This is My Story.
This is My Story.
Watch Brian’s Video
‘Raised in a town of 4,000 people – everyone knew me and I was influenced by those around me.’
Growing up in a small, South Georgia town, Brian Cooksey was a shy kid. Both of his parents were educators and emphasized the importance of school. He made good grades, but had to work hard to do so. Cooksey excelled at the courses that allowed him to solve problems and be creative.
When he was eight years old, he went to his first college football game. Sitting amongst the sea of 60,000 was exhilarating for him. He had never seen so many people in one place and upon leaving the game he told his mom, “I’m going to college at University of Georgia or I’m not going.” Ten years later, he kept true to his promise. “When the acceptance letter from UGA came, my mother could finally breathe a sigh of relief,” he said, jokingly.
In high school, Cooksey entered into a work-based learning program where he earned course credit by working in a carpet store. Through the experience of selling carpet, he developed an appreciation for business and working with people. Additionally, the two owners taught him the value of getting outside of the business and helping people in the community.
It was a combination of this work in customer service and the experience of attending a large university — where he had to learn how to meet new people — that sparked the once-introverted teen’s pursuit of a management and training degree.
‘I learned about myself, people, products, processes, equipment, and the company. I couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity.’
Approaching the end of his senior year in college, Cooksey knew he wanted to stay in Georgia. So, armed with a management degree, he interviewed with many companies in different industries across the state, and eventually found himself meeting with Shaw, a full-service flooring provider headquartered in Dalton, Georgia.
Throughout the interview process, it was clear to Cooksey that his personal values of integrity, honesty, and hard work aligned with Shaw’s company values. Although he had never managed people before, he was offered a front line supervisor position in one of Shaw’s manufacturing plants.
Cooksey’s respect for his 35-member team and his willingness to roll up his sleeves to do the work while learning about operations, gave him instant credibility. “Working with my team was a humbling experience,” Cooksey says. “Growing up in a small town that was supported by two large manufacturing plants, it was clear that manufacturing jobs provided for families and helped support my community. I found that to be the same in Dalton and in Shaw.”
‘It’s not your grandfather’s carpet mill. It’s an advanced manufacturing facility.’
When Cooksey first arrived at Shaw, he was amazed at the equipment and the latitude to solve real problems.
Over the past 21 years working at Shaw, he has seen the robotics and innovation in the plants continue to evolve. Machines are being integrated with laptops and smartphones; the responsibilities of machine operators are shifting from direct interaction with the product to managing and monitoring the machines through touch screens. Additional changes include the sustainability efforts within the plants, such as new products that are made with recycled material. “The plastic bottle you drink out of today might be in your carpet tomorrow,” Cooksey says.
Shaw’s corporate strategy of being nimble and flexible to integrate growth and change is reflected in how it supports its associates and encourages them to do the same.
Within his first role of front line supervisor, he discovered his drive for helping people inside Shaw reach their goals and achieve new heights within the organization. He took this passion and moved into human resources, and then eventually into the role he has today as director of operations training and development.
‘We may manufacture flooring, but we are in the people business.’
As Shaw and other manufacturing plants have changed, so have its needs and expectations for a skilled workforce.
More than 20 percent of the 15,000 people working in Shaw’s northwest Georgia plants were scheduled to retire within five years, a cause for concern with Cooksey and his team. As they began to explore the marketplace for new hires, they realized there was a significant gap in what the industry needed in associates and the skills available in the employment pool. Another barrier was the younger generation’s lack of interest in manufacturing or understanding that it offered viable and challenging career opportunities.
“Today’s manufacturing workforce consists of chemists, interior designers, robotics programmers, machine operators, and a much a larger variety than in years past,” Cooksey says. Through his interaction with students, Cooksey learned there was a breakdown in communication. “By using terminology familiar to manufacturers, we were failing to capture the younger generations’ attention.” He adds, “We realized we needed to do a better job connecting their interests to manufacturing, so that they understand all of the careers that industry has to offer.”
‘Allow them to think and work outside the box.’
Five years ago, Cooksey led an effort that was supported by Shaw, other Dalton manufacturers, and the Greater Dalton Chamber to develop a Design, Engineering, and Manufacturing Camp in Whitfield County. In five years, the camp has grown to more than 125 middle school student participants. Through these camps, girls and boys learn to problem solve, think creatively, and work as a team. They are using the same tools and software used in manufacturing, to design and build race cars, rockets, and even carpet squares. The camp’s “best in show” carpet square designs are then manufactured for their designers’ bedrooms. As part of camp, the kids also get to tour manufacturing plants, where they can see these same practices on a larger scale. A camper once observed to Cooksey, “I now understand why I’m learning the math I am learning in school.”
To target high school students, Cooksey and his team wrote a curriculum, based on industry and technical system standards. The Mechatronics Pathway curriculum has now been adopted in counties throughout the state. By working with the local career academies, the local technical colleges, and the community, these programs help to forge a connection between students’ and manufacturers’ needs. The programs also provide college credit, scholarships, internships, and apprenticeships to high school students interested in pursuing careers in manufacturing. “Students need to experience a manufacturing plant firsthand and see if it’s something they want to do,” Cooksey says. “There are so many careers they can go into and chances are, manufacturing employs people in those careers.”
‘Seventy percent of the world’s carpets are made in Northwest Georgia.’
Additionally, Cooksey is also involved with the Investing in Manufacturing Communities Partnership (IMCP) initiative, where he serves on the workforce development and steering committees for regional efforts.
The initiative includes the Northwest Georgia Regional Commission, Georgia Institute of Technology, the Georgia Center of Innovation for Manufacturing, Georgia Northwestern Technical College, Dalton State College, and local chambers of commerce and companies. IMCP’s long-term strategy is to sustain the region’s floorcovering industry and keep it competitive. The group targets workforce development by assessing skills gaps and developing training curriculums, expanding supplier networks, and making operational improvements. It also looks at increasing exporting opportunities, conducting cutting-edge materials research, and developing new and innovative products for the marketplace.
“The floorcovering industry is the backbone of our community. This IMCP initiative is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Cooksey says.
‘We are changing the game in workforce development in the community.’
As a child of two educators, giving kids the opportunity to do great things is inherent to Cooksey.
“We want to get this right. It’s not about having 50 programs that sound good on paper,” he explains. “It’s about having the right few programs that will set-up both the community and the industry for success.”
For students, parents, and school counselors, Cooksey’s advice is to get exposed to manufacturing. Meet with people that work in the industry, understand the broad and diverse careers manufacturing has to offer, and get kids involved in camps at a younger age.
For manufacturers, he says, “It’s our job to open our plants up to the public. Have a plan, get the right people involved, work with the school systems to get students in there, and begin to tell your story in a way they can understand and relate to.”
Cooksey adds: “it’s about shifting the image that kids have about manufacturing, and in doing so, we will change the game in workforce development for our communities and Georgia”.
Brian Cooksey was nominated for Faces of Manufacturing by the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce.
About Shaw Industries
Shaw Industries employs more than 23,000 people globally, including approximately 15,000 in Georgia. Headquartered in Dalton, in northwest Georgia, Shaw is the world’s largest carpet manufacturer. Founded in 1967, Shaw was acquired by Berkshire Hathaway in 2001. The company specializes in carpet, hardwood, resilient, sports turf and other types of floorcovering. In 2015, Forbes ranked Shaw No. 8 on its Best Employer’s in America list, which aligns with the Shaw Learning Academy’s motto of helping people be better at home and at work.
Shaw continues to work toward its 2030 sustainability goals, which includes reducing total waste to landfills by 100 percent, reducing water intensity by 50 percent, and designing 100 percent of its products through its Cradle-to-Cradle protocol, a multi-attribute continuous improvement methodology providing a path to manufacturing safe and sustainable products.