White Paper: Sport’s future leaders – Workforce development in small sport organizations

by Thomas J. Aicher, University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and Brianna L. Newland, New York University
Abstract

Employee readiness, along with long-term capacity to be effective, efficient, and productive in an ever-evolving industry, such as sport, is incredibly important to management. Workforce development, a proxy for career and technical education, is the policies and practices that aids in the improvement of the composition, sustainability, and management of the workforce. It is not easy to establish and implement, but is integral for an industry to grow and prosper. Industry partnerships and collaborations at the macro-, meso-, and micro-levels are required to ensure a strong, coordinated effort to further engage and inspire the workforce. Therefore, we examine workforce development in the United States and to offer solutions to combat these challenges.

Introduction

Sport managers’ ability to understand the role people play in accomplishing organizational missions and goals is integral to remaining competitive in a fast-paced quickly evolving industry.

Beyond the mere internal human resource focus of employee training and development (i.e., skills supply-side) is the broader external development of the workforce (i.e., employer demand; Harrison & Weiss, 1998; Lavelle, 2019).

Both are important categories as challenges threatening organizational performance are increasing (Rosendale & Wilkie, 2020). For example, the growth of the industry during the down economic times led to the perception that it is recession proof (Atwood, 2012); however, given the recent events of COVID-19, the short-term liquidity concerns and longer-term solvency issues are paramount.

One method organizations may invest in that will provide value contribution to the organization is the continued development of a knowledgeable, capable, and adaptable workforce (Lavelle, 2019; Uhalde, 2011). Workforce development (WFD) has three key foci: the system (macro), the organization (meso), and the individual (micro).

Each level produces unique challenges the manager must consider to remain competitive in the industry. Therefore, this paper centers on exploring WFD in the United States and to offer solutions to combat these challenges.

Workforce Development

Workforce Development (WFD), a proxy for career and technical education, has been used to describe a variety of policies and programs that supports the composition, sustainability, and management of the workforce (NCOSS, 2007). Harrison and Weiss (1998) identified two distinct categories of WFD: employee training and workforce development.

To address these two elements, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act of 2014 was enacted to support workforce strategies that are not only centered on helping economically disadvantaged persons gain employment, but also attempt to entice businesses to participate in the local delivery of WFD services (Pub. Law 113-128, 112 Stat. 1425, 29 U.S.C. § 3101).

The increased unemployment rate due to the 2008 recession (BLS, 2012) and currently with COVID-19 (CBPP, 2021), the added cost of post-secondary education and decreased federal funding for education is juxtaposed with an increasing need for highly skilled employees has engendered a shift toward new, market-driven approaches to WFD (Crandall & Jain, 2007; Lavelle, 2019; Rosendale & Wilkie, 2020).

Firms often rely on development practices that emphasize recruiting talent from other areas rather than developing programming that advances current employee skills (Uhalde, 2011). Perhaps then, the workforce should be viewed beyond the individual level of the employee to fully explore the ways in which sport organizations source, recruit, and develop the labor market (Sutton, 2001).

This begs the question, how is workforce development accomplished in a highly competitive marketplace where prosperity is linked to the talents of the workforce when there are so many newly graduated students entering the workforce?

With the proliferation of sport management programs (Eagleman & McNary, 2010; Jones et al., 2008), why should organizations waste time and resources developing employees when a new employee can be sprung from the ever-deepening talent pool? With hundreds of highly gifted applicants to choose from, might it be easier (and potentially more affordable) to upgrade?

Garmise (2009) suggested labor markets are more volatile because worker-employer loyalty has declined. The resulting outcome is increased worker mobility and decline in career advancement pathways internal to firms are highly detrimental (Garmise, 2009). This market-based approach has required individuals to take responsibility for their own advancement (Hall & Landsbury, 2006; Markusen, 2004).

A highly skilled workforce cannot be left to the chaos of the market if the sport sector is to continue to prosper (Finegold, 1999). After all, if left to their own devices, then how can organizations ensure individuals are attaining the training and skills firms truly need to succeed?

Most leaders observed that current employees (and even recent graduates) do not have the requisite technological skills necessary to stay competitive in a highly evolving area of the industry (Rosendale & Wilkie, 2020). Leaders noted entry-level employees could not even design a simple promotion. While this did not seem to be a challenge for larger organizations with the resources to hire specialists, the smaller organizations struggle.

To challenge and continually develop the workforce, sport organizations need to design, develop, and sustain jobs requiring more advanced technical and cognitive skills, provide an opportunity to develop higher order skills, facilitate opportunities for skills transfer, and encourage the development of skills that are of long-term value to the economy, industry, and society beyond the employing organization (Hall & Landsbury, 2006; Rosendale & Wilkie, 2020). There are three key considerations to do so: through the system, the organization, and the individual.

Systems Approach

The WFD system includes policy and legislation that supports the current and future workforce, and funding for research and evaluation. From a system perspective, the sport industry is highly fragmented by size, setting, financial orientation (for- vs. non-profit) and type, which makes it difficult to form linkages that facilitate partnerships among the various organizations (Newland, 2012).

For sport, governments (internationally) set policy to drive elite sport and grassroots participation, and these policies have been well-researched (De Bosscher, et al., 2009; Garamvölgyi, et al., 2020; Green & Houlihan, 2005; Houlihan & Green, 2008; Newland & Kellett, 2012).

While the work on participation policy at the grassroots level is growing (Green, 2005; Nicolson, et al., 2011), there is a paucity of work on governance and policy implementation at the various levels and the associated outcomes of governance practice (Berg & Chalip, 2013; Chalip, 1995; De Bosscher, et al., 2011; Garamvölgyi, et al., 2020; Shilbury & Ferkins, 2011).

There is even less research on policy as it relates to the development of the workforce – in fact, most is driven by industry reports from other countries (e.g., Davidson & Chandler, 2010; Service Skills Australia, 2012.

Sport has become a critical feature of our global culture because it is often used by governments to raise awareness to attract business and tourism (e.g., Aicher & Newland, 2018; Newland & Aicher, 2018), build social capital and/or improve social conditions (Hoye & Nicolson, 2009), and presumably generate economic activity for the nation (Gratton & Henry, 2001; Shilbury & Ferkins, 2011). Therefore, it is closely linked to policymaking and the social and economic agendas of federal governments (Berg & Chalip, 2013; Chalip, 1995).

Despite the critical impact of a well-functioning sport sector, there seems to be little public policy related to workers (Willem & Scheerder, 2017). For the U.S., with a highly privatized sport and entertainment industry, systemic policy, with the outcomes described for sport, do not exist.

Therefore, organizations are not bound to implement policy in the same way as observed in other countries with more government oversight in sport (e.g., Australia). For sport, how policy is implemented at the various levels depends on the level of professionalization, the structure and characteristics of the board and organization, and the strategic capabilities of employees (Shilbury & Ferkins, 2011; Thiel & Mayer, 2009; Willem & Scheerder, 2017).

Policy at the highest level is often delivered through regional or state associations to lower level organizations where a large gap between the professional management and volunteer association is evident (Millar & Doherty, 2016; Shilbury & Ferkins, 2011) and focus varies (Chelladurai & Kerwin, 2017). For the more commercial sport organizations, this gap is less likely to be an issue because outcomes at the organizational level are not driven by the same systemic policy.

However, many sport organizations are tasked with the strategic goals and policy without the skilled workforce or a limited workforce to deliver. An unskilled or limited workforce can create an additional challenge at the meso level – the organization.

Organizational Approach

For the organization, managing human resources includes workforce tools that assist in the recruitment, retention, and support of new employees (Doherty, 1998; Newland, 2012; Wicker, 2017) to minimize turnover – a long time concern of organizations (Bartlett & McKinney, 2004). However, sport organizations – especially governing bodies – do not have the same resources to allocate towards human resource practices and have been slow to evolve.

Coupled with slow response is the lack of skill and/or bandwidth to implement macro-level policy at the meso level. All organizations, for- and non-profit alike, should outline clear pathways for growth within the organization that are linked to organizational objectives and network structures (e.g., training /development; mentoring; and career planning; Garmise, 2009).

One cost-effective solution to training employees is using Massive Open Online Courses, or MOOCs (Rosendale & Wilkie, 2020). MOOCs are a low-risk, high-yield alternative to traditional trainings which can be leveraged to upskill in specific knowledge areas (Park, et al., 2018). That way, managers can direct resources toward employee development and promotion rather than hiring and training new employees due to turnover.

An additional meso level challenge is the management and development of volunteers (Millar & Doherty, 2016; Wicker, 2017). Given that the sport industry (and to a lesser extent, entertainment) relies heavily on unpaid workers, it stands to reason that skill development is equally important to carry out the organization’s mission and goals (Misener & Doherty, 2009).

Interestingly, despite that volunteers fulfill a large human resource requirement for many sport organizations, there is little use of formal HR practices to manage these workers (Taylor & McGraw, 2006). This can have profound consequences, given that unpaid staff provide instrumental expertise and support to the organization, but tend to consider it leisure activity (Chelladurai & Kerwin, 2017; Williams, et al., 1995), thereby making it a broader expressive experience (Warner, et al., 2011). It is important, then, to recognize the varied dynamics among staff and volunteers in the sport setting and how this creates challenges.

Likewise, the nature of the sport industry lends itself well to part-time and casual work, which contributes to higher turnover levels. It is critical that organizations consider how worker satisfaction (both paid and unpaid) can impact on the development of the workforce (Warner et al., 2011).

Satisfied sport workers are more committed to the organization (Chelladurai & Ogaswara, 2003; Pack, et al., 2007; Turner & Chelladurai, 2005), remain with the organization longer (Kim & Chang, 2007; Turner & Chelladurai, 2005), and work to improve performance (Turner & Chelladurai, 2005) over unsatisfied workers. What leads to satisfaction in workers?

Organizational support, good relationships with co-workers (Kellison & James, 2011) and supervisors (Wells & Aicher, 2013), flexibility and control over work (Chelladurai & Ogaswara, 2003; Dixon & Warner, 2010), clear direction and opportunities to advance (Finkelstein, 2008; Warner, et al., 2011), psychological safety and motivation to transfer learning (Aicher, 2012) all contribute to satisfaction.

Another challenge for sport is cohesion among the paid and unpaid staff. The gradual shift in sport to a more professional environment with more paid staff has created tensions as issues arise over decision-making, control (Auld & Godbey, 1998; Taylor & McGraw, 2006), and role ambiguity (Sakires, et al., 2009).

Challenges can arise when the roles of each individual are not clearly delineated. The uncertainty of role distinction can make staff unsure of their role, as well as the roles of others, which led to the challenge of meeting expectations properly (Sakires, et al., 2009).

Doherty and Hoye (2011) found that role ambiguity is associated with performance, so clarity is critical as ambiguity can lead to decreased job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and effort, which are often compounded by an organizational failure to operate with a clear mission and objectives (Sakires, et al., 2009).

Individual Approach

At the micro level, a comprehensive supply, demand, and gap analysis of the sport workforce can identify individual level challenges and opportunities. Currently, many young professionals do not see a long-term future in sport because of issues related to work-life balance (Darvin, 2020; Dixon & Warner, 2010), perceived support for future development through career planning (Bartlett & McKinney, 2004; Nash & Sproule, 2009), mentoring support (Pastore, 2003; Hancock & Hums, 2016; Weaver & Chelladurai, 1999) opportunities to contribute (Warner, et al., 2011) and having no voice (Aicher, 2012).

Therefore, a skilled workforce is integral to the success of the organization, and requires organizational support and resources, shared responsibility among employers and stakeholders, and accurate information on skill demand for that sector (Anderson, 2004; Choudhury, 2007; Garmise, 2009; Hall & Lansbury, 2006).

At the individual level, organizations should focus on human resource management practices that encourage mentoring and career development support by management, as well as development opportunities that support growth (Roche, et al., 2009; Sutton, 2001).

To accomplish this, education is key – and one way to do that is through free online education platforms, like MOOCs (Park et al., 2018; Rosendale & Wilkie, 2020). The proliferation of paid programs, like subject-area certificates, that support the training and knowledge development within the university system contribute to the expertise of the sport industry.

However, the skills required by the industry require proper identification by the universities to develop training, certification, and university programs that better support the needs of the industry (Hall & Lansbury, 2006; SSA, 2012. By using resources, like MOOCs, individuals can identify free or low cost coursework that will develop the specialized skills they need to thrive and advance (Park et al., 2018).

Additionally, managers must identify competencies for the current workforce to improve productivity, hiring criteria, training benchmarks, and evaluation (Hurd, 2005). Managers should also develop and delineate these competencies for volunteer positions (Sakires, et al., 2009).

For example, volunteer board members may lack the necessary skills to properly govern the organization, leading to an array of governance to management problems that can drastically affect business outcomes.  

Shilbury & Ferkins, 2011

Solutions for Sport Managers

In this section, we discuss solutions for sport managers who oversee employee development. Given the growth in sport management education provided by universities and colleges in the U.S., it would seem important for these programs to partner with industry to ensure a foundation of knowledge necessary for entry-level positions as students enter the workforce.

Students should not have to upskill immediately to fill an entry-level role. This first step is critical given the range of locations where sport management programs are housed within the university (e.g., College of Business, College of Education), as well as the breadth of subjects covered (Eagleman & McNary, 2010). Further, subjects the students are educated on at this level can be key for future WFD needs.

For example, human resource management or organizational behavior courses could provide curriculum on managing the career development of employees.

Roche, et al., 2009; Sutton, 2001

However, this is just the first step of WFD. Once the employee is in the workforce, creating a mechanism for them to continue to develop key skills to advance in their career is crucial.

As noted, sport organizations can use MOOCs as a cost-effective resource to upskill employees in areas that address specific needs. This will allow organizations to direct financial resources into other areas for growth and development of employees.

Additionally, national governing bodies, associations, and leagues, should utilize their structures to create various guidelines for WFD. These guidelines should center on the skills, training, and responsibilities associated with their segment of the industry. This system level thinking decreases the level of fragmentation within the industry while allowing organizations the flexibility to adjust based on their and their employees’ specific needs (Leer & Ivanov, 2014).

At the organizational level, the first step in the WFD process would be to conduct an internal analysis of their labor force. The internal audit should focus on any current or future labor shortages the organization may experience.

Once the gaps in the supply and demand side have been identified, a recruitment and development plan should be initiated to mitigate the potential labor shortages. While this may sound straightforward, most organizations do not view planning employees’ careers a major priority (Bartlett & McKinney, 2004), which engenders a greater challenge.

Employees, who perceive their organizations are more invested in their individual level success, exhibit more positive occupational behaviors that lead to lower turnover (Bartlett & McKinney, 2004; McKinney, et al., 2007). Therefore, organizations should develop a training and development system for their employees or consider adapting career counseling programs.

In addition, establishing formal mentorship programs sponsored by the organization may further enhance the positive organizational behaviors. Finally, to ensure organizational knowledge is maintained, organizations should utilize systematic record keeping practices to expedite the training and development of new employees when turnover occurs.

At the individual level, efforts should be concentrated on both empowering their employees and removing barriers from pathways. To accomplish these efforts, managers should identify and work with top performers in the organization to outline the types of knowledge and skills individuals need to fulfill the duties and responsibilities of various positions.

In addition, managers can utilize this connection as an opportunity to focus on the types of support, resources, and outcomes individuals who are performing at a high level prefer to meet those needs. This utilization may also allow managers the ability to tailor the distribution of resources to top performers; however, this strategy should be used with caution as it may lead to additional challenges. As outlined above, education is key for the individual level; however, creating a high quality training and development program can be challenging.

Therefore, helping employees to identify MOOC courses that will develop specific skillsets can be a strong solution.

While certification or executive education opportunities provided by universities or governing bodies are important, they can be costly to the individual. However, at times, a certification or executive education program might be necessary for employee development. This can be difficult to manage and create from an organizational standpoint. Therefore, organizations could seek out higher education institutions to assist in the development of certificates, and/or other curriculum that focuses on the organization’s needs.

With the volume of sport management programs is growing exponentially, this type of symbiotic relationship would likely be welcomed. The industry is faced with the challenge of identifying sport management programs to partner with, which may be difficult to find (Eagleman & McNary, 2010).

The university institution, and the students, would benefit from creating a brand for their program that would differentiate it from others, and alternatively, the sport organization would benefit from the expertise of the faculty in developing and delivering high quality curriculum. Finally, the students would benefit, as they would be more prepared to meet the demands of a dynamic industry.

Summary

Workforce development is not easy. There are several partnerships and collaborations that must be formed at the macro-, meso-, and micro-levels to ensure a strong, coordinated effort to further engage and inspire the workforce. From as systems perspective, there is a clear need to better understand how policy is impacting the industry and whether that policy is meeting the needs of those that implement it – especially for sport.

From an organizational perspective, recruitment and retention are clear challenges (Wicker, 2017). Developing a mechanism to identify gaps in the labor skills may provide organizations with a more stable workforce and means to better develop training programming and practices.

For the individual, focus should be placed on empowering employees and removing barriers from their career pathways through organizational support and mentoring. Further, better linkages between the three levels as well as industry leaders and educators will allow for more standardized and sustainable workforce development practices.

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