The break room at James River Exteriors’ Chesterfield office sometimes feels like a locker room. There’s lots of playful pushing and shoving and some good-natured name calling. On Monday mornings during the fall, employees recount the good and bad from the weekend’s flag football game over a cup of coffee.
Sports are a big part of the culture at James River. Managing brothers Shane and Brian Burnette both lettered at LC Bird High School, as did many of the employees. Three recent hires all played football with Brian, 25, at the University of Richmond.
Shane, 28, played basketball at Bridgewater College.
“It’s just easier if you already have the discipline and values that come from playing team sports,” Shane says. “You know what to expect in the business world.”
The company, which installs siding and exterior landscapes, says recruiting former college athletes (and the occasional coach) has turned into a de facto HR strategy. Morale is high because the company works together like a team, and turnover is almost non-existent.
Richmond area recruiters, college career counselors and small business owners often take a page from James River’s playbook. College athletes make better employees, they say, because they’ve been trained in leadership, competitiveness and perseverance. It’s also a way for some companies to find minority candidates.
Randolph Macon College has a special binder called the Yellow Jacket Playbook filled with the resumes of senior athletes. “Companies are often looking for athletes because there are a lot of classically transferable skills – they’re competitive, goal-directive and have a resiliency from the ups and downs of a season,” says Dr. Craig Anderson, the director for the Center for Career and Counseling Services at Randolph Macon. More celebrated athletes get more attention from recruiters, Anderson says, but even bench players can get a leg up when job hunting. Riding the pine at a Division III program shows dedication, even if everyone makes the team, Anderson said.
The trend is not local to Richmond. JP Morgan, the giant New York investment bank, recruits former college athletes for its finance positions. Pharmaceutical companies covet Division I cheerleaders for their perky demeanors and picture-perfect smiles (to say nothing of their toned physiques). The actual knowledge necessary to each industry – well that can be taught, recruiters say.
The advantages to recruiting former athletes can be many. For starters, they’re competitive, which can be especially helpful in sales. “That’s not to say other people aren’t competitive, but it’s been instilled in you from the time you’re eight years old. Give 110 percent, and all those clichés,” Burnette says.
And when problems arise, former athletes know how to handle criticism from a boss.
“Being a business manager is like being a coach, sometimes you have to help them get out of a slump,” Burnette continued.
To be sure, there are limits to the value of hiring athletes. Playing sports, unlike most work, is fun. That’s why 10-year-olds play baseball or soccer instead of staying at home to format Excel spreadsheets. One problem with recruiting athletes: the motivation to succeed in a sport may not transfer to work.
But Burnette says that scoring a big contract is almost as fulfilling as hitting a winning shot. “The principals are the same; you’re working all the numbers and get that response from seeing the job done and the end result.”
While James River Exteriors has hired mostly football and basketball players, some firms just like to see any sort of or extra curricular activity that shows perseverance, such as marathon running, rock climbing or mountaineering.
“The resume of somebody with an athletic background, it doesn’t just have to be traditional sports to get raised to the top of the stack,” says Logan Bragg, a founding partner with the information technology staffing firm Udig.
Of course, athletes aren’t the only ones to exhibit competitiveness. A potential hire may lack athletic ability of any kind yet still be cutthroat and team-oriented.
And obviously not all college athletes are cut out for the working world. Many big-time college football and basketball players can bring big-time egos, and many come with other baggage to the table (i.e. cutting class, getting in trouble, etc.).
No academic study has conclusively put the subject to rest, according to Randolph New, a business professor at University of Richmond. New said one study found college athletes earn between 1% and 10% more than non-athletes.
However, playing college sports has opportunity costs, according to New. “They may take fewer classes and miss internship opportunities,” he says. “They may also have developed overly aggressive tendencies (like sacking the boss) or are just arrogant.”
Most area companies that have recruited athletes say the benefits outweigh the costs. One reason: business people like to hang around with people who are really good at something, New says.
Another reason: fantastic club teams. James River Exteriors has one of the best flag football teams around (they’ve won the Chesterfield flag football league each fall for the last three years.) For a short while, the trophies were in the office, but they were just too big and unprofessional-looking to keep around, Burnette says.
Perhaps when the company builds a new office the trophies will have a new home. Then it will really feel like a locker room.