The United States—in fact, much of the world—appears to be in economic recession, owing to such factors as a declining housing market, months of job losses, and turmoil in the credit and financial markets. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, the number of unemployed persons rose to 10.1 million in October 2008, and the unemployment rate increased to 6.5% (U.S. Department of Labor 2008a). Over the past 12 months, the number of unemployed persons has increased by 2.8 million (U.S. Department of Labor 2008a).

Despite the economic downturn, the U.S. Department of Labor reports that the fitness industry is still growing and job
opportunities are solid. Employment in the industry is expected to increase by 27% through 2016, a figure that’s greater than the average for all professions (U.S. Department of Labor 2008b).
The U.S. Department of Labor attributes this projected expansion for the industry to public concern for staying healthy and becoming physically fit, as well as people’s willingness to spend more money and time on personal and family fitness.

Shannon Fable, owner and president of Sunshine Fitness Resources in Boulder, Colorado, says she finds it “awe-inspiring to think that in this time of economic downturn, our industry is essentially considered recession-proof. As managers, we should definitely keep this in mind; the number of applicants will swell as other sectors fail to grow, and it is our job to make sure that our hiring criteria remain stringent to uphold the integrity of the fitness profession,” she said.

The Loyalty Factor

Fitness professionals continue to be very loyal to their employers. This year’s survey reports that 78% of fitness employees remain in their jobs for 1 year or more, down slightly from previous years (81%–83%; 2002–2006). This loyalty may be due in part to above-average compensation for their work. According to the U.S. Department of Labor (2008c), the average hourly rate for private-sector production or nonsupervisory workers was $17.98 in July, when IDEA’s latest survey was fielded. IDEA’s data show that compensation levels are above the national average for all positions surveyed, except that of fitness floor staff, which averages $10.25 per hour. Not only is the industry positioned above the U.S. norm, but the majority of fitness/program directors (57%), group exercise coordinators (53%), specialty instructors (52%) and fitness floor staff (61%) are scheduled for salary increases this year, while personal training directors (44%), personal trainers (43%), group fitness instructors (41%), and Pilates or yoga instructors (34%) may possibly receive wage increases this year.

However, as Grace DeSimone, national director of group fitness at Plus One Health Management Inc. in New York City, points out: “Happy employees are not always the ones making the big bucks. Throwing money at your training staff isn’t the answer. Treating them fairly, investing in their education, mentoring, providing opportunities and making a career for them—that’s how to make a happy employee. If an employee’s passion drives her skill, she will be justly rewarded—both monetarily and emotionally. Tell employees that you appreciate them—and mean it.”

Nonprofit vs.
For-Profit Facilities

The IDEA survey allows us to distinguish earnings in nonprofit versus for-profit facilities. Salaried positions offer no significant differences between nonprofit and for-profit clubs. Group exercise coordinators make about $2,000 more working in a nonprofit ($35,857) rather than a for-profit facility ($33,917), whereas no real differences exist for fitness/program directors ($44,833 nonprofit vs. $43,710 for-profit) and personal training directors ($41,182 nonprofit vs. $41,000 for-profit). However, all groups who are primarily paid an hourly wage earn more in for-profit clubs than they do in the nonprofit sector: personal trainer ($38.14 vs. $22.80), fitness floor staff ($11.28 vs. $9.57), group fitness instructor ($28.92 vs. $19.00), Pilates or yoga instructor ($34.77 vs. $24.83) and specialty instructor ($34.74 vs. $25.64).

The IDEA Compensation Survey not only reports on information regarding current wages in the industry; it also provides details on benefits and on hiring and promotion criteria. The survey data can be used to position your company competitively within our growing industry. Let’s take a look at the results.

Industry Position Overview

Eight fitness industry positions were examined in the 2008 IDEA survey. Highlights of our findings are offered below, while detailed results are provided in tables at the end of this article.

Fitness/Program Directors average 43 hours a week when they are salaried, but only 25 hours per week when their jobs are compensated on an hourly basis. Compared with 2006 survey results, the percent who are paid salaries is up from 66% in 2006 to 76% in current findings. The 2008 study also shows a significant leap in salaries, to an average of $46,920 annually. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s inflation calculator, which factors in the average Consumer Price Index for a given year, this is well above the 2006 average of $36,468, even after adjustment for inflation ($39,790). In addition, about 74% of directors and coordinators teach classes, for which 47% are paid extra, therefore total income can be somewhat higher. The 2008 findings also indicate that a higher percent of directors (68%) are now eligible for benefits than were in 2006 (57%). The majority of directors (58%) are eligible for an education fund as well, while 33% are able to receive cash incentives.

Personal Training Directors also average more hours per week when they are salaried (36 hours) than when they are paid an hourly wage (29 hours). The percent of directors in this category who are paid salaries is up from 56% in 2006 to 65% in 2008. Salaries may also have been augmented by teaching classes and perhaps conducting individual sessions. While the 2008 study shows an increase in annual salary over 2006 ($37,878 to $39,074), adjusting the 2006 figure for inflation ($41,328) suggests a slight decline. Personal training directors’ eligibility for benefits has remained relatively stable: 61% in 2006 vs. 64% in 2008. About two-thirds of these directors (67%) also receive an education fund, and 43% may earn cash incentives.

Group Exercise Coordinators have managerial duties, such as hiring, training and supervising group fitness instructors, but these coordinators may also teach classes on a regular basis. Less than half the professionals in this category (47% in 2008 vs. 50% in 2006) are paid salaries, while the remainder are compensated by hourly wages or on the basis of classes or sessions offered. Salaried coordinators work more hours per week (31 hours), on average, than those paid otherwise (20 hours); these results are similar to those from the 2006 survey (31 hours and 16 hours, respectively). It’s interesting to note that while fewer than half of group exercise coordinators are salaried, many are eligible for benefits (63%), cash incentives (28%) and education funds (64%). The average salary has risen once again in 2008 ($33,364, or $31,777 when adjusted for inflation) compared with $29,124 in 2006 and $23,176 in 2004. As noted earlier, about 47% of coordinators may augment their pay by teaching extra classes.

Personal Trainers are working equally as employees and independent contractors (42% and 43%), in contrast to 2006, when employees easily outnumbered independent contractors (50% vs. 38%). In the 2008 study, 4% of personal trainers are salaried, compared with 5% in 2006. In 2008, some personal trainers are eligible for benefits (31%), cash incentives (36%) and educational funds (44%). Trainers generally split their fees with their organizations, with the fee split remaining at about 60/40, similar to 2004 and 2006 findings.

The small percentage of personal trainers in the current study who are salaried provided no earnings data. For trainers paid an hourly rate, results showed improvements over the 2006 amounts. Average hourly rates for 2008 have risen substantially to $34.75, up from $30.50 in 2006. This hourly rate is also above the 2006 inflation-adjusted rate of $33.28. Though trainers are able to compensate by increasing their weekly hours, the 2008 study reveals only a half-hour increase in average hours per week (19) over 2006. The average hourly rate reported combines personal trainers who work as independent contractors and those who are employees. When we analyze the employment status separately, we find that independent contractors make a significantly higher hourly rate ($41.22) than employees ($25.74). We also find that independent contractors typically work 2 hours less per week (17) than employees (19).

Fitness Floor Staff positions are typically entry level and involve monitoring equipment, supplies and people in the fitness center. There has been very little advancement in this position over the past 2 years. Most are employees (93%) who are paid by the hour (94%). They average 18 work hours per week, earning an average of $10.25 per hour. This rate is just $0.25 higher than in 2006 and, after adjustment for inflation, reflects a drop in hourly wage ($10.91 would be the adusted rate for 2006). These staff members have steadily increased their eligibility for benefits (43% in 2008 vs. 31% in 2006 vs. 24% in 2004). Some are also eligible for cash incentives (11%) and educational funds (30%).

Group Fitness Instructors teach classes such as step and mixed impact. Specialty Instructors teach classes requiring specialized training (e.g., indoor cycling or martial arts). Both types of instructors teach an average of 6 hours per week, up from 5.5 hours (group fitness instructor) and 4.5 hours (specialty instructor) in 2006.

Few of these individuals are salaried (3%), though a large percent are considered to be employees (41%–58%). Based on the last four surveys (2002, 2004, 2006, 2008), the latest findings mark the first time that the percent who are considered employees has declined. For group fitness instructors, the rate increased from 49% in 2002 to 59% in 2006 and then demonstrated a slight decline (58%) in 2008. For specialty instructors the rate rose from 44% in 2002 to 57% in 2006 and then experienced a sharp decline in 2008 (41%).

Hourly rates have once again increased for these instructors, by $2.00 for group fitness instructors ($25.75) and by $3.00 for specialty instructors ($31.50). While specialty instructors are currently ahead of their 2006 inflation-adjusted rate by $1.49, group fitness instructors are slightly behind inflation ($0.16). Benefits have also increased over the past 2 years for group exercise and specialty instructors (21% and 16%, respectively). These categories are sometimes offered cash incentives (19% and 18%) and educational funds (35% and 31%) as well.

Pilates and Yoga Instructors average 7 hours per week, an hour more than either group fitness or specialty instructors. Similar to other instructors, less than half (44%) are classified as employees and few (2%) are salaried. Eligibility for benefits (19%) has risen since 2006 (13%), and these instructors are also considered for cash incentives (25%) and educational funds (33%). The average hourly pay for this group is the highest of all the instructors ($32.25), and a comparison with the 2006 rate ($29.50) indicates that wages have kept up with inflation ($32.19).

Regional Differences
in Wages and Salaries

Living costs vary by region, and consequently so do salaries and wages. The 2008 IDEA salary survey allowed regional comparisons of average pay rates for fitness professionals located in the Northeastern, North Central, Southern and Western states. Three of the eight job categories were predominantly salaried, and the rest were paid hourly. No significant differences between regions were found among the salaried positions (fitness/program directors, personal training directors and group exercise coordinators). Among the hourly positions, significant differences between regions were found in wages for personal trainers, group fitness instructors and Pilates and yoga instructors, but not for specialty instructors or fitness floor staff.

  • Salaries for fitness/program directors are higher in the West, averaging $52,808, compared with all other U.S. regions, where salaries are in the $42,000–47,000 range, approximately.
  • Personal training directors in the Northeast, South and West all have similar salaries ($42,364–$45,000), while those in the North Central region earn about $9,000 less.
  • Group exercise coordinators in the South earn the lowest salaries ($25,000), while those in the North Central and West regions earn approximately $33,800 on average. There were no reported salaried group exercise coordinators from the Northeast in this year’s survey.

The highest hourly wages vary between regions and positions. The West has the highest hourly wages for personal trainers, group fitness instructors and specialty instructors, while the North Central region has the lowest wages in all hourly positions.

  • Personal trainers average $40.70 in the West, while the North Central region averages a low of $26.55.
  • Group fitness instructors range from a high in the West of $29.78 per hour, to a low of $18.15 in the North Central region. Those in the South ($28.50) and Northeast ($28.45) make very similar wages to one another. This trend is also seen with specialty instructors, who make somewhat more, on average, in the West ($35.86 per hour) than in the Northeast and South ($30.89 and $30.28, respectively) and considerably more than in the North Central region ($24.31).
  • Pilates and yoga instructors in the Northeast lead the nation in average hourly wages ($40.38), with the West not too far behind ($36.02). The South and North Central Pilates and yoga instructors average $28.58 and $24.61 per hour, respectively.
  • Fitness floor staff average $11.38 in the South, $10.95 in West, $10.04 in the Northeast and $9.56 in the North Central states. While the North Central states may offer lower wages, this may be a sign of lower living costs for the area.

Benefits and Discounts

Personnel may also be compensated for their work by employers offering benefits and enticements such as insurance plans, paid vacations, profit sharing and discounts. Full-time employees are more likely than part-timers and independent contractors to qualify for benefits and discounts.

For instance, 69% of full-time employees are covered by liability insurance, compared with only 38% of part-timers and 25% of independent contractors. Over 55% of full-time employees benefit from health insurance and paid sick time, while under 15% of part-timers and just 5% of independent contractors are afforded this same arrangement. Commissions or incentives are more equally offered, but full-time employees (46%) are still more apt than independent contractors (31%) to receive this benefit. Discounts tend to be equally distributed: 64% of full-timers and 58% of part-timers are eligible for discounts, while 46% of independent contractors qualify. When we compare the benefits and discounts that were offered to employees in 2006, we see there has been a slight decrease in all areas, including retirement plans (54% vs. 56%), paid vacation time (66% vs. 70%) and free or discounted childcare (37% vs. 45%). This trend may reflect the struggling economy.

Hiring and Promotion

This year we updated the survey to include new criteria for hiring, wage and promotion decisions. During the hiring process, the top three criteria for all positions except group fitness instructor are currently skills and abilities, certification and personality. Years of experience ranks as the fourth-most-important criterion among most positions except group fitness instructor and Pilates/yoga instructor.

According to respondents, the type of class or session taught is more important than certification when hiring group fitness instructors. DeSimone agrees: “Keep in mind, there are certain styles of classes that offer no viable form of certification—belly dancing is a good example of this.”

When it comes to promoting an employee to a position requiring additional responsibility and increased compensation, the two most important factors that are weighed are leadership and communication skills. Accomplishments of the individual, product knowledge and advanced specialty training round out the top five criteria for promotion decisions, with the emphasis on each factor varying among positions.

This year the survey presented different criteria for determining pay when hiring an individual and determining a merit raise. Criteria for pay upon hiring differed among positions. For all positions except group exercise coordinator and fitness floor staff, the most important factor in determining pay upon hiring was certification. Skills and abilities were most important for group exercise coordinator and fitness floor staff positions and second-most-important for personal training directors and specialty instructors.

The attributes least commonly used for determining pay for fitness/program directors, personal training directors and fitness floor staff include type of class or session taught, audition (for group exercise coordinators and personal trainers) and a university degree for instructors (group, specialty, Pilates and yoga).

For merit raise, the survey shows that the most important area for all positions is job performance, with years of service within the industry for group exercise coordinators and accomplishments for personal training directors given equal attention. A university degree is ranked the lowest for merit raise decisions for fitness/program directors, group exercise coordinators and instructors (group, specialty, Pilates and yoga), while class attendance is the lowest criterion for personal training directors, personal trainers and fitness floor staff.

Continuing Education

Education and continuing training for the fitness professional are critical for the advancement of our field. Education or training may be given in several different manners, including in-house training programs, in-service training, outside workshops and association membership fees. An in-house training program for staff is required by 55% of those surveyed. “Every facility should contribute substantially to the education of its employees in exchange for loyalty,” suggests Fable. “In-house training is important for keeping a staff on the same page, thus elevating . . . trust in the staff from the members’ point of view.”

Over half of those surveyed indicated that their companies pay for in-service training (58%) as well as outside workshops (58%); however, only 33% of companies pay for their employees’ association membership fees. Approximately half of the facilities surveyed provide an education fund for employees, with 41% partially funding education and 10% providing full funding.

Reviewing the Results

While the U.S. economy is experiencing troubled times, the fitness industry appears to be steady on most fronts and even thriving on others. The wages in all positions except fitness floor staff are higher than the national average. In addition, all positions surveyed reported higher wages than 2 years ago. Three positions—personal training director, fitness floor staff and group fitness instructor—have not kept up with inflation.

When making decisions on hiring, employers place emphasis on skills and abilities, certification and personality, with certification seen as central for determining pay upon hiring. Communication and leadership skills are the two most important factors when employers look to promote an employee, whereas the individual’s job performance is key to receiving a merit raise.

When compared with 2006 data, the one area in the industry where we have fallen slightly behind is in benefits and discounts awarded to fitness professionals. While the decline in these amenities is slight, it may reflect the approach that employers are keeping wages high during times of economic instability. n