Americans turn fitness passion into career boom
Want to know what the job of the future looks like? Go to the gym.
Phillip Hoskins did, but not to work out. He went to find clients, and to join the ranks of personal trainers, one of the fastest-growing American occupations.
"I knew I didn't want a desk job," said Hoskins of Louisville, Ky., who became a personal trainer after being let go in December from a middle-management position after 17 years at a car repair shop. "I'm pretty fit for 51 years old, and I knew I could do something with that."
Once stereotyped as the domain of bodybuilders and gym devotees, personal training is drawing the educated and uneducated; the young and old; men and women; the newly graduated, the recently laid-off and the long retired.
From 2001 to 2011, the number of personal trainers grew by 44 percent, to 231,500, while the overall number of workers fell by 1 percent, according to the Labor Department.
It is no wonder that so many Americans are trying to transform a passion for fitness into a new career.
Personal training requires many of the skills and qualities of the new typical middle-class American job: It is a personal service that cannot be automated or sent offshore, that caters to a wealthier client base, and that is increasingly subsidized (in this case, by employers and insurance companies).
But as people with such jobs have found, the pay is low. Unlike the clock-in-and-clock-out middle-class jobs of the past, personal service occupations have erratic hours, require entrepreneurial acumen and offer little job security.
"The kind of job where you come in and work 9-5, and where someone tells you what to do all day is becoming scarcer and scarcer," said Erik Brynjolfsson, an economics professor at MIT and co-author of "Race Against the Machine," a book about how automation is changing the job market. "The kind of job where you have to hustle and hustle and where you're not sure whether you will have enough clients next month, where you have less job security, is becoming much more common."
For personal trainers, the median hourly wage is less than $15. Because they have to find clients and set up their businesses, trainers must be flexible, adapting to client schedules and physical abilities.
They must also be able to engage with all sorts of personalities - precisely the skills that help keep these jobs around while others are replaced by algorithms.
"Knowing how to keep someone motivated and how to keep a connection are skills humans have learned and evolved over hundreds of thousands of years," Brynjolfsson said. "A robot can't figure out whether you can do one more pushup, or how to motivate you to actually do it."
Donna Martin, 69, of Orlando, Fla., recently became a personal trainer after having been retired for 25 years. She mostly works with clients over age 60. "I think my age actually helps me get clients," she said.
Another reason for the surge in personal trainers - as well as home health aides and other midskill service occupations - is that the barriers to entry are low.
The industry is mostly unregulated, with private organizations rather than governments issuing certifications. Once upon a time, some certification organizations required bachelor's degrees and intensive study; now dozens of groups offer ever cheaper and easier certifications to serve the fitness boom.
The fitness industry has been growing steadily in good economies and bad, with U.S. health clubs adding about 10 million members since the recession officially began in 2007, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association.
Facing a sea of options, Hoskins chose an online test that cost $60 by Action, an organization founded in 2008. Action is not accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, the group the industry uses to vet such certifications, though, and he could not find a local gym that recognized the credential.
He is now studying for a more in-depth test from an older group, the American Council on Exercise, and trying to train clients on his own until he can qualify to work for a gym. The study materials and test cost about $500.
Some older certifying organizations favor more regulation because they see the industry maturing and fear that increasing numbers of new trainers with less experience will dilute the reputation of trainers in general.
"We are really trying to professionalize this industry, and state-by-state licensure may be what we need," said Mike Clark, the chief executive of the National Academy of Sports Medicine and a licensed physical therapist. "Right now, the gyms really don't want that, though, because they're already having trouble finding enough trainers with just the current system."
In a country with a 35.7 percent obesity rate, potential customers are plentiful, at least in theory.
But personal training, like other personal services, is increasingly freelance. Most trainers drum up their own business. It does not help that trainers must persuade strangers to pay to do something they probably do not like to do: exercise.
"I've got a website, a blog, a Twitter account, a Facebook feed, an email blast, basically any kind of social media I can find to get the word out there," said Mark Spurbeck, 28, of Eagan, Minn., a college graduate with a degree in English and history. He got his certification in May but is still primarily working as a website designer.
"I've been telling my friends: 'Let's work out for free. Don't worry about paying me. My only fee is telling your other friends to hire me,"' he said.
So far he has two paying clients, whom he trains at their homes.
Spurbeck has considered working at a gym, where possible clients would at least all be in one place. But his local gyms, he said, generally take a 50 percent commission on all sessions, and would require him to be there eight hours a day regardless of whether he had clients booked.
That is because many gyms use trainers as recruiters for their own clients, even though knowing how to do the perfect pull-up does not necessarily translate into good salesmanship.
"A lot of people have the passion for the training and helping people, but then they get in that environment and then they just don't know how to sell themselves to clients," Spurbeck said. "I know a lot of trainers who are doing more sales than actually training."
The incentive structure at gyms has evolved to further prioritize salesmanship over formal credentials.
"Back 10 years ago, pay was based purely on education," said David Van Daff, the vice president for membership at the National Academy of Sports Medicine, who said he had hired more than 12,000 trainers as a manager at Bally Total Fitness, a national gym chain. "The structure has changed at a lot of gyms, where now it's based more on productivity - how many hours you've already booked."
As for Hoskins, he continues trying to find clients while he studies for certification.
"I've been talking to people through my church mostly," he said. "It's going to have to be word of mouth at this point. All that's up to me is I have to perform when I do find them."
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