John Zegers: email@example.com.