Public-private project that's working out

11th November 2005 at 00:00
A college and a fitness firm have joined forces on a course for personal trainers, writes Raymond Ross

Setting out on a career as a personal trainer can be prohibitively expensive and many give up at the first hurdle. Now, an unusual partnership is delivering the first public sector vocational course in personal training in Scotland (an SVQ, level 3).

The Edinburgh and Dalkeith based Jewel and Esk Valley College is working with the Borders Sport and Leisure Trust to deliver the 18-month course to eight people.

"To get private training to take you to this level would cost around Pounds 4,000 to pound;5,000 and take six to nine months to complete full-time,"

says health and fitness lecturer and course tutor Janet Jack.

She puts the eight through their paces three days a week, covering theoretical work, aerobics to music and gym instruction. On those three days the students also study customer care, looking at barriers to exercise, marketing and sales and customer retention.

In a highly unusual move, the students have also become full-time employees of BSLT, signing a two-year contract and working for two days a week during the course in fitness centres throughout the Borders, applying skills they learn at college in Dalkeith.

"The eight successful candidates became BSLT employees on day one of the 18-month course in August," says the college's learning manager, Ray McCowan.

"It's about jobs for local people and giving them a career path.

"Each employee will be registered as an exercise professional and will have access to professional development in aqua aerobics and spinning (cycling on stationary exercise bikes). And one of them will become the Active Borders manager in time," he says.

Given the unique opportunity the course presents, it was no surprise that there were over 200 applications for the eight places. BSLT was looking not simply for fitness fanatics, but for sports enthusiasts with a proven record and well-developed people skills.

"BSLT's commitment shows a shift of attitude to one of individual customer care," says Mr McCowan. "The candidates had to have good listening skills, an ability to design and deliver individually tailored training programmes, as well as the right kind of attitude and personality."

Thirty candidates were shortlisted for the first interviews, which focused on academic ability and personal qualities. Fifteen went on to a practical interview involving movement to music, and 10 then had one-to-one interviews. Only the eight most suitable and most motivated passed the rigours of selection. Aged between 18 and 34, they are highly dynamic and will, the college believes, be among the best trained fitness providers in Scotland.

"There are hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people in Scotland who call themselves personal trainers but who have nothing like this level of training," says Ms Jack. "If you choose your trainer through the Yellow Pages, or wherever, you have no guarantee of what you're getting.

"I've only been asked once in 20 years what my qualifications are.

"Anyone can call themselves a personal trainer but I'd say there are maybe less than 100 in Scotland who are properly qualified."

The college has no plans as yet to extend this kind of course.

"We want to make this model work first. We have our own internal moderation and the qualification is, of course, monitored by the SQA," says Mr McCowan.

"Any private gym could invest in this kind of training for its staff.

There's nothing to stop them if they want to spend the money.

"You have to take your hat off to BSLT, who saw that their customers weren't getting the quality of training they could have. They came to us because they wanted to provide a better service.

"We share their aims and ambitions to provide the best service possible by employing well qualified staff who fully understand what the word personal means in personal training," he says.

Ms Jack has found teaching the lucky eight "incredibly rewarding", especially watching "local people fulfil their dream and take the first steps towards what, for many, had been a lifetime's ambition".

Personal training is burgeoning because of sedentary lifestyles and because people want to be seen as individuals and have programmes tailored to their needs.

"It's also a status thing, having a personal trainer," she says.

"That's another first: the BSLT is making this affordable to everyone at its fitness centres and not just those with a lot of money.

"I can't stress enough how pioneering this is. The BSLT is taking a big step into the unknown."


David Johnston 21, previous qualifications in core stability, weight lifting and sports coaching

"I played rugby from the age of 12 and began weight training at 16.

"I should have stuck in at school to become a PE teacher maybe.

Now I want to do fitness training to the best of my ability.

"I worked in electronics for five years before being made redundant. I travelled for a while after that and played rugby in the USA and the Bahamas.

"This course came up. It was a chance in a million for me and I got it! I owned it before I got it. I wanted it that much.

"I was surprised and relieved I could do the movement to music at interview!

"To do this course you need enthusiasm and an open mind as well as a good sports background. It's really good, a lot of hard work which gives in-depth experience.

"The admin side of it is necessary and has to be done but it keeps you out the gym.

"I want to make BSLT a name to be proud of. I want people to share in that pride and see everyone using our facilities.

"I really admire the staff here and they are inspiring me to think maybe, in the future, I could teach at college.

"I enjoy the one to one element of personal training, but if people want to learn in a group or a class, no problem. I could go for that."

Daina McGowan 21, BA Hons in psychology and sociology

"I developed an interest in sports psychology at university, where I found working in the gym helped with positive mental health.

"The course at college is highly practical and gives you lots of ideas to take into work.

"The interview process was very demanding. The whole experience is developing me personally. I'm proud to be in the first tranche achieving an SVQ3.

"It's a fast-track system, giving you work and college experience together.

You have to be determined and focused. It's well supported but very intensive."

Ben Gilchrist 23, qualified lifeguard, background in teaching swimming and self-defence

"There is a good, strong team spirit among us and there's always a good laugh.

"You need drive, a positive attitude, likeability, motivation, charm and a good smile.

"You lose your fear at interview when you have to dance - the movement to music bit - in front of people for the first time!

"It's very intense; you have to learn quickly, as well as helping to run a fitness centre, alongside family commitments.

"I'm married with two girls. It means a lot of late-night studying for me, but if that's what you need to do, that's what you do.

"It makes me want to be the best personal trainer I can be."

Mikey Mair 19, SFA coach for two years, plays (semi-professional) for Vale of Leithen FC in East of Scotland League

"I let a lot of other job offers go for this, because I was really determined to get it.

"You need lots and lots of enthusiasm, a go, go attitude. You need to be people-oriented and want to help others, as well as having a passion for sport.

"You need the qualities before the qualifications. The bits of paper come after.

"It's great being able to put into practice at your fitness centre what you learn at college. It's great taking the ideas and working around them, making up membership packs, introducing the two-tier induction process and so on to make it more beneficial for the customer.

"The workload is heavy, but that's good too. I can't think of a negative thing.

"It's a well-thought out course and I feel lucky being chosen."

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