Why Employers Like Hiring College Athletes
In There Is Life After College, Jeff Selingo explores why students struggle to launch into a career after college and how they can better navigate the route from high school through college and into the work world. It will be released by HarperCollins April 12, but pre-order your copy now for a free signed bookplate and access to exclusive bonus content.
In a few weeks, as the NCAA men’s basketball tournament gets underway on CBS, you’re likely to see a spate of commercials for Enterprise Rent-A-Car that feature former college athletes behind the rental counter. Enterprise—which hires more college graduates annually for entry-level management positions than any other company in the United States—likes to recruit college athletes as employees because they believe athletes know how to commit to a task.
“We see a lot of transferable skills in athletes,” Marie Artim, vice president of talent acquisition at Enterprise, told me for my forthcoming book, There Is Life After College.
So do other employers. A recent report from Gallup found that college athletes are more likely to be highly engaged in the workplace compared to those students who didn’t play college sports. Forty-two percent of former athletes who are fully employed after college said they like what they do every day and are motivated to achieve their goals, compared to 38 percent of nonathletes. Female athletes were the most likely to be engaged at work, with 48 percent saying they had high levels of engagement, compared to 41 percent of nonathlete female students.
Athletes are a textbook example of the 10,000 hours theory described by Malcolm Gladwell in his book Outliers—that it takes roughly 10,000 hours of practice to achieve mastery in a field. Athletes practice at all hours of the day and night, show up even when they don’t feel like playing, and must have the drive to win. All are attributes important on the job.
This doesn’t mean that employers are only interested in hiring jocks, of course. The qualities prized in athletes obviously apply to other college activities. Employers told me they value musicians, game designers, and writers in much the same way. The particulars of the activity don’t matter as much as the time invested in the pursuit and mastery of the task.
This advice I heard from employers that ranged from Macy’s and Facebook to Vanguard and Teach For America to go deep and not just broad runs counter to what high school counselors preach when they encourage students to be “well-rounded.”
The problem is that well-rounded students usually don’t focus on any one thing for a prolonged period of time.
The problem is that well-rounded students usually don’t focus on any one thing for a prolonged period of time. Too often they seem to participate in activities just to check off a series of boxes instead of showing the deep and sustained involvement, passion, and dedication that employers seek. Their résumés are filled with what some recruiters refer to as “sign-up clubs.”
Well-rounded students typically turn into generalists on the job. While jack-of-all-trades were useful in previous generations, these days they are missing the critical expertise that gives them the edge in today’s job market: the knowledge of a specific discipline and field.
The best talent for today’s workplace has both deep understanding of a subject matter and the ability to work across a variety of complex subject areas with ease and confidence. The need for this ability to have both breadth and depth is far greater today than it was two decades ago as the world becomes more complicated technologically.
Too many of today’s college graduates lack both depth and breadth to thrive in the workplace. They pick a narrowly focused, career-minded major, for example, and never sample classes from a wide variety of disciplines from course catalog. And then when they graduate they lack the critical competencies employers are looking for.
Indeed, 40 percent of college seniors fail to graduate with the complex reasoning skills needed in today’s workplace, according to the results of a test administered to 32,000 students at 169 colleges and universities. The test, the Collegiate Learning Assessment Plus, is given to freshmen and seniors and measures the gains made during college in critical thinking, writing and communication, and analytical reasoning.
The big difference between the skills of graduates depended on their college major: Students who studied math and science scored significantly higher than those who studied in the so-called helping and service fields, such as social work, and in business, which is the most popular college major.
In its surveys, Gallup has also found that college graduates who had had an internship or other hands-on experiences that allowed them to apply what they were learning were twice as likely to be engaged in their life and work after school. The problem was that only one in three graduates told Gallup they had internships or similar experiential learning opportunities in college.
What you study in college or which sports teams and clubs you join matters less to your long-term success than how hard you work in whatever you’re doing. The breadth of your activities matters, but don’t forget about the depth. Sometimes less is more.
Jeffrey Selingo is author of three books on higher education. You can follow his writing here, on Twitter @jselingo, on Facebook, and sign up for free newsletters about the future of higher education at jeffselingo.com.
He is a regular contributor to the Washington Post’s Grade Point blog, a professor of practice at Arizona State University, and a visiting scholar atGeorgia Tech’s Center for 21st Century Universities.
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