Generation Resilient Goes to Work: Chattanooga’s Gen Z Workers Find Purpose

Travel back in time to a significant moment – graduation. You’re walking onto the stage toward that last step of your education when you’ll receive your hard-earned diploma and turn your tassel.

On that day you might’ve felt hopeful, or even invincible – before entering the intimidating world known as the workforce.

Fast forward to 2020 — college graduations were cancelled, tassels unturned and graduates left to enter a turbulent workforce.

In June 2020, a Statista study revealed college graduate unemployment rates hit a record high of 13.3%, compared to 4.2% in June 2019. The National Association of Colleges and Employees found that for students working toward finishing degrees, only 22% of approximately 10,000 students surveyed found internships between November 2020 and March 2021.

Entering the workforce during this time felt like a scene out of a movie. Like the scene in “The Amazing Spiderman 2” where Gwen Stacy, played by Emma Stone, sums up the post graduation experience perfectly. The high school valedictorian says, “It’s easy to feel hopeful on a beautiful day like today, but there will be dark days ahead of us too. And there’ll be days when you feel all alone, and that’s when hope is needed the most.”

Amidst workforce challenges brought on by the pandemic, Chattanooga continued offering amazing opportunities for entry-level workers. In fact, LinkedIn News listed Chattanooga as second in entry-level workforce growth between 2020 and 2021. Organizations including the Chattanooga Area Chamber of Commerce continued to strengthen business retention, expansion and recruitment initiatives during these times. Gig City is seeing those initiatives come alive as it attracts and retains talent at every level, including Gen Z — individuals born between 1995 and 2010.

Trend interviewed two Chattanooga residents whose stories show how Gen Z powered through the pandemic to pursue purposeful careers: Shayna Ryan, Marketing Coordinator, Austin Hatcher Foundation; and Mathew Gines, Recruiter, Steam Logistics. We also interviewed Karis Tucker, Human Resources Manager, Kenco Group, to learn what local companies should do to attract and retain entry-level talent.

A Passion for Purpose: Meet Shayna Ryan

Image courtesy of Savannah Massey
Shayna Ryan, Marketing Coordinator,
Austin Hatcher Foundation for Pediatric Cancer

Ryan sat down for our interview less than 24 hours before graduating college. She earned two degrees from Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee – majoring in public relations and digital media journalism with double minors in business administration and media writing. Because of the pandemic, most of Ryan’s college and internship experience was done remotely. She recently graduated and has entered a new role as a marketing coordinator for the Austin Hatcher Foundation for Pediatric Cancer.

Trend: How did the pandemic affect your college experience, internships and job search?

Ryan: In spring 2020, I went back home to Collierville, Tennessee and finished the school semester online. Our generation is lucky to have great technology. I was sad that my lacrosse season and international studies trip were cancelled, but the hardest part of completing school virtually was the lack of face-to-face relationships.

I began looking for internships in spring of 2021 and included a note on my applications that said, “I know there is uncertainty with the pandemic. If you do not need an intern anymore, just let me know.”

I was blessed with a great internship and three on-campus jobs while at Lee University. I had to search but found good opportunities.

My internship was with Proof Incubator. As the marketing intern, I communicated pandemic related information to downtown restaurants. I enjoyed using my skills to help local organizations navigate COVID-19. The internship was my introduction to downtown Chattanooga where I will now work fulltime.

Image courtesy of Savannah Massey

Trend: What were your biggest takeaways from studying and searching for internships?

Ryan: I learned the importance of flexibility. Uncertain circumstances taught me to be adaptable and patient amidst change. I also learned the importance of empathy during a time where everyone, including hiring managers and employees, faced loss to some degree.

Trend: How did you stay motivated during uncertain times?

Ryan: I had the unique opportunity to spend my spring semester with family. Normally, college students do not go home mid semester. My family values education and encouraged me to persevere in times of frustration. Their encouragement was my motivation.

Trend: What does Gen Z value in their employers?

Ryan: My generation values empathetic employers. We want work environments where managers show compassion in times of struggle. Gen Z values working for organizations that support mental health care. An organization’s reputation and communication are important. We also value flexibility, especially after the pandemic.

A Passion for People: Meet Matthew Gines

Image courtesy of Savannah Massey
Matthew Gines, Recruiter, Steam Logistics

Gines, a naturally people-oriented and self-described superhero aficionado, enjoys working in a role that heavily interacts with others. His positive attitude and comradery shone throughout our interview at Steam Logistics’ headquarters as he joked and laughed with coworkers passing by.

Gines graduated from The University of Tennessee at Knoxville in December 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in marketing and a concentration in supply chain. He searched for eight months before applying for a logistics sales coordinator position at Steam. As luck would have it, Malcolm Harris, director of culture and brand experience at Steam, let Gines know about a new HR position. Gines was right for the job and his search was finally over.

Trend: What were some of your challenges of entering the workforce?

Gines: To me, the “Great Resignation” felt more like a great reshuffle. Many experienced professionals viewed the pandemic as an opportunity to begin new careers. I noticed candidates applying for entry-level marketing roles that had 5 to10 years of work experience over me, and my competitors’ work experience took precedent over my marketing degree. I quickly shifted my expectations of directly transitioning into the workforce and realized I may need to work a non marketing job for a while.

My passion is interacting with people. I struggled for months to find the right opportunity. Now, I can interact with beautiful and diverse people and help them find opportunities. I have had a full circle experience.

Image courtesy of Savannah Massey

Trend: What was your biggest takeaway? What lessons did you bring to your new role?

Gines: The pandemic instilled resiliency in me. I faced adversity in the job market and chose to continue pursuing opportunity after opportunity. One of Steam’s maxims is to never settle. I wanted to build my career and did not give up until I found an opportunity I was passionate about.

Resiliency is crucial as a recruiter. Steam is a fast growing company with 15 to 20 new hires every week. New hires do not always show up and frustrating situations occur. However, the pandemic taught me to be more understanding. I consider the circumstances that could be happening behind the scenes. I am a better recruiter because I can bounce back from frustrations and empathize with others more easily.

Trend: How did you stay motivated while looking for job opportunities during uncertain times?

Gines: I am grateful to have a supportive family. I considered staying in Knoxville after graduation but knew that having my support system nearby would be beneficial both during and after the pandemic. While looking for jobs, my family reassured me that I would not be unemployed forever. My church family was also supportive.

Personally, I am not okay with failure. My post graduation goal was to become financially stable. I knew I did not have to meet my goal immediately, but I also knew I should be making progress toward my goal. I always kept my goal in the forefront of my mind.

Trend: What are the benefits of being a young professional in Chattanooga?

Gines: Chattanooga creates an environment where young professionals can grow personally and professionally. There are many opportunities, especially in logistics and various industries. Chattanooga allows young professionals to build their skills after graduation without immediately being thrown into the hustle and bustle of a large city. If you decide to move to a larger city later in your career, you will be more prepared!

A Passion for Potential: Meet Karis Tucker

Image courtesy of Savannah Massey
Karis Tucker, Human Resources Manager, Kenco Group

Tucker, an avid hiker and “The Office” super fan, manages human resources for Kenco Group a Chattanooga-based logistics company.

She’s been in the workforce for over 10 years and moved to Chattanooga for a marketing position in September 2012. Tucker quickly found a passion for human resources and operations serving nonprofit, tech and logistics teams. When new hires walk through Kenco’s doors on their first day of work, it’s Tucker’s responsibility to make them feel that the company is ready for their arrival.

Trend: What are the biggest challenges facing young professionals entering the workforce?

Tucker: Uncertainty. I graduated college during the 2008 recession and entered the job market in 2010. There were few jobs at the time. If you found a job, you did not know how long the job would exist. I remember how scared I felt. The older you get, the easier it becomes to ride out waves. You have lived more life and know that the world will be okay in the end. The uncertainty can be terrifying for someone who is just entering the workforce.

Image courtesy of Savannah Massey

Trend: How can managers support young professionals?

Tucker: Gen Z values mental and emotional support. They want managers who prioritize taking care of mental health. Gen Z needs accountability, especially while working remotely. They want to be trained and know their managers’ expectations upfront. Gen Z grew up on their phones and crave good technology. If they do not know something, they will look it up on YouTube. Gen Z is a teachable generation and wants to be mentored by seasoned professionals. They also value working for organizations whose missions align with their morals.

I participated in UTC’s HR Leadership Academy and spent a lot of time talking about Gen Z’s communication needs and how employers meet those needs. Managers will interact more effectively with younger employees by taking time to learn their communication and conflict styles.

Trend: What advice would you give to HR professionals looking to recruit new talent?

Tucker: Be compassionate. Young graduates did not get the college experience they expected. Their loss is to be grieved. Prioritize hiring candidates that are willing to be molded. Be willing to help them grow.

Trend: What are the benefits of being a young professional in Chattanooga?

Tucker: Overall, a low cost of living. Chattanooga is a great city for spending time outdoors, and there are many things to do outside of work. There are always festivals happening. The community is welcoming and there are many co-working opportunities for remote workers to build relationships.

Tips to Attract Great Talent

While individual goals vary across talents and industries, there are certain goals shared by our Gen Z participants that recruiters should keep in mind when hiring entry-level workers.

Gen Z desires a solid support system, whether that is found through family, friends or a professional community. In Chattanooga, managers can help young employees connect with other professionals through organizations like the Chamber’s Young Professionals of Chattanooga and networking groups like ChattaNewbies.

Work-life balance is valuable to Gen Z. Young professionals may seek hobbies in arts, nature or recreation through organizations like Chattanooga Football Club, green|spaces and ArtsBuild.

Gen Z is goal oriented but looks for empathetic employers that prioritize flexibility and purpose. They respect employers who prioritize communication and mental health; and thrive under training and mentorship. Organizations looking to enhance these skills can do so through courses like those offered by UTC’s Center for Professional Education.

Challenge your organization to champion Gen Z professionals as they learn to navigate their careers and adult lives.


Author Bio:

Marah Whitaker serves as marketing assistant for the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga’s Center for Professional Education (UTC CPE).

The center manages all of UTC’s non-credit certifications, credentialing and workforce training. Custom corporate training, professional development courses and medical career academies are all offered through the center. CPE believes in offering excellent lifelong learning programs to meet the diverse educational needs of those they serve.

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