Chattanooga-area workers are jumping out of their jobs in record numbers, seeking flexibility, following their passions

Staff Photo by Matt Hamilton / Bethany McCoy looks on as Caleb Luzader ties a fly at Ranger Outdoors in Charleston, Tenn. on Tuesday, November 23, 2021.

Quitting is big, but the so-called Great Resignation feels more like a wave of job migrations than a wholesale workforce exodus, says Frank Butler, UC Foundation professor of management at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and co-host of the podcast "The Busyness Paradox."

"A lot of it is people exiting the workforce, but a larger part is people getting better offers," Butler says. "They're moving to new jobs."

The number of people bailing voluntarily out of their jobs in 2021 set records, with 4.4 million clocking out for good in September. That quit rate of 3% was the highest rate since the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics first started publishing the rate in December 2000.

Meanwhile, unemployment reached local lows, as the combination of more jobs and fewer workers cut the jobless rate to 2.9% in Chattanooga, tying the lowest rate since March 2001.

The new willingness to take the leap to a fresh role is inspired by a number of factors, from people following their passions or looking for more work-from-home flexibility to more pressure on workers who have small children to care for, Butler says.

"People are going to jobs that will give them the flexibility they want, and I think a lot of people realized they could live on less," he says.

For Jessica Bodet, shifting to working from home during the pandemic forever changed the way she viewed her daily commute from Marion County to downtown Chattanooga.

"I was gone 10 or 11 hours in the day because of the commute," says Bodet, who left her job in favor of a new role that gave her more time at home. "Now I feel like I have a better grip on my life."

For Meghan O'Dea, who left her job in Nashville and moved home to Chattanooga to regroup with family, the early isolation of the pandemic was nearly unbearable.

"I spent six months alone in an apartment," she says. "Once a week, I'd go through the Starbucks drive-thru to see a person and say hello."

But while the pandemic fueled plenty of job changes, it wasn't the main factor for some people. Ryan Ewalt, the new chief operating officer for the city of Chattanooga, says the pandemic was just the backdrop for a new role that brings him back to his roots in public service after years in corporate roles.

"I was already thinking a little bit about this, and what I'm doing is the greatest alignment with my passions," he says. "So there was maybe a little seed of that influence, but nothing major."

The job migration trend isn't likely to slow down until the pandemic stops throwing curve balls, Butlers says.

"With the pandemic going on an unknown amount of time, that will continue create disruption in how people want to work," Butler says.

Bethany McCoy: Taking her career path outside

When Bethany McCoy officially began her job as vice president of operations at Ranger Outdoors in June 2021, the company had been a family affair and personal side-hustle since her father launched it five years ago.

"It started with one acquisition and has quickly grown from one brand to I think we're at seven brands now," McCoy says. "I helped out with whatever he needed as they were growing - to grow that quickly is kind of unheard of."

Her career as director of Community Relations at Lee University in Cleveland, Tennessee, was fulfilling and fun, McCoy says, and she loved teaching public relations as a part-time member of the faculty, but the pandemic pushed her to rethink her direction.

"When the pandemic hit, you're spending a lot of time together as a family, your bubble gets real small," McCoy says. "That became our social circle, and in the midst of this I'm watching my dad having to pivot and innovate, and I found myself starting to help him strategically in a lot of ways to figure out how we could still stay open, to distribute, to manufacture."

In addition to spending more time with her family, and helping her father and brother grow the Bradley County-based outdoor supply business, McCoy was spending more time close to the natural world she loves, she adds.

"Because I had this time, I was getting to work from home and we would drive up to the Tellico, and I would sit by the river and work and breathe and read and remember why I loved that so much," she says. "That was another part of it. I really love being out here."

After 15 years working in public relations and marketing, changing course to help her family build a business that will be their legacy felt like the right next move, McCoy says.

"I looked at the potential to go and work with my family while also understanding that it would prove be one of the most challenging roles I've ever had to take on," McCoy says. "But what an incredible place to be - to get to help others within your family move forward, to build a legacy.

"It's fun to get to see your dad and your brother have these wins and see them excited and be part of that."

Ryan Ewalt: From corporate operations to public service

In November 2021, Ryan Ewalt took a new job as chief operating officer for the city of Chattanooga after more than seven years in service operations at insurance provider Unum. Before that, he had spent four years in project management and strategy at Volkswagen.

But his jump from the corporate world into city service isn't as big a departure as it may seem, Ewalt says. His master's degree from the University of North Carolina is in public administration, and his passion is community-building, he says.

"Coming out of grad school, I decided to move to the private sector to get stronger in the operational space, but my wife and I went to this grad school program because we both had a heart for public service," says Ewalt, who met his wife, Heather, while they were both students at Chapel Hill. "I knew at some point I would come back to that, but I wasn't sure in what capacity or when exactly, so when this opportunity came up, we looked at each other and said, 'Maybe this is it.'"

Ewalt didn't know Chattanooga Mayor Tim Kelly, but they had a mutual friend who felt sure Ewalt would be the right person for the chief operations officer job Kelly hoped to fill. The friend arranged a lunch, and Ewalt started the conversation by telling Kelly all the reasons he probably wasn't the right guy for a political job, he says. As it turned out, that was a persuasive conversation-starter, Ewalt adds with a laugh.

"I think the mayor prides himself on being a localist at heart, and I'm not a strong partisan person, I'm very pragmatic, and I think we both like getting things done to make a positive impact. I saw that as a big alignment for us."

As soon as the lunch wrapped, Ewalt went to his bosses at Unum to talk through what the opportunity could mean.

"They knew I had a master's, but they thought it was in business administration, and I was like, 'Actually, it's in public administration,'" Ewalt says. "I told them this was a great opportunity to serve the city, and an honor to be asked to serve in this way. Long before I made a decision or there was an offer, they were extremely supportive. They said, 'We care about Chattanooga, too, and we would love for you to be able to take what you've learned at Unum and make a positive impact.'"

There's a fair amount of uncertainty inherent to a job like this, Ewalt says, but it felt like the right time to take the plunge.

"I don't necessarily know how this is going to go. I don't know if this is a one-year deal or an eight-year deal," he says.

And with three children ages 8, 5 and 3, the family anticipates some juggling to make his new job work, Ewalt adds.

"I do think for my wife, because we met in grad school, and she focuses on this kind of work and we share a heart for service and our city, I think it will be easier for her to get behind the why anywhere they may be trade-offs," Ewalt says. "I hope also it can have any positive impact on the kids, they'll see sometimes we are called to serve the folks around us to try to make an impact for good."

Jessica Bodet: No place like home

Jessica Bodet's son was born in July 2019, and she had been back at work from maternity leave for just a few months when the pandemic struck and everyone went remote.

From March to July 2020, Bodet worked from her home in Marion County, cutting out her long daily commute to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and becoming a more engaged and available parent to Landon, she says.

"Working from home every day, I kind of got spoiled by that, and I realized that was what I wanted," she says. "I kind of internally made it my goal to eventually find a work-from-home opportunity once I realized I liked being home to be nearby if he needed me, or the flexibility for doctor's appointments."

In April 2021, Bodet started a new job as a communications specialist with BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee that offers her the opportunity to work from home two days a week. She and her team meet in the office three days a week, but they have the latitude to choose the days and collectively plan their collaboration time, she says.

"For the most part we kind of congregated and said 'What days are you going to go?' and we all go at the same time," she says.

But leaving her job in marketing and communications in the Rollins College of Business at UTC was a difficult decision, Bodet says. She had interned in the department as a student, then gone to work there full time in 2016, and she loved the work and her team, she says.

"It was a one-stop shop - from email campaigns to social media, print marketing, event planning and hosting," she says. "You name it, we were doing it, so it had to be a traditional structure in the office every day, and sometimes in the evening or on weekends depending on the event schedule."

After her son was born prematurely and spent 46 days in neonatal intensive care, Bodet took four months off work to be with him, she says. When she returned to work, being away from him was hard, and she realized once the pandemic sent her home to work that she needed more flexibility.

"For me, it's a benefit psychologically and I still have a career that's meaningful to me," Bodet says. "I have the flexibility to have the career that I studied for I value and I want to do it, and to also be a good mom and be around for him and have those afternoons not taken up by the commute."

Meghan O'Dea: Taking a pandemic pause

Meghan O'Dea was six months into her dream job, working in Nashville for travel brand Lonely Planet, when the pandemic changed everything.

"I couldn't believe my luck, and six months later there's a global pandemic," says O'Dea, a Chattanooga native who had been living and working in Oregon when she came back to Tennessee in 2019. "It was very weird landing this dream job and suddenly I've never traveled less than the two years I spent as a travel editor."

First came the isolation of lockdown, and then her employer was acquired by another company, leaving her wondering whether the job she had once loved was one she wanted at all, O'Dea says.

"I was feeling like I had to make a change, and I was seeing all of these articles about the Great Resignation," she says. "I have friends in other cities around the country, we are all in completely different lines of work, and we were all making major career changes or thinking about it or talking about it this summer.

"Having two of the worst years of your life really makes you reassess your priorities."

O'Dea wasn't sure how to get from where she was to where she wanted to be, so she asked her parents in Chattanooga if she could quit and come home, just for a while.

"I quit my job at Lonely Planet in July without having something else lined up, which was against all the rules," O'Dea says. "I moved back in with my parents at almost 35 during a global pandemic, and none of this lined up with the vision I had for my life."

But her time at home allowed her to save money and enjoy being near her parents, and it gave her a firm foundation to start over when the world felt a little steadier, O'Dea says.

While she was home, she co-taught a course in travel writing at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with her father, who's a professor there, and she eventually landed a new job with a marketing agency in Colorado, where she moved in December 2021.

"I'm feeling hopeful for the first time in a really long time," O'Dea says.


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