Contributed photo / Stephanie Hollis

Stephanie Hollis, the director of Career Services at Chattanooga State Community college, has spent nearly 20 years helping other people find the careers that suit them best. Before coming to Chattanooga State 11 years ago, she worked at the University of Tennessee in Chattanooga and in Knoxville, though she started out in 1990 in recruitment and admissions and landed later in career development. Through economic boom and bust cycles, and now through a pandemic, Hollis has guided people seeking to find their footing in the constantly shifting world of work.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

At a community college, you must serve a broad range of students. Who do you work with?

Some people may not know this, but we have high school students on our campus, as well, so I serve students that are in their mid-teens who are still in high school and taking some college classes through early college program, and then I also serve people we've had graduate all the way up into their 80s because it's a goal they've set for themselves.

There are some big differences, of course, but the underlying factors are all the same, in a way. What I do is I help people get connected with a career, and so the motions that you typically go through, the basics are helping people learn a little more about themselves, their personality type, helping them gain more insight on career matches that might be best for them, and then helping them work through the positives and negatives of their career choice, making sure the positives outweigh the negatives, and helping them decide on a major and what the next steps will be.

How has the pandemic affected who you're advising and what they're asking?

I think that the pandemic actually has caused people to pause. It has caused a little bit of a difference in how people go about looking at their career and what they're doing. It has brought about so much uncertainty and confusion and stress for people that they've started doing some self-reflection, and they are looking at the opportunity to maybe slow down a little, learn and maybe reset, pivot, whatever you want to call it, as far as career choice goes. Maybe because there is so much uncertainty and confusion going on with the political climate, all those things, but people are looking for some happiness, stability, to feel more satisfied or fulfilled in their careers. I do see more people coming and talking to me about, 'I want to take this opportunity to make a change and do what I really set out to do,' or 'I was thinking in high school I wanted to do this and life happened and I never got to do it, so this is my chance to do this.' They're taking advantage of this time to consider a career pivot and return to school.

What do you encourage them to consider in making changes?

I start off the conversation — and I had not used this question very much in the past — but I start with, 'Ask yourself if you are prepared to deal with two life-altering events at the same time.' If they say yes, I'm taking on this challenge, then my advice is do your homework. Take advantage of all the resources out there for you. Maybe ask yourself, are you unhappy with your job, or with your career? There's a difference. Maybe it's just your job.

Are people gravitating toward any careers in particular now?

One thing I'm seeing often is people going the health care route. When I talk with students and they're working in a business career field, many are like, 'This is not me at all, I want to care for people, I want to help people, in high school I thought about being a nurse and that's what I want to do.' People pivot through life experience and maybe careful reflection — they say to themselves, 'This is not who I am, this is not what I want to do.' They consider health care or going into teaching, or those professions where they're really providing help and care for others. It's not necessarily all about the money, it's more about self-fulfillment.

The pandemic has something to do with it, but people are in the workforce so much longer now than they were in the past. People are in workforce into their 70s, they come back for a second career and work another 10 or 20 years. The pandemic has escalated that a little, but sometimes the career pivot is they worked a long time in a profession they didn't love and they're able to leave that job and do what they want.

Are you seeing a lot of people who have lost jobs?

When the pandemic first occurred, I thought this was going to be another 2008, 2009, with an influx of people laid off from their jobs, but it hasn't been anywhere near the number of people laid off. To me, it's more people who are just doing some self-reflection and thinking life is short, maybe I do want to make a change.

What are some tools you use to help people pick a direction?

We use a career assessment called Pathway U. What they're all about is helping people find their passion and purpose, and when you do that, you typically help someone connect with a career they get excited about. They want to pursue that career, and they start their education and want to continue on if they see the end result will get them to that goal.

We also have several resources we use to help people learn more about careers, and one is the Occupational Outlook Handbook. The Bureau of Labor Statistics gives some projections and a breakdown about the job on career growth potential. They usually do a 10-year snapshot. We want to look at the projection — is this career going to be around in 10 years? If you see a flat growth or decline, then maybe this is not a good choice, depending where you are in your career. If you're right out of college, we don't want to pick something that's going to go away. With ONET OnLine, the other resource we often use, you get a really good in-depth look at what is needed to do a particular career, you learn about skills, ability, knowledge, technical skills you'll need, personality types that function better in these jobs,

What's the best part of your job?

I just got an email from a student who came to me — she was applying for an incredibly competitive internship, and she asked for some resume help, so I helped her with that, and she asked for a mock interview, so I said absolutely and we did a virtual mock interview. She sent me an email yesterday to thank me, and said, 'I got the internship and without you I probably would not have succeeded.' Knowing I helped a student get to the next level is the best part of my job. Or someone comes back and says, 'Thank you for helping me, I love my classes, I love my major, I'm so excited about my career.'

What's your bottom-line best advice to someone looking to make a career change?

The thing I always encourage people to do if they're thinking about coming back to college or making a pivot or a career change, the best advice I can give someone is network, talk with people, ask questions, find people in the industry you want to go into, make sure you have a full understanding of what the career and job might entail and do your research. Don't go into a career choice blindly. You'll be in their workforce for 40 years, make sure you're doing your due diligence to make sure this is a good career match. Ask for a mentor, ask for help knowing what you're getting into.