In Chattanooga, there are a handful of folks who go to work each day and do something. Something a little quirky, maybe, or something that maybe has been done forever but has taken on a wonky new title like "director of happiness," or "maker of awesomeness" or even "seafood chef " (not the Red Lobster kind).
Chattanooga bills itself to the nation as a progressive, Southern city on the brink of cool and next-level innovation. Maybe it's that personality — a disposition outside the ordinary — that has seeped into Chattanooga's business community.
But with off-the-wall job titles and descriptions, there are often more questions than answers provided when one of Chattanooga's quirky titlers hand over a business card. But maybe that's the point.
Shelley Prevost, director of happiness at Lamp Post Group, happily entertains queries into her title and duties. One of the venture incubator's co-founders, Prevost's title is a self-appointed one.
Prevost says her responsibilities include directing happiness, sure, but much more than that. It means talking with small business founders and company employees who are dealing with private issues all their own.
It's not about making people happy so they work harder, or better, she says.
It's about keeping people grounded to their humanity, reminding them that they're people first, employees second. It's kind of like being a pastor, she says, just don't call it that. She says outside folks sometimes confuse her title for happiness czar, or enforcer of happiness.
Not true. Prevost says being director of happiness means meeting folks wherever they are and helping them find their way in the stress-filled world of small business.
Across Chattanooga, Summer Kohlhorst hands out business cards describing her as maker of awesomeness.
A Sweetwater, Tennessee native, Kohlhorst found herself in the Center Centre's employ last year. Center Centre is a new school starting up in Chattanooga. The aim is to teach user-interface design and skills to youths, hopefully to build a workforce capable of filling the thousands of coding and interface design jobs being created almost daily in this Internet-focuses world.
“"What I really do is humanize our work, so that people don't have to stop being who they are when they come to work."”
Kohlhorst gets a little kick out of explaining her duties and responsibilities. The truth is, she says, everyone at Center Centre is a maker of awesomeness.
But rather than slap a tired title like "Graphic Designer" or "Director of Marketing" on Kohlhorst, and saddle her with traditional and inside-the-lines responsibilities, Center Centre goes a different route — because it doesn't want its employees limited to one area.
That's exactly the kind of thing Center Centre is trying to discourage in its students. The goal of the school, says Kohlhorst, is to make generalists, well-rounded employees who can do anything in the coding world or learn to, if there's a need. In a world where companies often have less resources and greater needs, Center Centre sees its work — and its quirky titles — as the way of the future.
And of course, there are Chattanooga's animal-centered employers, like the Chattanooga Zoo and the Tennessee Aquarium. Both rely heavily on volunteers to keep the wheels turning — literally.
Mike Nelson is a veteran of the U.S. military and a retired postal supervisor who now works five days a week operating the battery-powered train-on-wheels at the non-profit Chattanooga Zoo.
Nelson began volunteering to have something to do upon retirement, saying he watched everything on the History channel several times and knew he needed to get out of the house. His wife still works, nearby at Alexian Brothers.
Nelson now drives the Zoo Choo around the park, stopping to allow passengers to see the coyotes or the snow leapord. He likes the work, but doesn't know exactly what he wants to be called just yet. "Just Mike" is fine with him.
Across town at the Tennessee Aquarium, the husband-and-wife duo Van and Phyllis McAdams come in every Friday morning and volunteer their day to cutting up dead fish and refrigerated vegetables to feed some of the aquarium's salt water animals.
The duo moved to Chattanooga from the New Orleans area and began volunteering at the aquarium in 2007. They say giving back to the community and providing a service gives them a sense of fulfillment in their retirement.
Plus, they get to play with the animals. Phyllis McAdams says the otters are her favorite.
Van, on the other hand, loves the octopus exhibit. He pats Boo the octopus on the head during enrichment time, all the time pulling her wandering tentacles off his arm. Having only time to kill, McAdams couldn't imagine trading this gig for some run-of-the-mill part-time job greeting folks at the supermarket.
So Chattanooga, the old "Dynamo of Dixie," may never again see the old ways, the old jobs and titles come back. But if the city's current roster of quirky titles is any indicator, this new future may be a lot more interesting at the very least.
Director of Happiness at Lamp Post Group
Shelley Prevost describes herself as being naturally anxious. And fascinated by the science behind happiness. She even studied happiness, is a certified expert on the subject.
She never imagined her expertise would land her here, though.
"Oh God, no," she says. "I constantly am like, 'How did I get here?'"
Prevost is one of Lamp Post's founders. But she's the company's only director of happiness.
"Basically, the best way to describe it ," she says, "Most people would call it coaching, I guess."
Prevost works with the startup entrepreneurs who found companies with Lamp Post's guidance and assistance. It can be a stressful gig at times, putting all your money and life's savings on the line to start your own business.
That's where Prevost comes in. She helps entrepreneurs remember that they're humans first, business people second. She helps keep their priorities in line.
"What I really do is humanize our work, so that people don't have to stop being who they are when they come to work," says Prevost.
Maker of Awesomeness at Center Centre
At Center Centre, everyone is encouraged to be makers of awesomeness. For Summer Kohlhorst, that means churning out slick graphic design and marketing packages on behalf of the Chattanooga-based UX (user interface) school.
"It's pretty much all hands on deck," says Kohlhorst.
Center Centre is preparing for its first one-of-a-kind course offering that will pull young people interested in learning UX code from all over and teaching them what it takes to make awesome interface content. Classes start in January.
Kohlhorst grew up nearby, in Sweetwater, Tennessee, and she's been at Center Centre for just over a year now. She designs websites, signage and manages social media content for Center.
Kohlhorst said while the title is a little quirky, the work is satisfying and always opportunity-filled.
"Everyday, it's something a little bit different," she says. "The school itself, it's about generalists of people."
The real prize will be seeing Center Centre students go on to be "adaptable to be good teachers and bosses," says Kohlhorst.
Train technician/conductor/engineer/"just Mike" at The Chattanooga Zoo
Mike Nelson eases his foot down on the accelerator, and the Zoo Choo, bells jingling and steam audibly flowing, goes into motion.
Next stop, Hamilton Place Mall, he says.
Nelson is the man who Monday through Friday, 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m., will take you around the Chattanooga Zoo in style via the battery-operated train.
The train actually rolls on rubber tires and isn't bound to a track, but kids don't mind. Their eyes light up all the same when they hand their tokens over the man in the pin-stripe hat.
Nelson cracks jokes, stops at various exhibits and escorts his little passengers on and off the Zoo Choo. And then he takes Lysol wipes and rubs the whole thing down, several times a day. He is responsible for keeping the train washed and stored at night.
Not a bad retirement, Nelson says.
A military veteran, Nelson went on to give 30 years of his life to the postal service before retiring.
He pulls the train up to its loading zone near the zoo's entrance and turns around with a big smile.
"Now that's a $3 ride," he says.
Even before he knew what a limnologist was, Tyler Baker wanted to be one. Since he got interested in the fish and aquatic life of area streams and lakes while in middle school student in Cleveland, Tennessee, Baker says he has been fascinated by inland waterways.
Like an archaeologist digging in the dirt for fossils or an oceanographer studying the bottom of the sea for aquatic life, a limnologist assesses the water and aquatic life of lakes and streams.
Baker studied environmental science at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville before joining the Tennessee Valley Authority in 1988 as part of TVA's ecological stream monitoring program. Baker, 47, has helped TVA develop and maintain one of the longest and most systematic data series monitoring the health of TVA's 31 reservoirs and the streams and rivers that flow into those lakes. TVA regularly monitors 70 sites on its reservoirs and tests 600 sites on streams across its 7-state service territory.
Over the years, the TVA department names and funding for Baker's work have changed. But Baker says the mission of his job has remained the same: to monitor and assess the quality of the Tennessee River and its tributaries upon which so much of the region's economy and quality of life depends.
"Being involved in such a big organization as TVA, there is always something challenging and interesting before us," he says.
From his lab and office near the Chickamauga Dam in Chattanooga, Baker oversees TVA teams that use specially outfitted boats to electroshock fish to help get a holistic view of the reservoir for contaminant analysis. Largemouth bass are tested for mercury, while channel catfish are screened for about organics and metals. Baker says such tests verify that the quality of TVA lakes has improved in the past generation.
Baker, who fishes on the lakes in his spare time, says his work helps him know some about where the fish are on most lakes.
"I can tell you where the fish may be, but I can't tell you how to get them on your hook," he quips.
Van and Phyliss McAdams
Seafood Chefs, Tennessee Aquarium
At 9 a.m. every Friday, the McAdams husband-and-wife combo roll into the kitchen at the Tennessee Aquarium and slip on their blue latex gloves.
Originally from the greater-New Orleans area, the duo wound up in Chattanooga because they fell in love with the city while Van spent time here as an engineer at TVA.
They started volunteering at the aquarium just to have something to do. But like the city itself, the McAdams fell in love with the aquarium and jumped at the chance to become seafood chefs — just not in the Red Lobster sense.
The duo prepares Friday heavy-feeding day provisions for some of the aquarium's most notable salt water animals, like the sharks, penguins and octopuses. And it's not as easy as chucking fish into the exhibits.
The duo dices small fresh water smelt fish for the small fish at the Secret Reef exhibit, preserves the parts the octopuses particularly like along the way. They prepare full-bodied blue runners with vitamins for the sharks.
Clam, squid, romaine lettuce: it's all on the menu.
"These fish eat well," Phyllis says.
She and Van like that their job gives them a chance to interact with the animals.
"This is my favorite part of the job," says Van, as Boo the octopus wraps a tentacle around his outstretched hand.
This story originally appeared in Edge magazine, which may be viewed online at www.meetsforbusiness.com. If you have or know someone with an unusual job title, please contact Business Editor Dave Flessner at firstname.lastname@example.org or 757-6340