Is the UK Sports & Physical Activity Sector Still in Shape?

Published on Nov 6, 2023

Written by Mariana Marques

The pandemic was a major blow for the UK Sports and Physical Activity (S&PA) industry. As gyms shut their doors and exercise machines gathered dust, walking the dog or rushing to the supermarket to get the last can of beans became the new standard of physical activity. Only now that we are past the pandemic scene can we really understand its impacts on this sector. 

Lightcast was commissioned by the Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CISMPA), the professional development body for the UK’s sport and physical activity sector, to produce a report on the latest trends in this sector. The report includes detailed data on recruitment trends, the composition of S&PA roles, workforce demographics, work arrangements and skills requirements in this industry. This article highlights some of the report’s biggest findings. 

The post-pandemic Sports & Physical Activity sector

If sector growth was a marathon, then the Covid-19 pandemic represented the 30km mark for the S&PA industry - one where, as most marathonists may tell you, weaknesses start to show. Between 2019 and 2022, the S&PA workforce lost approximately 26,000 jobs, which equates to 4.3% of its workforce. Despite the visible growth since 2020, the number of jobs within the S&PA industry is still below pre-pandemic levels. This is due to other jobs within the sector - such as Receptionist or Leisure Attendants, not recovering as fast as S&PA occupations (like Sport Coaches and Fitness Instructors roles).

And what skills are required for S&PA occupations? 

Core S&PA occupations require more transferable skills than the national average for all occupations. For instance, skills such as customer service, communication, and professionalism are some of the most sought-after. However, skills requirements are often specific to each role’s duties. Fitness instructors and sports coaches are often required to have education and training expertise - as training and teaching participants is a big part of their day-to-day duties. 

When looking at specialised skills, one skills category that stands out is performing arts, sports, and recreation - with specific skills from this category being requested in 32% of S&PA job postings, compared to 0.8% of all job postings in the UK. Diving even deeper, some specialised skills are particularly significant or unique to S&PA occupations - meaning they are more requested for this occupation than others. 62% of all S&PA job postings in 2022 contained at least one of these “defining” skills. The top three defining skills for S&PA occupations are:

  1. General instructing and coaching - present in 28.5% of S&PA job postings 

  2. Sports coaching and athletic training - accounting for 26.5% of S&PA job postings 

  3. First Aid - present in 11.5% of S&PA job postings 

To complement the skills analysis contained in this research, Lightcast has produced an interactive version of the skills treemap found on page 62 of the report, which allows you to explore the most in-demand skills for the core S&PA occupations in 2022. Using the hierarchical Lightcast Open Skills Taxonomy, the chart enables you to delve from broad skills groups, such as Physical and Inherent Abilities (appearing in 52.6% of S&PA job postings), to skills subcategories such as Initiative and Leadership (36.6% of job postings), and finally specific skills such as Coaching (16.5% of postings).

Using skills data to build career pathways and improve recruitment in S&PA 

Understanding the skills each S&PA job requires can help policymakers and educators build stronger workforce strategies to connect talent to employers, as well as S&PA employers to improve their hiring and retention plans. But there is another opportunity lying in skills data: being able to identify jobs with similar skills sets to S&PA occupations and broaden your talent pool.

Lightcast’s experimental Career Pathways model – which combines job postings with realworld worker profiles data – can help us identify jobs with similar skill sets to S&PA jobs. In the report, we looked at “feeder” and “next steps” jobs. Both have similar skills sets to a specific occupation, but while feeder jobs offer typically lower or similar median pay, next steps jobs typically offer higher average salaries and are considered - as the name suggests - a career advancement. 

Looking at Fitness Instructors/ Personal Trainers occupations, correspondening feeder jobs include Recreation/ Activities Worker, Coach, and Entertainment/Recreation supervisor. Coach, for instance, has a relevance of 78%, meaning the skills required for Coach roles are very similar to those required for Fitness Instructors or Personal Trainer roles. 

These insights present a huge opportunity for S&PA employers looking to hire talent, or for organisations looking to support businesses. Because feeder jobs offer typically lower pay yet have very similar skills to those needed in S&PA occupations, they can be a great source of recruitment - expanding talent pools and enabling employers to get the skills they need. 

Looking at next steps jobs for Fitness Instructors/Personal Trainers, some that stand out include Fitness Centre Manager (with a relevance of 92%) and First-Aid Instructor (with a relevance of 72%). These insights can help organisations define clear career pathways for their employees and retain talent. 

What about S&PA demographics? 

30% of S&PA jobs are held by 16 to 24 year-olds - three times the average of all occupations. Men are still taking the large majority of S&PA roles, but their share is much smaller than in 2020. They currently account for 56% of S&PA roles, compared to 62% in 2020. The age profile and physical demands of this sector make it slightly less accommodating for people with disabilities. While the average percentage of workers reporting having a disability across all occupations sits at 16%, it is 3% lower in S&PA occupations.

The concentration of young people in these roles also means that the socio-economic conditions of S&PA roles are generally lower (28% of S&PA jobs are taken by those in lower socio-economic groups or LSEGs). Lastly, more than 87% of S&PA occupations are of White British ethnicity, making this occupation category less diverse than the general UK workforce. 

Understanding these demographics is crucial to plan effective DE&I initiatives and build a more diverse workforce over time, but these insights can also be used to improve hiring strategies. Broadening talent pools to include talent with a wider range of backgrounds and different demographics may enable businesses to get the skills they need faster and more effectively. 

Let’s get the ball rolling

This deep-dive enables us to understand the exact impacts that the pandemic has had on the S&PA sector and study the changing dynamics of these occupations in detail. It can serve as a foundation from which to build out new initiatives, or evidence to inform important decisions in hiring and retaining S&PA personnel. 

Lightcast works with various organisations across the UK and Europe, providing and analysing labour market data to produce evidence-backed insights that can drive your sector forward. If you are looking to gain a deeper understanding of sectoral, occupational, or skills trends across your country or even a specific region, Lightcast can help. Get in touch with our team to explore our data and solutions. 

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