Route Setting Has a Problem - Part 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.
Last week, we discussed the very real and very impactful challenges the industry faces with route setting as a job function and career. These things have been discussed over and over in many forms: CBJ articles, round table discussions at the CWA Summit, in instagram posts, and on and on. These have been very valuable and well articulated conversations. Up to this point the topic has been mostly driven by setters, which makes sense. The result has been a first-hand accounting of what it's like to be in the job.
What I hope to bring to the table is the executive perspective. As a 20 year senior leader and executive in this industry who also has hundreds and hundreds of hours setting routes, I think I bring a unique perspective that can see both sides of the challenge. So what is the challenge? To briefly recap:
The challenges as a setter:
There is a very real ceiling on earning potential and job growth, positions are limited in the industry and route setting is not generally highly valued as a core component to the gym operations from a pay standpoint the same way other job functions are.
There is no professional development outside of USAC certifications and other similar offerings to allow for professional growth outside of the setting sphere (things like finance, leadership, business skills, etc) making it hard to see a path beyond the setting realm.
The challenges for owners and operators:
The pool of setting talent is limited and can't keep up with industry growth
Most setters don't have a ton of business experience and this can cause disconnects between the setting team and the rest of the business and also gives you a forced limit on what you can do with your setting teams and talent
So how can we solve these things? We have to make the job more sustainable for the setters and for the business
Setting is an enormous job. It's physical and laborious and demands sustained creativity.
Make the Job More Sustainable
If we want to both solve for burnout, and the disparity between the amount of talent in the job market and the number of available and upcoming route setting jobs, we first have to make the job more sustainable (and more appealing beyond the cool factor). How can we do this?
It will take empathy for both the needs of the setters and the needs and restraints of the business from all stakeholders. It will require patience and understanding between gym leadership and setters to partner together to find and implement solutions that work sustainably.
Let me be more specific. What can you start working on right now?
If you're an owner/operator:
Invest in your setters - Pay them well. And when I say "well" I mean developing an attractive and holistic compensation package that makes working for you more appealing than pounding nails on a job site for a general contractor. Build and maintain a budget for this, and follow-through on the delivery. For a route setting team this might include:
Basing your job market and pay research on similar high-skill trade jobs such as carpentry or masonry
Having and contributing to healthcare plans that support the setter's well being: massage, physical therapy, etc.
Offering a perks package that might include things such as: yoga or massage or other wellness offerings for the setters, supporting their continued passion for climbing by offering company climbing trips for setters, etc.
Invest in their development, and not just as a route setter. Consider management, financial acumen, leadership skills, and other business fundamentals which many route setters are not exposed to and therefor limits their growth and your ability to leverage their skills in your business.
Start thinking now about what your pipeline looks like for setters and beyond - Do you do succession planning? Do you have a plan if your head route setter quits tomorrow? Do you have General Managers for your next two gyms lined up internally and on a development plan? Have you considered your setters for that type of development? Does your budget include funds allocated to internal development?
The bottom line is (and this doesn't only apply to route setters): You can save a ton of time, money and energy by having good succession planning, professional development and associated budget in place. This can make the job of route setting infinitely more appealing too. Imagine your setters knowing there was a place to go inside your business beyond a route setting manager role. Imagine if the next step was into operations or sales or something similar. You could end up with some of the most knowledgeable managers in the industry if you could move your setters into management, operations or sales positions after 5-8 years of setting. And if nothing else, helping your setters develop these skills gives them transferable value which is a major job benefit.
This means you could keep your people longer, attract talent faster, and have an internal pipeline of talent at all times. AND if your setters have a deeper understanding of finance, management, HR and the other operating facets of your business they will become an even more valuable asset to you beyond the narrow but critical scope of creating climbs for your members.
A little empathy goes a long way - Often, agreeing with someone is less important than that person feeling truly heard. So hear your team out. Understand that what your setters do is hard. And I mean HARD. Is it hard in the same way being a Director of HR is? No. That's not the point. The point is that the task of setting is demanding, laborious, requires unending creativity, and is often a thankless task as your members complain about climbs. Importantly, setting takes a toll on the ability to actually practice climbing for passion and recreation, which can be really frustrating. So come to the table understanding these things, or better yet go spend a day working with your setting team.
If you're a setter:
Invest in yourself - I know you may not want to hear this but your boss isn't the only person who is responsible for your personal and professional well being. This means taking care of yourself physically and professionally. Take ownership over your career: learn new skills, read books, build a valuable network for yourself inside AND OUTSIDE of the climbing industry. Rest, eat well, take advantage of your healthcare benefits if you have them and see professionals who can help you maintain your physical well-being. Nobody is gonna make your career for you but you.
Think beyond the routes - What happens next? Where do you want to be in 5-10 years in your career? If the answer is not route setting, start building your plan now to get yourself onto the career path you want long term. Work with your employer as appropriate to learn the skills you would need. Sit in on meetings, understand the budget, and on and on.
Know your worth - There are not enough setters to fulfill the continued demand in our industry. Health benefits suck? Salary is a joke? DO NOT TAKE THE JOB. I know this is easier said than done but trust me, as someone with 20 years of experience hiring setters, I've been behind the curtain on the negotiations. I know the position gym leaders are in, and we need you. That said, don't be ridiculous either. Base your worth on reality and do your research. Arbitrarily assigning yourself a number won't work. Come to the table knowing the following:
The cost of living in your area
As much data as you can get on pay and benefits in our industry
As much data as you can get on comparable jobs, IE: if you are a route setter with 5 years of experience, what does a carpenter with similar experience get? Don't forget to include important factors such as company size, etc. The local single gym is not comparable to a gym chain with 26 locations across the US.
Work with your owners and bosses - I've been on all sides of both productive and horrible conversations (including being the one being horrible, unfortunately). Remember that an antagonistic relationship never got anyone anything. Come to the table eager to learn and partner with leadership on solutions. The business you work for has all sorts of resource constraints: time, money, people and loads of priorities coming from all sides. Early in my career, I had a hard time subordinating my own ego and thinking "I might not have all of the information". I came to learn that coming to the conversation with this level of openness and willingness to learn will not only help the conversation itself but is an invaluable leadership skill to practice and ultimately master for later in my career.
It's a multi-faceted challenge that is a hot topic in our industry. I certainly don't pretend to have the only right answer, but my perspective will shed light on previously murky aspects of the dilemma while also providing actionable steps towards progress