Quality fitness programming is the cornerstone of a successful health club. Good programming is dynamic by nature and profitable by design. It is dependent on talented trainers with ever-evolving skill sets—skill sets that do not come free of charge. However, some club operators are hesitant to incorporate continuing education into compensation. Others say that requiring employees to bear the full burden of education costs actually stunts business growth.
Club operators encourage personal trainers and group exercise instructors to obtain certification from nationally recognized certifying agencies, but the cost of education does not end there. Each organization requires between 10 and 15 hours of continuing education credits per year to keep certifications current. Fifty-seven percent of facilities surveyed by the IDEA Health and Fitness Association provide an education fund for their staff, but only 10 percent cover the entire cost of continuing education while 47 percent pay for part of it, according to "The 2013 IDEA Fitness Industry Compensation Trend Report."
Personal trainers spend between $500 and $1,000 per year to stay on top of continuing education requirements, saysLindsay Vastola, founder and CEO of Body Project Fitness, Windsor, NJ, and editor-in-chief of PFP magazine, a trade publication for personal trainers. Conferences and special certifications can run between $200 and $1,000 or more, she says.
For individual fitness professionals, continuing education can be more of a burden than a benefit. The cost of keeping pace with the industry does not always correlate to a higher paycheck.
What savvy club owners understand is that education can be directly tied to club profits, Vastola says. These club owners invest in continuing education and other incentive programs that help them retain higher quality employees and quickly build new profit centers, she says.
"Unfortunately, the way the industry goes is that you are paid by class or by head, and there is sort of a cap on that," Vastola says. "I think as an employer, a way to keep team members more loyal is to add these kinds of incentives. You train so many classes, you get X points to use toward continuing education."
Another consideration for club owners is that some of the basic nationally recognized certifications do not address current fitness trends, says Dan Moreno, co-owner and fitness director of Energy Interactive Fitness, St. James, NY. He adds that additional workshops or certifications are essential to diversify the training portfolio and keep pace with competition.
"Lately, when I've been hiring trainers, I'm a bit surprised that the higher-ranked national certifications…don't really touch on the trend of athletic and functional training," Moreno says. "I was surprised to find that they aren't even getting into the basics of it. Trainers are having to find ways to supplement those certifications with workshops. You can't take for granted that their certification is enough education anymore."
Moreno and co-owner Michael Tucci try to keep education affordable by encouraging their trainers to participate in peer-to-peer group education every other month at their facility, Tucci says. When they decide to bring in trainers for specific training, they split the cost so everyone can participate.
"One of the big benefits is there is a lot greater likelihood that you are going to get more of your team in attendance if it's right on site," Tucci says. "It's also a great team builder, and that's important to us. Our whole model is centered around a smaller model with a training program and a training team."
On occasion, Tucci and Moreno pay for a motivated employee to take a special certification course, but they are careful not to overemphasize certifications as a basis for compensation. Their small studio atmosphere gives them the ability to choose which trainers they will send for specialized training, and they handle these decisions on a case-by-case basis.
On the other end of the spectrum, big box gyms tend to take a broader approach to instructor education. These facilities are more likely to hold large program-specific certification programs as part of a new programming rollout, Vastola says.
"As you see these smaller boutique places come about, the way they are going to compete with the big box is they are going to have to get more creative in how to compensate and keep good instructors," Vastola says. "That's where you're going to see more studio owners coming out and offering rewards programs and incentives."
Ann Gilbert, owner of two Shapes Fitness for Women franchise locations in Florida, says she has seen education for fitness professionals evolve significantly over her three decades in the business. She recalls a time when "anybody who could wear a T-back leotard" was a candidate to teach fitness classes.
As fitness education evolved, Gilbert helped Shapes Fitness for Women create its own fitness academy that became a recruiting base and launching pad for new hires. The academy still holds bi-annual summits, offering classes that often qualify as continuing education credits for nationally recognized certifications. Shapes employees are able to take advantage of the training.
If a facility cannot afford to send their employees to conferences or hire expensive consultants, Gilbert suggests looking into online education programs such as Smart Fitness University Online and MyGroupFit.com. These programs are more affordable resources that help keep employees current on certifications through online training.
"Not everybody who's part-time or who's a single mom can afford to fly to Atlanta to go to AtlantaMANIA," Gilbert says. "So, if I want to keep that staff member rewarded and have benefits to work for me, we are going to bring that education to the facility, either by bringing the education to us or by subscribing to one of the online services."
Education is a key component to creating new revenue, Gilbert adds. The cost of providing the education should be considered part of creating those new profit centers and should be handled, at least in part, by the club.
"Education increases revenue, keeps programming cutting-edge and increases the career opportunities for our staff," Gilbert says. "I don't want them running from club to club to club. I want them to spend their entire career here."