How Shift Group is Disrupting Recruitment, One Athlete at a Time

min - read
Tom Sychterz
min - read
If you only have a few minutes to spare, here's what you should know:
Recruiting is arguably the biggest black box industry in the world.
Through his personal struggles and a keen understanding of the athlete mindset, JR Butler is helping former pro athletes and veterans transition into the workforce.
Shift Group offers their clients high-potential but non-traditional candidates for positions that require a high level of leadership and character.


It's always fascinating to me when a business can hit the win-win-win trifecta: high upside for the entrepreneur, extreme client satisfaction and doing some actual real good in the world. 

How do they do it? 

Why do they do it?

How can others get inspired to attain that level of intrinsic-meets-extrinsic success?

Well we'll find out as we dive into that kind of business today: the Shift Group. 

However, before we get into the weeds of what they're about, let's provide some context about their industry, the HR world.

The HR industry context

Hiring and recruiting, just like sports, is a very competitive game. Companies are trying to find the best candidates at the best price while limiting turnover and also keeping an eye out for young guns that might be working for a competitor at the moment.

The recruiters who serve these companies act as “player agents” sitting between qualified candidates and companies looking for the best and the brightest who are committed to building a career and acting as the collective backbone of an organization.

The whole game within the game is only becoming more competitive as time goes on. That’s especially true in an inflationary environment where the cost of everyday necessities is increasing by 8% per month in the developed world, something this generation of recruiters and potential employees hasn’t seen since the global recession in 2008. 

A 2022 survey suggests that 63% of recruiters believe finding talent is their biggest problem. 

Another 41% suggest that filling entry-level roles is the hardest thing to do at the moment and 75% say that, generally speaking, candidates are negotiating much higher salaries than they have in the past.

What gives?

The competition in recruiting is fierce for both recruiters, prospective employees, and employers. 

When a pro hockey player plans to transition from the ice to the office, it usually should get done with some teamwork, not only from recruiting firms, but also from agencies and associations representing the interests of the retired, or soon-to-be retired, athlete.

Ai stable diffusion image of shinny hockey

A look inside the Industry

Much like in any other industry, there are many different ways to express a value proposition, make a sales pitch, generate revenue, and run a business. The recruiting world is no different.

When most people think about a recruiting firm, they probably imagine a firm specializing in short-term contracts offering guaranteed hours to the employee and guaranteed labor to the employer, all in exchange for a cut of the hourly wage. But there are other ways to position a recruiting service.

Some agencies work on what are known as retained agreements. They get the exclusive rights to fill a given job posting for a set amount of time, say 30 days. These agreements are typical when the prospective employee has a highly specialized skill or is required for an executive or leadership role.

Most experienced recruiting firms will hope to earn a retained agreement because they get paid in advance, but the most likely outcome of that pitch is a different arrangement with no guaranteed advance, known as a Most Placeable Candidate (MPC) agreement.

In an MPC arrangement, the recruiter must possess a unique eye for talent. They pitch that talent to the employer and earn a commission if the candidate is hired. Should the candidate move on or not be the right fit, most companies would expect the recruiter to have other viable candidates already in their pipeline as a replacement.

A less exclusive version of the above agreement exists, which is simply a straight-up contingency arrangement where the recruiter only gets paid if they are the one that fills the job. There’s no real commitment on either side of this agreement other than the employer pays whichever recruiting firm finds the right candidate. Recruiting firms just starting out with no reputation will go with this model because it’s easier to get a foot in the door.

Why it exists

Recruiters are intermediaries. They can work with companies that don’t have access to a dedicated budget for sourcing talent. They can also act as an extension of a larger corporation’s human resource department tasked with filling highly specialized roles that might require more vetting than usual.

From an employer’s standpoint, working with recruiters offers several distinct advantages:

  • The employer gets access to shortlisted talent that ideally represents the cream of the crop for the position they’re looking to fill.
  • They save time and money and hopefully reduce their turnover rate while scaling their business.
  • They acquire the industry expertise of the recruiter. Most recruiters specialize in one particular area.
  • They gain the flexibility of reaching a wide range of candidates, having them narrowed down in advance, and ideally getting the best opportunity to find the perfect employee.
  • They have a better idea of what employees in their respective industries demand regarding salary and benefits.
  • They have a better chance of finding a good cultural fit that will work well within a team setting and hopefully grow with the client’s company in the long term.

Fitting in on the team is what athletes are used to doing. The challenge for them is that many enter uncharted waters as soon as they hang up the skates or leave the playing field for good.

Stable Diffusion AI image
Hockey player jumping into new spotlight

A career outside of sports

As an athlete, lining up a long-term career opportunity outside of hockey must be planned well before hanging up the skates. That’s because most high-level athletes don’t make it as a career at the professional ranks at all.

The NCAA released an academic study in 2020 highlighting the odds of an NCAA athlete rising through the ranks and earning the opportunity to play at a professional or Olympic level. The study points out that the odds of an athlete earning a degree and pursuing a more traditional professional career are much greater than playing a sport for a living. It’s estimated that 86% of Division I athletes earn a degree, 71% of Division II athletes and 87% of Division III athletes do the same.

Source: NCAA

The study estimates that out of 4,232 men’s ice hockey players playing in NCAA programs in 2020, only 71 current NCAA players, or prospects committed to an NCAA program were drafted, the equivalent of only 1.6% of players. Being drafted however, does not guarantee playing in the NHL, let alone enjoying a lucrative career. It’s an issue faced not only by NCAA players, but also by players being selected from the CHL and Europe. In fact, less than 50% of draft players will ever make the NHL.

The success rate in other sports is even lower. For example, 1.2% of men’s NCAA basketball players and 1.6% of football players make it to the professional ranks.

When the playing days are over

Nowadays, professional leagues like the NHL work to connect athletes to job opportunities, employment training, and various career planning-related workshops.

Professional leagues work with their respective player associations, and amateur sports associations typically team up with large companies and networks of athlete alumni who might already be in the working world and maintain an open-mindedness when it comes to giving other athletes a chance to get into the boardroom.

The NCAA offers a program called “Game Plan,” which works with collegiate sports programs, minor leagues, and major leagues offering similar connections to alumni already in the business world to provide mentorship and additional education.

As Fortune stated, 16% of NFL players go bankrupt within 12 years of retirement. Mismanagement of finances and investments impacts a number of athletes. In recent seasons, NHLers including Robin Lehner, Jack Johnson, and Evander Kane have all filed for bankruptcy.

That’s where a former athlete turned sales recruiter like JR Butler, and his recruiting company Shift Group comes in.

JR Butler
Courtesy of Shift Group

How JR Butler’s Personal Struggles Led to the Founding of Shift Group

When JR Butler was nine years old, he and his father knew that JR’s younger brother Bob was destined for the NHL. Bob was seven years old at the time, and his father’s belief that his middle son was good enough to make it came true in 2010 when Bob Butler debuted for the Ottawa Senators.

But in those early years, JR realized hockey wasn’t going to be the way he would get attention. He was a team player and great communicator so sales was an obvious career path.

Although he achieved rapid success early on as a sales leader, he was partying and drinking every night. At 26, Butler says he managed to blow through $800,000 in one year, with most of the money spent on alcohol and cocaine. By the end of that year, he found his bank account in the negative.

“A few beers would turn into a case, a case would turn into a phone call, a phone call led to a pickup, and then Thursday would turn into Sunday,” said Butler.

Eventually, JR realized he needed to make a turnaround in his life, and in 2012, he finally got sober. He’s been that way ever since. After overcoming his struggles with addiction, JR Butler found his way in sales and recruiting. Now he lives by the motto, “how you do anything is how you do everything.”

The early beginnings

Butler got his first job as a tech sales associate in 2008 and stayed there for a year. A decade later, he would find himself working as a tech firm's vice president of enterprise strategy and execution.

While starting his own recruiting firm was not his initial plan, Butler soon realized more and more people in his network were asking to connect with one another and looking to fill sales jobs.

He had athletes on one side of the ledger, not knowing what they would do next, and tech sales executives on the other who trusted him because of his own experience. It was the perfect match.

In continuing to connect with people, Butler forged relationships at major companies and soon, Shift Group was born.

The holistic approach

Shift Group works with athletes, companies, and athletic organizations, educating each stakeholder on what it means to help an athlete successfully transition to a professional career after sports.

The company aims to facilitate job placement not just because it’s a lucrative business, but because existing athletic organizations aimed at helping their members transition aren’t necessarily filling all of the necessary gaps.

When Shift Group finds a placement for an athlete, they use a contingency model, charging companies 15% of a successful candidate’s base salary for the first year of employment. The athletes themselves are not obligated to take any of the jobs presented to them, and they don’t have to pay for Shift Group’s services. This becomes a win-win-win scenario since everybody has tremendous upside to make things work.

The company also estimates that more than 50% of the athletes asking for help are women or identify as racial minorities. That reality enables Shift Group to actively make an impact in terms of making the broader workforce more diverse at a time when recruiting diverse candidates across various industries is becoming more and more progressive.

Connecting athletes to sales

Butler officially started Shift Group with his business partner John Davis at the beginning of 2022 after realizing their collective recruiting talents had value in the open market during the coronavirus pandemic.

Butler wants to push athletes to succeed using the same principles from their athletic career, as he believes a sales team still has a scoreboard, needs practice, constantly measures performance and receives coaching. He wants athletes to understand the value of maintaining a positive attitude and professional approach.

“Just because I didn’t make it as a player doesn’t mean I can’t still take a professional approach to my career,” said Butler. “I hope to teach other athletes the same thing. 90% of the guys and girls that come to us don’t know what to do.”

While he does point out that athletes turned sales representatives can earn up to $500,000 as top-notch tech sales executives, they have to learn to pay their dues just like they did in sports.

“Every time a player reaches the next level in their playing career, they start at the bottom at the next level once again. Every time you reach a new level, you become the rookie again, and your number one job is carrying water bottles. The athletes who come to us and accept paying dues as reality are the ones that pay their dues and ultimately succeed in the long run.”

Courtesy JR Butler

The future of Shift Group

Butler’s long-term vision is to expand the company’s horizons and have athletes working across different industries, including insurance, medical, finance, pharmaceuticals and human resources.

It’s clear that with all of the early success that Shift Group is experiencing, there is a huge demand for what Butler is doing for athletes. As Butler says, the “success stories we hear from athletes are worth much more than the paychecks any of us get in exchange for doing the job right.”

Those success stories include the testimonials of former NHL players including Patrick Eaves, Brian Flynn, Joe Whitney, and Jaime Sifers.

Shift Group is shifting what it means to be an athlete looking for a second career, and for JR Butler, it’s clear that it’s changed his life and given him a reason to keep expanding his business and his mission.

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