14 December 2021, by Cornelia Tautenhahn
Labour shortage in gyms: root causes and solutions
The fitness industry is looking for skilled labour. This article covers the situation on the labour market, the reasons why currently vacancies often outstrip applicants and the strategies pursued by operators and associations.
Many skills and employee profiles are scarce at present. Since the COVID crisis started it has become increasingly hard for gyms to recruit suitable staff – also because many companies in the fitness sector have now started expanding again. Nevertheless, allegedly “safer” sectors of industry seem to be more attractive these days.
The situation on the labour market
During the COVID pandemic the headcount in the German fitness and health industry already dropped by 40,500 to 176,900 (DSSV-Eckdaten) in 2020. This corresponds to a 18.6% decline. This development primarily affected external employees and part-time staff.
This year many vacancies, especially in the gyms themselves, cannot be filled: fitness trainers, gym managers, sandwich students, sports scientists. At “Joborama” alone there are nearly 900 gym vacancies advertised in December 2021. This job exchange specialises amongst others in the areas of Fitness, Health & Wellness. Fitness is a field of work offering good prospects.
Growing enterprises such as gym chain FitX have particularly high staff demands. Here some 200 vacancies are advertised. “A small number of these are for our headquarters in Essen and Berlin, where we are looking for construction and IT staff, for example. The majority of vacancies is, of course, in the actual clubs themselves. These particularly include instructors and fitness coaches but also service staff with varying weekly working hours. Many of the vacancies result from our on-going expansion,” says Markus Vancraeyenest, FitX General Manager.
The European fitness sector is also hiring. As a rule, gym chain Basic-fit, for example, with its outlets in the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxemburg, France and Spain, registers triple-digit vacancies. The exact number of applicants varies by region.
Root cause COVID
Lost revenue as a result of the pandemic, uncertainties due to contact with members, the perception of the industry as an employer, evening and weekend working hours as well as earning potential: there are many personal reasons for this labour shortage. The consequences of lockdown definitely account for the largest share.
To Florian Kündgen, Executive Director at DSSV, staff shortages on the fitness market are clearly due to the COVID crisis. “Until 2020 our industry succeeded in posting constant growth in all segments. Looking at the labour market also reveals that gyms – in the first instance – focused on skilled recruitment. This means the number of first-year sandwich course students recruited was also up year on year and/or the graduates were always taken on once they completed their studies. During the crisis the number of external and part-time staff fell sharply. Due to labour laws employers find it easier to lay off these employees than staff on full-time contracts.”
Uncertainty on the part of employees
This is a view that Markus Vancraeyenest, FitX General Manager, clearly confirms: “The fitness sector was heavily impacted by the lockdowns. Even though our membership is back up to a stable level and we managed to sign up many new members, there is still uncertainty regarding the perception of gmys as employers. We realised that employees left the industry to join allegedly safer sectors of business, which are less affected by possible lockdowns.”
A different kind of working than before
Furthermore, the kind of work performed by instructors has changed on account of numerous rules and regulations. Complying with the COVID protection ordinances means more cleaning tasks, access controls, limiting class sizes. “This is not always fun and so some are looking for new roles,” adds Vancraeyenest. However, the reasons here not only include job insecurity but also desires for a career change. Maxime Moszyk, HR Basic-Fit in France: “Due to the pandemic, a lot of people were questioning about their life, included jobs.”
Increase in job numbers
There are also structural reasons leading to fewer applicants. Willemijn de Moor, Talent Manager at Basic-Fit in the Netherlands, reports of a tight labour market on account of the growing number of vacancies and a good scheme for companies by the government during the pandemic. Additionally, the GGD municipal health service, she says, is an actor that draws on the same pool of skilled labour.
This is what possible solutions could look like
From employer branding to professional recruiting and improved working conditions – the list of possible solutions for HR managers in the fitness sector is long. Positioning yourself as an attractive employer depends on many factors, as Talent Manager Willemijn de Moor explains: improving working conditions, employee branding through a closer dovetailing of HR and marketing departments, hiring employees for their skills rather than their experience, training recruiters, genuine openness to all and data-driven HR work.
The key factors definitely include terms and conditions, remuneration and working hours. If offering higher salaries is not immediately feasible during the COVID crisis, perspectives can be flagged up. One thing is for sure, however: if the company starts faltering asking for a pay rise is utopian.
At this point the state also comes into play. “First of all, we have to make sure that the on-going aid packages (temporary aid Ü3 Plus, Ü IV, short-time work) work as a shield against insolvencies,” says Florian Kündgen who goes on: “Concerning temporary aid, it is up to the political decision-makers to improve these. There must be clear rules to ensure membership fees do not count against the support provided by aid packages – not only during lockdown periods. As an association we are lobbying for this. Furthermore, being recognised as a healthcare provider rather than being classified as a leisure service provider is the highest priority for us. If this is recognised politically, fitness and health facilities will also be treated differently in ordinances. Hence, the sector would be able to recover faster.”
Confidence in the industry
Everyone wants job security. And here the fitness industry entered troubled waters as a result of the lockdowns. The sector therefore needs to demonstrate its relevance and growth perspectives jointly. This is also of paramount importance to Markus Vancraeyenest: “We pursue different strategies to actively address our co-workers but also potential candidates. The aim is to demonstrate that FitX is an exciting but also reliable employer – for instance, until now we have not laid off any staff due to the pandemic and have voluntarily topped up short-time benefits during lockdowns. And we continue expanding: in 2022 we want to renovate 15 of our gyms and open ten new ones. These are figures that speak for themselves.”
Employer branding internally and externally
Employer branding means pitching your company as an attractive employer. This way you strengthen your company as a brand on the job market. Forming the basis for this is well thought out personnel marketing and recruiting. For both these areas social media channels play an increasingly important role but so do your own website, press liaison and google ratings. FitX is accelerating its measures: “We want to take a broader approach to our employer branding and personnel marketing to position ourselves even better in future – also in fields you might not immediately associate with the fitness sector, such as engineering, IT or finance,” says Markus Vancraeyenest.
Employer branding also targets the existing workforce. How can co-workers relate to their company in the long term? How can they be inspired in the long run? For Manuel Baltar at Basic-Fit in Spain the key is to create a sense of belonging. Likewise, Maxime Moszyk at Basic-Fit France stresses: “We are trying to retain our employees with our corporate culture (Orange Family), employer branding, training, internal mobility and promotion (Cluster manager for example).”
Another strategy for a strong long-term perspective definitely lies in promoting diversity in the sector – on all levels. The promotion of women and creating better conditions for improved work-life balance is just one example. Another key lies in opening up for career changers and low or partially skilled staff depending on the position to be filled.
The most valuable strategy is for everyone to pull together to present the fitness sector as the exciting and versatile field of employment it is.