Recognizing the needs of a "special population," UNLV launches a career fair for student-athletes.
Tony Gladney beat the odds. Before becoming director of community relations for the MGM Grand Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, Gladney played a single season of professional football. Only one in 70 players who compete in the NCAA ranks gets as lucky.
"One day, athletics ends," says Gladney, who holds a degree in business communications from the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, where he starred as a wide receiver for the Runnin' Rebels in the mid-'80s. The NFL's San Francisco 49ers cut Gladney in 1988, the season after his pro career began. "It ends one day," he says, "and you do need to be prepared."
That's the message that Gladney now passes along to current UNLV studentathletes during frequent speaking visits on campus. It's a message shared by Eric Toliver, UNLV's assistant athletic director for compliance. Last December, Toliver followed the lead of schools such as Ohio State, Missouri and Texas A&M by organizing a career fair with the intent of showing student-athletes how to prepare a résumé, dress for an interview and converse with prospective employers.
"We have a career services department on campus, but a lot of the student-athletes aren't able to go to its career fairs," says Toliver, who spent four years in UNLV student services before joining the athletic department. "Those fairs don't take into consideration the special population of studentathletes, who have classes during the day, then practice, physical therapy perhaps and study hall. I said, 'Hey, why can't we do our own?' We needed to, because we try to tell these kids, 'One day, your participation in sports is going to end.' "
When planning began in early September, the first consideration for Toliver and Rebel team representatives who constitute UNLV's student-athlete advisory board was when to hold the career fair. Evening hours (6 to 9 p.m.) were chosen to facilitate student-athlete participation, and Dec. 2 was chosen to maximize student-athletes' opportunities to secure real work experience. "The reason we voted on having it in the middle of the academic year is because it gives students opportunities to get internships for that last semester, and it gives them contacts for the summer as well," Toliver says. "If we did it at the end of the year, some of these internships might not have been available."
Toliver then examined the academic population in order to determine which corporations would likely show interest in the career fair. "We have a large population of student-athletes who are in our department of urban affairs, and we have a large population that is in casino and hotel management," he says. "So we hit the phone books, we hit the state agencies and went right down the list. My student-athlete advisory board members all worked hard together, making phone calls and following up on return phone calls."
About a month prior to the career fair, Toliver conducted workshops offering tips on résumé preparation, proper business attire and etiquette - even how to deliver a firm handshake. He compiled copies of the studentathletes' résumés into bound booklets, which were made available to each prospective employer at the career fair. The booklets benefited the student-athletes, too. "Some of the kids didn't realize how important a résumé is," Toliver says.
"When we got the résumé books set up, the kids looked through them and were like, 'Wow, look at Johnny Smith's! I didn't know we could do it like that.' Student-athletes are kind of in their own world anyway, and they don't always use all the services available to the general student body. This is an eye-opener. Now they know who they're really competing against."
The hard work paid off. More than 150 of UNLV's 350 student-athletes attended the career fair. Juniors and seniors without conflicts such as night classes or road trips were required to attend, and many underclassmen showed up voluntarily. Representatives of 30 corporations and government agencies-from Paine Webber to Pepsico, from the City of Las Vegas Police Department to the FBI-paid $50 apiece for a table at the fair, and Toliver turned as many organizations away for lack of space.
"Because it was our first time, I didn't want it to get too out of hand," says Toliver, who received additional financial support from UNLV's student government. "We charged each table a flat fee, and we actually ended up making some money on it, so we put it in our
student-athlete advisory fund." Employers packed the corridors of UNLV's Lied Athletic Complex with posters, pin-up boards and backdrops. Some brought laptop computers wired to the Internet. Toliver had made breakout areas available for employers who wished to conduct on-site interviews with particularly impressive studentathletes. "I think that a lot of students hadn't really figured out that being a student-athlete afforded them skills that a regular student might not have," Toliver says. "A regular student might not know exactly what teamwork is all about. These student-athletes have a plan, they have a schedule and they feed off each other.
A lot of these kids were just amazed that someone actually liked their résumé, or that someone said, 'Hey, I'm going to call you,' or 'Hey, let's get you started on an internship right away.' " Toliver, who will begin planning this year's career fair in July, says he hopes to move the event to UNLV's basketball arena, where 100 prospective employers can easily be accommodated.
He'll cap the fee at $100 per table and allow repeat visitors back for the original $50 (17 corporations verbally committed to returning on the spot). He realizes he could make more money, but that's not what this night is about. "It's for the student-athletes, so they can get prepared for the real world," he says.
The real world-including the past seven years at the MGM Grand-has been good to Gladney, who recalls his final failed tryouts in the NFL without a hint of bitterness. "I just ended up saying, 'OK, I'm going to go ahead and I'm going to go to work,' " he says. "It's been a great learning experience for me, and my longevity in this industry has been very positive.
"It's definitely OK to have dreams of playing in the NFL and to work toward that, but always keep in balance the most important thing-your education. Professional athletics can be taken away for whatever reason, but education is something that goes with you wherever you go. And it really helps to open a lot of doors for you from a career standpoint."