Find the Right Talent for Your Gym in a Tight Labor Market

Many health clubs rely on IHRSA’s newest research to gain insider knowledge on employee compensation and benefits. Here’s how the report has helped gym owners make the perfect hire.

Studios are everywhere, and clubs, too, are growing in number. Today, in many markets, consumers have a plethora of fitness venues to choose from.

In this hypercompetitive market, IHRSA clubs are vying for members—and employees—as the national unemployment rate hovers around 4%.

“As one of the two major athletic clubs in our area, we find it a bit challenging to attract experienced, knowledgeable fitness professionals,” reports Christine Cate, the human resources director at the Hampshire Hills Athletic Club in Milford, NH. “The tight labor market has meant that we have to be more aggressive in our marketing.”

A 110,000-square-foot, family-oriented, multipurpose club, Hampshire Hills has 40 full-time and 200 part-time employees, who serve some 3,500 members.

And, once you find them, how do you hold on to valued employees—those talented, experienced, and ambitious managers, or those charismatic instructors and personal trainers—who underlie your business’ success?

You need to create a motivating and rewarding environment, offering fair pay and benefits, that excites employees about doing their jobs, suggests Francesca Schuler, the CEO of In-Shape, a chain of more than 65 full-service clubs based in Stockton, CA. “We strive to provide the best place to work in all of our markets. Our team is always looking for new ways to stay ahead of the competition—with respect to everything from culture, to competitive salaries, to the opportunity to develop a real career in fitness.”

As Schuler acknowledges, a key component of a “best place to work” is a fair and equitable salary and benefits package, but, having said that, you have to be realistic about budgetary constraints.

“The tight labor market has meant that we have to be more aggressive in our marketing.”

Christine Cate, Human Resources Director

Hampshire Hills Athletic Club - Milford, NH

But where can you turn to find reliable benchmarks for various club positions?

A good place to start is the 2019 IHRSA Health Club Employee Compensation & Benefits Report. Produced every two years for the past two decades, this year’s report is an 89-page guide based on a confidential survey of 61 member companies, representing more than 248 North American fitness facilities.

Insights into Staffing Practices

By employing the report, club operators and managers easily can compare their compensation rates for approximately 50 common job titles, including those for corporate and senior management, salaried, and hourly employees.

The data also is categorized by geographical region, club type, and club size.

The 2019 edition includes a number of new features, says Melissa Rodriguez, IHRSA’s senior research manager, including information on employee turnover and recruitment practices.

“Nearly half (47.5%) of the respondents cited employee referrals as the most successful tool for recruiting employees,” says Rodriguez. “The internet/website ranked a distant second at 30.5%. The respondents also indicated that it took about two months to fill executive and senior-level management positions; a little more than a month to fill management positions; and less than one month to fill non-management positions.”

The report can be used to determine if health club compensation and benefits packages are on target, says Jay Ablondi, IHRSA’s executive vice president of global products.

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2019 IHRSA Health Club Employee Compensation Report

“Hiring and investing in qualified staff is vital to providing a quality club experience that retains members,” he says. “Yet, as any operator knows, payroll is one of the biggest expenses a club has. For that reason, IHRSA carefully researches and publishes this report to help them analyze their practices and compare them with those of similar club companies in their part of the country.”

Staying on Top of Compensation Trends

Senior managers at IHRSA facilities, particularly those with human resource and financial responsibilities, find the 2019 IHRSA Health Club Employee Compensation & Benefits Report virtually indispensable.

At Hampshire Hills, Cate and her team use it extensively.

“What are the trends in compensation? What changes in benefits is the fitness industry seeing?” Cate says. “The report is a fantastic resource to reference when planning for the future. And, because it’s specific to our industry, we use it when strategizing about how to attract and hold on to talented people.”

It’s especially helpful when creating a new position, counsels Meredith DePersia, the vice president of HR at Active Wellness LLC, based in San Francisco. “It provides us with a baseline so we’re able to be competitive with our job offers,” she says. “Remaining competitive is always a challenge, for a variety of reasons. In major markets, the cost of living continues to rise, and competing clubs and studios open every year.

“And in the new markets we move into, having average compensation data helps us to attract talent from the start.”

Active Wellness manages more than 60 sites across the U.S. and Canada, and employs approximately 250 full-time, and 950 part-time people.

“We’re in a very unique labor market,” says Beth Stansberry, the director of HR at the Airport Health Club in Santa Rosa, CA. “The cost of living is very high, but the overall wages tend to be lower in comparison. The IHRSA report is very helpful, in that it validates our current pay and benefits structure, while giving us insights about areas where we could improve.”

Airport Health is a 44,000-square-foot, multipurpose, family-oriented facility with 3,900 members, that employs a staff of 180, 36 of that are full-time.

The Ever-changing Hiring Climate

This year’s report features a “Compensation Outlook” section, which notes that increased economic growth hasn’t had a significant impact on inflation. As measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI), inflation increased by 2.5% in 2018, and is expected to drop to 2.1% in 2019, remaining historically low.

The unemployment rate, which began dropping from a historic high of 9.7% in 2010, reached an average of 3.9% in 2018. Unemployment is expected to fall even further, to 3.6%, this year. As a result, companies may begin to experience higher employee turnover as the competition for talent intensifies.

Last year, across all U.S. industries, salary budgets rose about 3%. As the country’s economy continues to grow at a steady pace, hiring should continue to be strong, putting upward pressure on compensation.

“Remaining competitive is always a challenge, for a variety of reasons. In major markets, the cost of living continues to rise, and competing clubs and studios open every year.”

Meredith DePersia, Vice President of Human Resources

Active Wellness LLC - San Francisco, CA

The club operators who responded to the survey anticipate wage and salary increases of between 4% and 5%. Each club’s hiring market, of course, is unique.

“Due to the longevity of our staff, we have very low turnover in key positions,” says Stansberry. “Even though, occasionally, we struggle to fill housekeeping and/or maintenance positions, which may involve odd hours, including evenings and weekends, for most of our line positions, we generally have a long list of applicants who are eager to join our team. We attribute that to our being community-orientated, offering a competitive compensation and benefits package, and providing a wonderful work environment.”

A Look to the Future

You also can contribute to the confidential Health Club Employee Compensation Benefits Survey, which will be circulated in the fall of 2020.

“It takes about an hour, and many participants find it to be a rewarding and productive experience,” says Rodriguez. “The process of compiling the information gives clubs an opportunity to take a closer look at their current practices, with respect to specific employee categories, and compare them with those at other clubs.”

By doing so, you’ll discover whether, by underpaying valued employees, you risk of losing them … or, by overpaying them, you’re incurring unnecessarily high payroll expenses.

In short, you’ll rest assured that you’re right on the money.

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Patricia Amend

Patricia Amend is an executive editor to Club Business International.