The Front of the Line

Aug. 9, 2018

Intern Chegrys Palacios and De' Rhonda Hubbard at the Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga

STEP-UP intern Chegrys Palacios talks about what his time at Chattanooga’s Tennessee Aquarium means to him

What skills do employers want most?

It varies, of course, across jobs and industries, but increasingly today’s employers are looking for experience that’s amplified by something extra: soft skills.

Soft skills are characteristics that enable a person to interact effectively and harmoniously with others.

They include:

  • Adaptability
  • Analytical capability
  • Positive attitude
  • Effective communication skills
  • Willingness to collaborate
  • Solid interpersonal skills
  • Leadership and growth potential

While these skills must be developed over a lifetime, giving kids an opportunity to learn and practice them outside of home or school is an invaluable first step toward their future careers.

What it means to STEP-UP

In Chattanooga, the STEP-UP program gives low-income high school students that head start, providing them with work-readiness training and helping place them in paid internships that develop these skills.

“We interview them as if they’d just applied,” says De’ Rhonda Hubbard, assistant manager at the Tennessee Aquarium. “We put them first in line, so to speak, but we ask all about their strengths and tell them our expectations. Interviewing for a job is a big life step, and it takes practice.”

Most STEP-UP interns are taking on their first job, and it can be an eye-opening experience. At a big attraction like the aquarium, which draws 750,000 visitors a year, the kids must interact with a lot of people.

“They get to build a foundation of what it’s like to speak to people who aren’t from Chattanooga, Tennessee,” says Hubbard. “These kids are so young and their brains are ready to absorb everything. I love to see in their eyes that they’re so hungry to learn.”

Hubbard sees a unique appreciation of the opportunity among their STEP-UP interns.  

“Everybody wants a job, but the STEP-UP program is important because it allows students to receive that early job experience,” says Hubbard. “It helps those who might be caring for a little brother or sister at home, or just wanting to save money. The connections that others have to get a job might not be accessible to these kids, so it means just a little bit more.”

Better Tennessee spoke with Chegrys Palacios, 15, about his experience as a STEP-UP intern.


Better Tennessee: How does the interview process work?

Chegrys Palacios: They asked me lots of questions about what I like to do, how I’d handle certain situations, how I approach questions.

The interview process was really calm — it was just talking like I would to anyone else — so even though there was a job on the line, it wasn’t as stressful as I thought. I think knowing that will make interviews easier for me in the future.

BT: What does the job entail on a day-to-day basis?

Chegrys: I rotate between posts in the river and ocean buildings, so one hour I might be scanning tickets and the next I’ll be talking to guests about where to go, looking for any ways I can help. I spent a whole day with someone from the visitor service team who trained me on how to handle certain situations.

Customer service is a big skill I’ve learned here.

BTWhat has been your biggest challenge?

Chegrys: Patience. I have to slow down to answer questions, keep kids from messing around on escalators, talk to people who may be upset.

Working here has taught me how to treat guests, and how to approach things.

BT: What has been your favorite part?

Chegrys: The people.

It’s a great job, but I really love talking to everyone on the service team.

That and taking all the back routes to get through the building quicker!

BT: Do you think you would have been able to find a good, paying internship otherwise?

Chegrys: I feel like it would have been a much longer process.

I would have to fill out information tons of times, and even then, for a lot of jobs, I’d be at the back of the line.

They helped me get to the front.

BT: What do you want people to know about STEP UP?

Chegrys: I want them to know that this program can really help you get your life straightened out and give you life experience in the job world.

It will put you in a better place because you’re learning new skills.

I feel like having the aquarium on my resume, when I go somewhere else, people will know that.

I’ll have a better chance of getting that job because I made it here.

Photos by Rebecca Sosebee

Watch to learn more about STEP-UP