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How recruiters can hit a home run

Student athletes can be a prime source for populating your talent pipeline.
By: | December 11, 2019 • 4 min read

While attending the University of Massachusetts, Matthew Mottola played first base for the UMass Lowell River Hawks baseball team. Back then, baseball monopolized a big part of his life, hopes and dreams. But after graduating in 2015, reality hit. Only 10.5% of college athletes make the pros after graduation, leaving Mottola to search for a traditional job.

Mottola, now a lead growth with the Microsoft 365 freelance toolkit, says his athletic experiences helped prepare him for the world of work. They challenged him to develop raw discipline and time-management skills, focus on outcomes and foster his ability to work in adverse conditions where outcomes can’t be controlled.

“When I was an athlete, I learned how to optimize my time and withstand pressure,” he says. “If I didn’t have a good sports year, I could lose my scholarship the next year. I was under a lot of pressure, faced real deadlines and real outcomes.”

At a time of low unemployment and a shortage of skilled talent, employers are searching for qualified candidates to fill key positions. Many have developed special recruiting programs that target seniors, veterans or candidates of color, for example. But some are filling their talent pipeline with athletes, an untapped niche of skilled workers who can succeed in high-paced, high-pressured and highly competitive environments.

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Life after Sports

Several years ago, Quicken Loans Inc., developed a strategic-recruiting plan targeting student athletes, says DJ Bridges, university relations manager at the mortgage-lending company.

“We found that athletes bring a diverse thought process and a set of intangibles—transferable skills like coachability, leadership and time management—that they’re able to easily translate into the real world workplace,” he says, adding that Quicken hires up to 100 college athletes every year. “The skills they built and learned through athletics allow them to come into a company and do well right off the bat.”

Bridges says his company developed a series of free workshops for student athletes that address various topics, such as how to build a resume, budget and buy a house. The workshops are offered during late afternoons or early evenings to accommodate an athlete’s training schedule, which can be equivalent to a full-time job.

The company also invites employees—who are former college athletes—to mentor student athletes after being hired or talk about their own sports and career experiences at workshops, career fairs and office tours. At one career fair, he says, Quicken brought employees from each of its 13 companies to engage with student athletes.

“They may not have the extensive experience that another student on campus might have but that doesn’t mean they’re not great candidates,” says Bridges.

The Michigan Athletics Career Center at the University of Michigan partners with roughly 1,000 employers to fill jobs, says Cody Riffle, employee relations coordinator at the center.

“The best way to make sure your job opportunities are on top is to build a brand within the university,” he says, adding that, of those 1,000 employers, only 50 to 100 routinely sponsor monthly or quarterly events like workshops or after-game pizza parties.

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Riffle says employers need to align themselves with colleges that recruit student athletes for jobs in their industry. Take a school that mostly partners with healthcare companies; if you’re in IT, you may be better off going elsewhere.

“You may be placed on the back burner because you’re in IT, not healthcare,” he says, explaining that the majority of the school’s career fairs may focus on healthcare jobs. “You may not get the same level of commitment as healthcare companies if the university doesn’t bring in a broad range of employers.”

Overcome Biases

Companies can also create micro-internships for student athletes. Unlike traditional internships, where students work on site during the summer on a specific project or task, micro-internships offer a remote component.

“Identify a handful of hiring managers who have projects and give them ways to engage student athletes for these projects,” says Jeffrey Moss, founder and CEO of Parker Dewey, an organization that facilitates micro-internships between companies and college students. “Part of the trick is helping hiring managers appreciate the value that student athletes bring by overcoming biases they may have. Companies oftentimes filter candidates based on their grade-point averages and majors, even though they’re not good predictors of success.”

Another best practice is to ask employees to work with their college alumni network to figure out how to engage student athletes. He says employees usually enjoy “giving back” to their alma mater, and this also helps them feel more valued by their employer.

“One of the challenges for both college athletes and companies is the lack of appreciation for the crosswalk between skills that make successful student athletes and skills required for successful professionals across all roles,” says Moss. “Student athletes have those core [business] skills that are most valued.”

Carol Patton is a contributing editor for HRE who also writes HR articles and columns for business and education magazines. She can be reached at hreletters@lrp.com.

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