· Features

Case study: using L&D to solve labour shortages

Leisure centre management company Fusion Lifestyle worked out its talent problem by partnering with Arden University to offer exciting career development opportunities. Millicent Machell reports.

The organisation

Fusion is an independent registered charity and has been operating centres across the UK since 2000. It now manages leisure facilities from Wales to London to Newcastle. It works in partnership with local authorities, schools and colleges and other public sector organisations to provide recreational sport, health and fitness activities to local communities.

Fusion has a voluntary board of trustees and no shareholders means that it is able to reinvest in facilities, products and, most importantly, its people.


The problem

The sport and leisure industry has encountered significant challenges in recent years, including the Covid-19 pandemic, the cost of living crisis and the energy crisis.

Stacey Allen, director of corporate partnerships at Arden University, says: “The rising cost of energy, chemical shortages and staff retention have created a challenging landscape for the public sport and leisure sector.”

Read more: New migration rules will worsen labour shortages

Almost 400 swimming pools have closed since 2010. This uncertainty has resulted in employees leaving the industry in favour of more stability. A study from banking group Barclays found 94% of hospitality and leisure businesses said it was difficult to find workers in 2022.

Challenges are likely to continue as recent measures set by the government designed to cut migration are likely to exacerbate labour shortages, particularly in the care and hospitality sectors, according to the CIPD.

The new measures include increasing the minimum salary needed for skilled workers to enter the UK from £26,200 to £38,700. The average starting salary for a leisure centre manager is around £22,000 a year, according to the government’s website.


The method

Fusion decided to invest in learning and development (L&D) to tackle its recruitment issues and simultaneously train employees to deal with business challenges.

Tanya Wright, Fusion’s workforce development business partner, says: “L&D can transform organisations as it helps them to develop as a business and grow the people that work for them. It helps them to have the winning edge of talent by keeping people’s skills up to date, and it also helps with the attraction and retention of staff.”

As part of its L&D strategy, Fusion offers degree apprenticeships in leadership management. This means staff can earn a qualification while working and earning. As leadership qualifications aren’t industry-specific, they can also help employees with their long-term career goals, opening them up to other industries.

Wright argues this is an attractive offer for prospective staff.

Read more: Is your L&D training going to waste?

She says: “Allowing employees time away from the charity to develop while being in paid employment in adult life is a rare gift we can offer our employees.

“Not only does an apprenticeship degree help our business grow, but it also helps our employees grow in the long run. By supporting their career path, we inevitably become a more attractive company to work for.”

Wright adds that offering existing staff development opportunities within the organisation was also a powerful retention tool.

She says: “We felt that post-pandemic, offering additional educational opportunities would benefit and strengthen our senior leadership team, making them feel more valued and helping them to grow.”

Allen says this also helps ‘accidental managers’ – individuals who find themselves in leadership roles without the necessary formal training in management or leadership – to upskill.

She says: “Accidental managers are common in the sport and leisure industry as long-standing members of staff are promoted but might still need to develop the right leadership skills.

“The apprenticeships help ensure existing talent can navigate all the market disruptions that are hitting the industry.”

The course implements ‘learning on the job’ wherever possible, to make sure it is relevant to the leisure industry.

Fusion’s first cohort of apprenticeship degree students have explored topics around the energy crisis and how it impacts the facilities Fusion operates, particularly swimming pools. Another student has focused on the impact of the digital transformation.

Read more: How companies can turn in-house to face the tech talent challenge

Staff can nominate themselves for the course and are then given an overview and coaching session to determine what they’d like to achieve.

Allen says one of the biggest challenges was ensuring staff were able to manage the degree alongside their job and personal life.

She adds: “Our flexible and digital-first model helps people align their degree with the hours they’re working.

“But it is still a big commitment and we had to make sure we were setting an expectation of what that’s like. So, we introduced taster and information sessions to help articulate that taking the course is a long-term decision.”


The result

Wright says she has already seen employees apply their learning from the course: “The projects some of the students have been working on have already been implemented into our business.

“The degree content is not only helping our workers gain confidence and stronger industry knowledge, but it’s also benefiting the growth of the charity.”

There has also been a noticeable uplift in staff morale.

She adds: “We didn’t consider the impact it would have on people’s confidence in how they present ideas in the business, but also how they feel about their career development.”

Some staff have also received promotions due to their development.

Jonathan Bash, dual-site general manager at Fusion, who is currently studying his Level 7 Senior Leader apprenticeship degree, came to Fusion as a part-time lifeguard and progressed within the company to his current role.

He says: “I was a general manager when I first started my apprenticeship degree. Due to my development and how it has helped my confidence and expertise, I am now a dual-site general manager.

“It has given me good experience and I can put what I’m learning into practice. It has given me better guidance and clearer direction on how to support my teams and has really opened my eyes to how to do things differently for better results.”



This article was first published in our January/February 2024 print edition. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.