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Route Setting Has a Problem - Part 1

Updated: May 2

*Disclaimer: This article is an opinion piece based on my 2+ decades in the industry working both as a route setter, Routesetting Manager, or senior leadership overseeing route setting. I don't pretend to have 100% of the info that is out there in the industry nor would I ever pretend my experience(s) are the only valid ones. As a consultant in the climbing gym industry, I think this is an important topic for the future of our industry that is not discussed enough.

I've been working in the climbing gym industry for a little over 20 years. Early on, I spent much of my time turning wrenches (Yes, turning wrenches. This was before impact drills were the standard in route setting). I loved the craft. I loved what it taught me about climbing movement and the creative outlet it afforded me.

But soon enough, a clear roadblock revealed itself: I was never going to be able to have a growing and lifelong career as a route setter. And this had nothing to do with my talent or work ethic. So I pivoted.

Hot Take: There is a systemic issue with route setting, and it doesn't seem like anyone is doing much about it

Setting routes is closer to a trades job than a customer service or office job

The Ceiling That Can't be Broken

The main issue I identified early on is that as a setter, no matter how much experience or expertise I could get under my belt in the craft of setting, I was never going to be able to have a life long career as a setter, let alone save for retirement or, importantly, learn skills that would set me up to transition into other industries.

Let me be more specific. Here is the (wildly simplified) typical professional path for a setter:
  • Become a setter

  • If your gym is more sophisticated they may have tiers or levels of setters, so you might progress through those tiers

  • At some point, maybe you get a USAC certification (Which most of your bosses don't see the value in, because well, it's not really relevant to commercial setting)

  • After a while, if the position is open maybe you get a Head Setter or Routesetting Manager job

  • If your company is large enough and/or scaling, maybe there's a Routesetting Director job

  • .......that's it. That's the whole thing.

So now what? You're topped out. You've hit the ceiling, and possibly in less than 10 years. Based on my industry research, there are MAYBE 50 Routesetting Director jobs in the continental US and while that number will grow, it will unlikely outpace the number of setters looking for career opportunities. (There's another side to this coin discussed below)

Furthermore, the data I have access to says even the highest paid Setting Directors in the US are making low 6 figures. Which is a perfectly reasonable amount of money to be making but there is almost no chance of seeing exponential income growth when there are no further roles or responsibilities beyond the Director position. There is also a physical top out in addition to compensation and professional growth. Route setting is extremely taxing on the body, and takes a toll on the exact same systems climbing does which can affect a setter's climbing outside the workplace which is likely their passion. But for now, let's focus on the professional pathway.

So what does all of this mean? It means that generally speaking your career potential as a commercial setter stops at Director and with a low six-figure salary. Compare that with gym management, program development, finance, HR or other roles in our industry and it is night and day what the career and earning potential are. This is exactly why I pivoted early on. As I moved into gym management, I grew my skill set, developed a 20 year long career into C-suite executive roles and associated salaries and now have a wealth of skills that are transferable across industries and have empowered me to start Rise Above Consulting.

Of note, there are some fringe cases out there of setters who work as contractors, who travel and set for comps up to and including The Olympics but this is a very, VERY small percentage of the total route setting population and I don't think very representative of the typical career path.

Supply & Demand

As of the time of writing this, there are over a dozen route setting jobs posted on the CBJ Job Board. Most of which are for full time positions, directors, etc. and the jobs have been posted for 2+ months. How are those positions not being filled?

Well, for one some of the salaries posted hover in the $65-$75k range. This is not very much money to be the top person overseeing a department. Moreover, it is unlikely you will find this talent in your direct market so now you are asking someone to move their entire life for $65k and there is no mention of relocation stipends in these job posts. This is not a very enticing offer.

Secondly, there just aren't many setters out there ready to be Directors. It takes a long time (I'd conservatively argue 5-8 years) to become a top tier setter capable of running multiple crews as well as managing a budget and people. And at the rate the industry is growing, the supply for talent just can't keep up with the demand for setters.

And lastly, because the supply for setting talent is low and the demand is high this means setters can (and absolutely should) command high salaries. As gym operators we understand this business 101 concept of supply and demand when it's a consumer's demand for our supply and we adjust (raise) prices accordingly. But when it comes to affecting our operating expenses we seem to throw this out the window. And we end up with 2 month old job postings nobody is interested in.

So the Supply & Demand challenge is two-pronged:
  1. There is demand for setters paired with pretty unappealing job offers

  2. There are plenty of setters wanting opportunity but not necessarily prepared for it professionally

This creates a dilemma for both operators as well as setters and it's a lot to unpack and solve for.

So what we have is a pretty multi-faceted problem affecting stakeholders at all levels: gym ownership and management, the setters themselves and ultimately the customer. The solution must also be multifaceted to address professional development & career pathing, recruiting strategies and more. In next week's blog I'll lay out what I see as possible solutions for the setters and for the gyms.


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