Amid a sluggish economy and competition from the municipal sector, career opportunities in campus recreation are attracting widespread interest
Back in 1980, Tim Willett was a Texas A&M history major with an eye on a career in teaching and coaching. Then he discovered campus recreation on the College Station campus, and Willett's future suddenly came into focus. "I happened to work with the rec department people there and saw what they did," he recalls. "They got to interact with a lot of students and set up sports. They were people who really liked what they did and had a passion for it. It just seemed like so much fun."
This year, as assistant director of recreational sports at Texas A&M-Commerce (enrollment: 6,000), Willett chaired separate committees looking to fill two job openings, as the department ramps up staffing in anticipation of a new campus recreation center's June opening. Based on his own career experiences, which included stints in both military and municipal recreation, Willett has no problem selling candidates on the virtues of campus rec. "It's something that I passionately believe in," he says. "I think it's the best place to work, personally. For me, it's not like work."
That may be the biggest selling point of all, considering that schools looking to fill full-time entry-level positions in campus recreation are quite likely to require (or at least prefer) a post-graduate degree while offering lower wages than one might find in the municipal sector. Despite those hurdles, the campus recreation job market appears as active as ever, with widespread staff increases resulting, in many cases, from the ongoing recreation facility building boom. And there appears to be no shortage of candidates eager to fill the openings.
In February, Athletic Business surveyed campus recreation professionals with hiring authority to help put the current job market into perspective. Among 56 respondents, 36 reported that the recreation staff on their campus had increased in size since they arrived there. Conversely, only seven said their departments had been downsized, and of those, all but one are administering recreation services at schools with undergraduate enrollments of 5,000 or fewer students. Professionals reporting a recent job opening received 46 responses on average, with many believing the sluggish economy has created higher demand for campus recreation jobs. As the survey's leading example, an assistant directorship in member services at Ohio State University garnered 123 applicants. Louisiana State University, meanwhile, could afford to be particularly choosy in its most recent search, hiring an individual with 12 years of experience to a coordinator position.
Campus recreation professionals can identify several factors working in their recruiting favor. Chief among them is the notion that these positions serve a well-educated, captive, generally healthy and uniformly aged clientele that completely changes over every five years or so. In addition, the campus atmosphere is naturally conducive to perpetual learning and mentoring, the academic calendar allows for periodic breaks in peak recreational activity, and benefits packages are typically better than "competitive," often including tuition perks. Finally, facilities are usually either first-rate or a high priority for future upgrades among university leadership.
"The college and university environment is, on the whole, an exceptional environment for personal and professional growth and development," says Kent Blumenthal, executive director of the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association. "It makes these university positions very compelling and sought after - even prestigious - to the point that I have heard that once an individual has left the field of collegiate rec sports, it's very difficult to get back in."
"Working on a university campus and with college students is just so dynamic. There's no atmosphere like it in the world," says Mary Bohlig, recreation director at the University of Utah. "I think that's how university recreation departments can get away with not paying as much as municipal departments, because people get hooked on it, and they don't like to leave."
The hook is often set during the would-be professional's college years. As Willett experienced, students get a taste of campus recreation administration and make a conscious effort fairly early in their careers to build a résumé of experience and requisite education. The result is a stronger applicant pool, according to David Hall, associate director of campus recreation at the University of the Pacific, which currently has one full-time position and two graduate assistantships open. "I think we get more educated people, people who have a clear vision of what they want to do, because they really want to work in the college and university setting," Hall says. "We attract a very good candidate pool, and I don't think we lose anything to the municipalities."
Opinions vary among campus recreation professionals as to whether they are behind the recruiting eight ball when compared to employers outside higher education. Given their personal situation, some feel hamstrung in their hiring efforts. "I'm not sure that we have lost people to municipal recreation, but we certainly have lost them to other careers," says Paul Dirks, director of campus recreation at Florida State University. "The turnover in lower-level professional staff is relatively high, as salaries are low and - with state budget difficulties - raises are small or nonexistent."
Not surprisingly, the AB survey found minimum starting salaries to vary widely, from $15,000 to $45,000 (based on the lower figure in the event a salary range was given). Among 50 schools willing to divulge such information, the average starting salary proved a modest $28,900, considering the education level required of most successful candidates. Twenty-seven survey respondents - or nearly half the sample - said that a master's degree is required for most or all full-time recreation positions on their campus. Another 16 indicated that a master's degree is preferred. "One of the things that most campuses do to narrow down their pool is ask for a person with a master's," says Willett. "It's the reason I got a master's."
As a student at Bowling Green State University, Jen Brandt figured she would cover all her bases, working in the BGSU recreation department during the academic year and for a park district during the six summers that spanned her undergraduate and post-graduate careers. "One of the reasons I went on and got my master's is that I knew it would open up another door for me, and it did," says Brandt, a fitness/sports supervisor for Mason (Ohio) Parks & Recreation who landed her first job out of graduate school at Nova Southeastern University in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "I wouldn't have been considered for that first job otherwise."
Being able to experience another part of the country was what initially drew Brandt to Nova Southeastern two years ago, but that campus's location across the street from a Bally Total Fitness franchise and less than an hour from South Miami Beach proved detrimental to Brandt's efforts to drum up student participation and institutional support for campus recreation. After 13 months, Brandt bolted for Ohio's lower cost of living and an 8 percent pay raise. That alone made her decision to defect from the campus rec ranks a "no-brainer," she says, but there were other incentives, as well. "I missed the positive impact that I felt I could have working with families and with individuals in a community. I felt like I was needed so much more when I worked for the park district than when I worked in campus recreation."
Those types of personal connections never materialized on the municipal side for Willett, who spent nine months working for the City of Lewisville, Texas, a suburb of Dallas. "I rarely saw the people for whom I programmed," he says. "I helped out with softball and flag football leagues, and if I didn't go to the games, I never saw my clientele. There was something I was missing, and I finally realized it was working with students, which is one of the main reasons I'm in this field. Here, the kids come in and out all day long. There's more of that kind of bond."
"Municipal recreation is probably the hardest sector for a recreation professional to work in," says Diane Dahlmann, director of recreation services and facilities at the University of Missouri. "Higher education recreation certainly isn't a cakewalk, but it is not nearly at the same level of difficulty that public recreation is. You are not under the same scrutiny in campus-based recreation. And there is a cultural acceptance here of the ebb and flow - during semester it's high tide, and offsemester can be low tide. It doesn't mean you don't work, but there's a rhythm to it, whereas in municipal recreation it's 24/7/365."
Dahlmann, a veteran of municipal recreation herself, nonetheless considers that sector "an absolutely marvelous boot camp for future campus recreation professionals." Amid a $43 million renovation that will add 115,000 square feet to campus recreation facilities at Missouri, Dahlmann will soon be on the recruiting trail in efforts to nearly double her staff from 13 to 22. "We've talked about taking our show on the road," she says. "Just like big companies would go on a recruiting tour, we will visit other campuses and other communities." This may be viewed as a radical departure to typical campus recreation recruiting efforts, which for the sake of convenience and cost savings often revolve around NIRSA's annual conference.
Dahlmann, who subscribes to the Disney style of management, won't hesitate to hire from outside higher education, or even recreation, as she's proven in the past. Her recreation department's business manager was plucked from a local bank's auditing staff. Her guest and membership services coordinator most recently handled customer service and sales for the Marriott Corp. Both came to campus without master's degrees but are currently pursuing them, thanks to a 75 percent tuition benefit through the university.
Willett, too, sees room for more business savvy in campus recreation. He says he has witnessed an increase in the number of campus rec professionals with an MBA as their post-graduate degree. "With shrinking budgets everywhere, you have to figure out a way to make money. I think people with that business type of education and experience see the playing field a little differently than someone like me," says Willett, who earned a master's in sports administration on the heels of a recreation programming and administration degree. "If I went back, I'd get my MBA."
Perhaps more so than in many professional settings, a campus recreation department is only as good as its people. Whether a full-time staff numbers 35 or one, finding the right individuals to fit into the higher education hierarchy takes great thought and care. "You should always hire for attitude and personality, and train for technical skills," says Bohlig, one of 14 full-timers on the Utah recreation staff. "You can't teach someone to be efficient and organized and to have good customer service skills. You can teach people how to run programs and schedule tournaments and coach student-staff. I really think people in our field tend to focus too much on what a candidate has done in the field rather than on his or her innate qualities."
Attitude also plays a role in a candidate's ability to accept the pay scale, such as it is, while appreciating the perks. "Anyone who would come into our profession, campus or municipal, because of the salary levels isn't doing himself or herself any favors," says Mike Dunn, director of Ohio State's department of recreation. "You have to do it because you really want to make a difference in the community that you have chosen. To do otherwise generally means that you will soon be looking elsewhere for a job."
"I never went into this field to make money," says Willett, who takes greater stock in campus recreation's non-monetary rewards. "It's like Confucius said: 'Find a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life.' "