The National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association knows a little something about competition, and nowhere is competition more intense these days than within the job market. That's why I dropped into the Career Opportunities Center this week at the annual NIRSA conference in Anaheim, Calif., to learn more about what the association does to help match aspiring recreation professionals with help-seeking employers.

"For students and young professionals, this is the reason they join NIRSA," says C.O.C. chair Tim Moore, recreation director at the University of Hawaii at Hilo. "I would say 80 percent of them join to get a job."

The first step on a rec professional's journey typically takes the form of a paid graduate assistant position. Jessi Hobart secured her G.A. - a two-year, $28,000 stint with University of Tennessee aquatics - through the C.O.C., where she has volunteered during the past four NIRSA conferences. She credits this early exposure to the job-hunt process for helping her land her first full-time position; Hobart officially takes over as aquatics coordinator at the University of Southern Mississippi in July.

On Wednesday, she took me on a walking tour of the C.O.C. (co-sponsored by fitness equipment manufacturer Star Trac) past separate tables filled with file folders - some containing the profiles of job seekers, others the available positions at various institutions - which are constantly being cross-referenced. Some employers rent presentation rooms to expose as many prospects as possible to their openings, and a large schedule board of sessions is posted in the C.O.C. (one Western Kentucky University session drew a full house of 45 prospects). Tables stocked with pens and two-sided appointment-request forms (one side reads "To Candidate," the other "To Employer") were available, as were two-dozen computers open to bluefish.com, the job site "Powered by NIRSA" and used by Hobart to connect with Southern Miss. Some students even arrive with their own resume paper, which they feed into one of four available printers. "I am noticing that students are getting more and more prepared each year," Hobart says.

Finally, tall pole-and-drape spaces are set up for those parties seeking on-site interview privacy, though the hallways outside the C.O.C., located in the Anaheim Marriott, were abuzz with interviewers chatting up interviewees. And while Hobart admits that the C.O.C. helps fill far more G.A. positions with students than it does high-level administrative openings with established rec professionals attending NIRSA, representatives from the University of Arizona and Texas A&M stopped in Anaheim along their quest for the Holy Grail - someone to fill vacant directorships. Says Hobart, "Really, it's all about the best fit."

According to NIRSA membership coordinator Kimberly Brandt, final C.O.C. utilization figures will be crunched once the center closes with the conference later today, but her sense is that, after years of growth, the number of on-site job seekers and employers were both down somewhat this year due to the economy. "What has really grown is our job-seeking web site," Brandt says, "but we still value the face-to-face time and old-fashioned handshake connections."

Paul Steinbach is Senior Editor of Athletic Business.