FE’s 2022 State of Food Manufacturing survey found that 58% of respondents believe their facilities are understaffed. Some are turning to automation to help bridge the gap, others are turning to previously underused or overlooked sources of human staffing. And while every employer wants to hire someone with experience, the pool of talent with experience is relatively shallow, especially in these “new” sources of staffing. It then becomes a matter of finding people who are reliable, capable and willing to be positive members of a team. 

Vin McCaffrey, founder and CEO of Game Plan, says that finding people who fit all of those qualities is no more difficult than watching college sports. McCaffrey founded Game Plan in 2008 as a process to help college athletes find jobs. It has grown and transformed into a platform that integrates eLearning, mentorship and career services for athletics organizations with a vision to guide 100% of athletes through 100% of their journeys. Today, Game Plan supports more than 250 athletics organizations including over 200 colleges and universities, the NFL, NBA, NHL, MLS and many more. 

FE sat down with McCaffrey to learn more about how food and beverage manufacturing can take advantage of this resource. 

Vin McCaffrey, founder & CEO, Game Plan Vin McCaffrey, founder & CEO, Game Plan  


FE: Can you describe Game Plan and its mission in your own words? 

Vin McCaffrey: The idea of helping athletes get a job. And so from that perspective, athletes have these great transferrable skills that they grew up with, and we thought about that in relation to the marketplace for an athlete. You have to have the athlete be able attract the employers. You have to have the employers attract the athletes. In fact, it becomes a chicken or the egg problem. 

And so as we were building to be able to work with an athlete on their job learning and job market search, what we realized is that the schools we’re working with are using some of our assessment instruments, such as personality assessments, not to help the athlete to be transitioned into a job but actually for the high school to college transition. 

When we dug in there more, and what we recognized was that we were solving problems on college campuses that frankly we didn’t even know existed. These ideas of how the NCAA, who are guiding the academic components, and in some of our stuff will help align athletes’ interests and strengths around academic majors. So as we did that, we realized the model here is not to seek it out, not to help necessarily transact the athlete to get a job, but it was this model of helping athletes move through a journey. If you do that well, part of that journey is the job acquisition. And so from that standpoint, that's kind of the founding story of Game Plan. 

Today we’re the largest provider of education and survey to college and professional athletes in the marketplace. So we work with several hundred thousand college and professional athletes providing a suite of education, survey and a clear direction that I think departments and professional leagues and such work to help guide their athletes while playing for the transition to life after sports. 

FE: What kinds of skills do college athletes bring to the table after they finish their college athletic career? How do those skills and Game Plan’s mentoring make them more desirable candidates versus non college athletes, students and other candidates? 

VM: The college athlete experience is a rigor. It's “start early, finish late” on a daily basis—in season and out of season. Their schedules are really demanding. They've been not only balancing the academic challenges on campus but also the athletic challenges. They’re traveling, they’re working within a team or an individual sport, which means that they're prospectively not just working with that team’s coach, but also with sports performance and the strength and conditioning teams. There's a lot of responsibility that young person has on campus. 

While they go through that, what schools are actually building, we believe, are people. The first is understanding the sense of time, demand and structure. When a young person graduates college, they transition in the workforce—that's not a new thing about college athletics from the standpoint of understanding schedules and professionalism associated with the schedule. But we have an assessment in place that helps to identify their core personality traits as an athlete and, overwhelmingly, college athletes identified high in structure. When you think about it, that’s a really good transferable skill and trait. 

The second thing that we heard is that this is this is not a generational piece; it's just a transition for people transitioning to college. The ability to receive criticism via athlete or coach and depending on the program, the program can be very hard. From that perspective, an athlete understands how to receive feedback by offering very good feedback in a constructive manner—how to make sense of it as a person. It isn’t that they don't like what they hear, it's just that they're trying to help me, and thus the team, to get better. That ability to receive feedback within such a framework is absolutely relatable for the workplace. And so as you think about one or two of those areas that people we've seen as athletes go through interview processes, they really distinguish themselves when they walk through their potential schedules, when they walk through the experiences of how they would work with others one on one. 

The piece that's a little harder to quantify is actually, by and large, if something bad happens. It's never a walk in the park; it's never an easy experience. For me personally, I went through a lot of different challenges when I played. That was a long time ago, but it's relevant because it's more often the norm than not with a college athlete. 

When you're in the workforce, things aren’t always simple. Things will happen. What we find is if that's your first time going through something, then it's your first time going through that something. If you have experience with something in the past, then you've actually had to go through something really germane in your life. 

Being a college athlete, if something happens inside their sport as an 18- to 22- or 23-year-old young person, it's pretty traumatic. And we figure out a way to understand what happened and still move forward. That goes a long way. So, again, it’s harder to quantify what those experiences are, but they’re absolutely valued in the workforce—and we see big differences in peers. I think there's also a maturity associated with it. 

FE: What is one thing that you believe college athletes are trained in before anyone else developing skills to begin employment in a field. 

VM: Things like social media can be used as an example. How many employers are looking and saying, “Gosh, so how do we manage our work versus social media behavior?” As an example, if you're an athlete who’s starting to get recruited, college coaches look at high school athletes, social media profiles, Twitter feeds and Instagram feeds, and if that makes you look unbecoming, it affects your ability to be recruited. The maturity and understanding that you must maintain a good presence and that you represent more than just you correlates with understanding the bigger picture. Those things are a big factor associated with an individual. I think that maturity comes with time and, prospectively, some people learn that the hard way. I’m just using that as an example. Athletic instructors gauge you on how your behavior impacts the sum of their goals, and that’s something that most are very disciplined about. 

FE: Manufacturing is an extremely important part of the food supply chain, which you can compare to the weather with its fragility and often-changing nature. It also changes company to company and also faces some of the largest misconceptions and difficulties with attracting and retaining employees. Could college athletes be the right hiring decision for this type of work? 

VM: I think it's an important question. And I think, as you framed it, understanding the fragility of it is important because, as you said, we've seen it, over COVID, what the different manufacturing lines do and how that impacts not just cost of goods but your way of life. They are all very critical. 

As I was thinking about and preparing for this—there's a very high premium on nutrition with athletes. The way athletes view their development and growth, it's not just bigger, faster and stronger—they understand the impact on nutrition and how it actually allows them to excel or in some instances cause poor performance. 

I say that say that the idea of nutrition and food manufacturing as it’s being introduced to a college athlete, it's going to get their attention because it’s not new to them. They’re being trained on the importance of what nutrition represents and understanding that an industry oftentimes is a critical connection point. 

As athletes are performing and developing and growing through college and professional athletics, it's common that they see the experiences they're going through, and they’re relevant in a sense that the way they see themselves; they want the athletic experience going into working. 

It's not crazy to think an athlete might go in and want to work in the fitness field, as an example. We know some athletes today prioritize nutrition over other areas, are very interested in the industry as a whole. As we've had those types of discussions, it's not a nuanced thing; they’re actually seeing a pretty large view. I don't know if they’re as in tune as they should be or could be with respect to certain job opportunities, but understanding their background, their experiences and the value that they place on the food industry—because how it impacts them their day to day—is a really important factor that we've seen a direct connection point for the athlete’s interest in that career. So, the seeds are in fact already planted. We have to do a better job of helping them understand what those types of opportunities are. 

FE: So, you talked about nutrition. Do you think that industry sector might be a good fit for your clients with something like research and development or entrepreneurial work? 

VM: Prospectively, when we evaluate the demographics of our population, what you find is athletes are quintessentially diverse, not just in ethnicity or gender, but also their way of thinking. And so at the same point, diversity of majors, diversities of schools and diversity of sports are key factors that we see. They are, depending on the university, somewhat of a bell-curve of major selection, for example. 

So it's not as if the “dumb jock” thing holds water any longer. That's a thing of the past. We see a significant amount of athletes in engineering majors. So, yeah, for sure, your earlier question and certainly to this one. What we found with an athlete are a couple things that, we think, are really major. 

A number one piece is because they're so busy, young and haven't had the experience of being able to look back and say “oh this athletic experience relates to the workforce,” they're uncomfortable with what that transition looks like. And then you add an example of how thinking about their industry transition and career transitions there, there's a real interest to learn more about what the actual job is. 

What does that job description really mean? Yeah, you read a paragraph, but it's very deep and a mile wide—it doesn't really cover the details of the job. When we’re working with athletes and professional athletes. The questions they ask are: What's expected of me? What are my responsibilities going to be? And that's very much because of their experiences in the last five years and how they were trained. They needed to understand “What's expected of me?” They don't want to go in uninformed. They actually want to understand where they’re going and what their possibilities are. I think that more industries who are looking for good, strong talent like athletes should be actually planning the jobs and working with Game Plan academy. We think we have a bit of a breakthrough by allowing employers to help explain those types of core functions. 

People want to hear “What are my job responsibilities? What's a career path?” Helping the young people understand those answers really goes a long way in not just establishing value for that person, but also helping them kind of break down and understand the narrative of the industry—you know, is this a place that they can see themselves working, like an employer “brand story?” 

FE: it seems that you do a lot of quantifiable data collection with your pool of candidates. What are the main three types of degrees you're seeing college athletes completing as they're exiting college sports? 

VM: Off the top of my head, actually, I couldn't tell you the top three degrees for our population—we're talking over 200,000 people.  

We have seen it's very similar to the bell curve of the university. It doesn't deviate too differently from where that is, so we see a broad spectrum of majors. What does differ slightly is that athletes will frequently have to declare their major slightly earlier than the general student body, and that's due to some NCAA legislation. That creates this idea of retention of the major for how an athlete is evaluated academically. 

Overall, it's a really broad spectrum of majors and degrees that an athlete will go through. The NCAA guidelines traditionally say an individual has five years to complete four years of eligibility, with one year being with what they call “bench review”—something that happens typically if I get hurt or maybe I come in as a freshman and I just need a year of experience before I actually start to compete on the team. 

Uniquely with COVID, the NCAA granted additional years of eligibility, which is being seen right now. We have individuals that are competing in college football, for example, and young people have six years of eligibility. That's a pretty rare occurrence. I don't know if it's ever happened before. But individuals are completing their undergraduate degrees because they have to, and that is a key aspect of their eligibility. We're also seeing a huge number of them progressing to graduate degrees even as a competitive athlete—which has been really exciting to see. You're seeing that next wave of education for young people who aren’t just completing their undergraduate work, they're looking toward graduate degrees as well. 

FE: I don't anticipate a shortage of college athletes on any time soon and with the food engineering facing these ongoing workforce shortages; nearly half of its workforce is aging out of the industry. Why is it important that manufacturers, suppliers and retailers look at college athletes as an undiscovered gem in the talent pool—which is seemingly very sustainable? 

VM: I'm one not to give advice, but as a CEO, I realize the people just make this tick. It sounds cliché to say, but it’s the truth. If I had to go one step further, when you realize the culture associated with how we've developed our people—the team—we think that's instrumental in defining our success. 

There are a few realizations that I'm sure the workforce is going to be having in executives who are overseeing the workforce through this year. One is as though there is still continuous movement. And if you look at the population, there's a decent chunk of individuals that will be retiring over the next five years. When you think about what that means, there is a lot of sizing that I know that will occur because deficiencies will remain and it’s maybe not a one-to-one replacement, although I don't think it's so far off from that based on the data we're seeing. Let's take a one-to-one scenario for the sake of argument. When you start to think about the individual as the foundation to your culture that's transitioning out, it's not just the person who can increase the widget. It's a real person that loves your culture. When you move to replace that person, you want to have an individual that has the same type of potential. When I think of a college athlete, a professional athlete, these are individuals who are familiar with that concept. As a young person coming in, the differentiator they may have with their cohorts that haven't gone through the athletic experience is that they understand the importance of teamwork, they understand the importance of success and being evaluated in hard aspects of work. That's not going to be new to them.  

So when I think about the skills that they have—I think the bigger piece is the realization that the workforce is transitioning. You're starting to identify young people going beyond just the skills to do the work. Their understanding of how they impact the team, in my experience, is critical. So we are on a level playing field with all of this. We like athletes, and we think athletes can really differentiate and put themselves out there and there's a hell of a track record of shows that. 

FE: Can you tell me about any success stories or statistics that Game Plan has been able to monitor?  

VM: Ernst & Young had a great report stating that 94% of the women in Fortune 1,000 who had reached the C-suite were former college athletes. As an example, that's pretty significant. 

The number is anecdotal, but numbers of those individuals who’ve done well in the workforce at the executive level, aren’t often realized to have been athletes. Six out of the last 13 U.S. presidents were college athletes. So there's a lot there, using kind of the extreme example, to prove the point of a track record for sure.