From Student to Stellar Employee

by Debra Atkinson, MS on Sep 10, 2009

Learn how to turn your future stars into stars now.

What’s more daunting? Finding educated, already certified employees, or training new hires to contribute to the success of your facility, and all that this entails? It’s tough to take an academically successful student and mold him into a fitness employee with a high emotional-intelligence quotient. It can, however, be done. This article shows you how to help a diamond in the rough sparkle.

Who Are You Dealing With?

Before you begin your training, identify the population you are recruiting today. Based on my experience, the following distinguishing features describe the current student population.

  • They’ve seen real crises: terrorism, school shootings and security alerts.
  • They’ve grown up watching reality television, where overnight success is deeply engrained (à la American Idol).
  • They’re very connected via MySpace, Facebook, texting and cell phones.
  • Technology is their chosen form of communication.
  • They have had more computer-based, online education and less face-to-face interaction than generations before them.

As a result of these factors, they have heightened expectations for high salaries, workplace perks and flex time. They want lives that are instantly fulfilled. Generally speaking, they lack strong verbal and written communication skills. They may scoff at your distaste for texting and may not buy into the belief that working their way up the ladder—by gaining experience and earning respect—is something they need to do.

Students and new graduates seem to have the strongest academic background yet. They’ve benefited from the wealth of recent industry research. Many were directly involved in data collection, analysis and the journal submission process. Students today are encouraged to certify earlier and are supported in the certification process by academic programs around the country. Students’ greatest deficiency seems to be the inability to practically apply their knowledge, owing to a dependence on technology.

“When preparing for tests, students tend to memorize information instead of comprehending it as a concept,” shares Melissa Layne, faculty member in the exercise physiology and physical education departments of North Georgia State College & University, whose 20 years of experience gives her a basis for comparison. “College seniors do not have ACSM guidelines memorized. They feel they can stop and look [them] up on the Web as needed.”

Leveraging Learners

Student employees can help you tap into a very eager market of new fitness professionals. Harness this new talent and create an energetic team of solid professionals with fresh ideas and insights. The following four strategies will help you bridge the gap between the resource and the polished product.


In their college and university experiences, students are encouraged to acquire practical experience early in their course work. Many find it difficult to locate opportunities to gain this experience. Connect with local educational institutions to identify interested students. Most don’t have to complete a formal internship until they are almost finished with school. This means that the first of their practical experiences could be in a setting like yours on a nearly full-time basis. Many students won’t simply call you and volunteer. They are used to working from a syllabus with deadlines and due dates. Provide similar structure in the form of a mentoring program to increase the likelihood that you’ll attract students.

Determine guidelines for your program. You are offering a great benefit: veteran professionals sharing information gained from years of experience. This can help newcomers avoid mistakes and get a jumpstart on their careers. In exchange for the time and energy required for mentoring, we require that candidates commit to at least one full semester, or 12 weeks. We also ask them to volunteer at least 5 hours per week. We may put a student to work as an assistant in a group training program, which allows us to offer a better teacher-participant ratio. Another option is to place someone in a more administrative role filing or tracking our personal training numbers. Students are required to attend staff meetings and are invited to participate in continuing education or staff social events. Any failure to uphold their commitment or to behave as “regular” employees results in termination. This has not happened to date. Several of our mentored students have become employees at the end of their official mentorships.

Peer Mentoring

Another mentor-related strategy that develops young leaders on your staff is the concept of peer mentoring. Those younger employees who can relate best to new staff members are selected as peer mentors. They answer questions about protocol and policies during the first 3 months of employment. As director or manager, you are the ultimate go-to person; however, placing responsibility on younger team members improves their leadership abilities and enhances relationships. Also, if there is an age gap between you and your hires, the peer-to-peer communication enhances acceptance and implementation of new information.

Choosing peer mentors is about creating excellent employees, not just excellent trainers. The two are not always one and the same. For peer mentoring, we choose young employees who are team players, and we add the technical training ourselves. The keys to success are maintaining a thorough understanding with the peer mentors and providing proper compensation. For the first 3 months of a new hire’s employment, while at a starting level of pay, a mentor receives a small override on the new hire’s clients as long as she is actively assisting in program design and progression, sales or the paperwork process.

Staff Training

Keep in mind the needs of all staff as you provide training, continuing education and business meetings. Make sure everything you do is interactive, hands-on or experiential. Encourage note-taking, particularly among younger staff. If they think you’ll be e-mailing the agenda after the meeting, they have no need to write it down. The purpose of writing it down is to aid their retention, not to create busy work. Here are some ways to further aid retention:

  • Use worksheets, and leave blanks where staff must fill in the information in their own words.
  • Ask employees to cover particular topic areas. Employees benefit by having to prepare and research material well enough to present it to their peers. They have a chance to emerge as leaders and be a different source of information than the program director. Provide additional focus if you are unsure of someone’s ability to find and present key points.
  • Provide hands-on application of theory. The ability to use information and bring it to life “on the spot” is one of this generation’s greatest weaknesses. It is not an indication of their poor potential, but simply a matter of how they’ve relied on instant Internet research.
  • Use simple icebreakers at each meeting to allow young trainers to experience the art of talking to other age groups (provided you employ staff from different generations).

Here is a sample icebreaker you can use:
Ask staff to pair off, and have one partner in each pair describe a favorite dessert--what is delicious about it, where the person eats it, what memories come with it, how it looks, its texture, etc. After a 30-second exchange, ask the listeners what they learned about their partners’ personalities. Get a variety of feedback from the room. The point is just how quickly we make a first impression, either good or bad. Illustrate this with the comments you hear from people regarding their partners.

Custom Communication

Get used to using technology to interact with your student staff. Applying current technology is a must at all stages, from the recruitment phase to ongoing, in-house training. Your website should be savvy and up-to-date. Provide an easy way for students to request information, fill out and submit an application and find job descriptions on your site.

Also, if you are not texting-friendly, rethink your approach. Prepare to text-message your new hires, as they will text you with questions or let you know they are running late. Don’t assume they know that texting while at work is not acceptable. If you don’t already have policies in place, create new ones for when and where texting is okay.

Offer meeting reminders via text or automatic e-mail notices. Start chat rooms where trainers can share information regarding clients and case studies. Provide regular evaluation and feed-forward opportunities. For a young trainer who has had less face time and experience, this evaluation and mentoring approach is paramount to his success. Layne says that practical experience during the academic career—coupled with mentoring from a veteran—results in career leaps that otherwise might not happen.

Knowledge, People Skills, Success!

The knowledge base may be strong in this group, but people skills and the ability to know how much information to share with clients (and how to deliver it) take a degree of communication finesse that is gained only by witnessing it in others or through years of experience. “Our world is one of instant gratification. We can get just about anything we want with the touch of the mouse,” shares Layne. Students may learn sooner rather than later that the job of their near future is not the dream job they’ve imagined. But those who receive a balance of high expectations and praise, and who have a positive and supporting environment in which to learn, will become your next generation of stellar employees.

IDEA Fitness Manager, Volume 21, Issue 5

Find the Perfect Job

More jobs, more applicants and more visits than any other fitness industry job board.

© 2009 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Debra Atkinson, MS

Debra Atkinson, MS IDEA Author/Presenter

Speaker and Bestselling Author Debra Atkinson, MS, CSCS, is Flipping 50 TV and Flipping 50 podcast host. She's an international fitness presenter, master personal trainer, and online celebrity fitness coach. She's a prior Senior Lecturer at Iowa State University, and highly successful Personal Training Director. She known by her clients as the You Still Got It Girl. She provides coaching, workshops and CECs for fitness pros who want to earn a living doing what they love. and the fitness pros blog at