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Opinion: New skills for new-look sector

Frontline sports staff may need better training in soft skills, but should this come at the cost of critical thinking?

by Andy Reed | Published in Sports Management Nov Dec 2016 issue 128
Creating a welcoming, inclusive environment is a priority for workforce development / Nuffield health
Creating a welcoming, inclusive environment is a priority for workforce development/ Nuffield health

As the new sports strategies fall into place, many in the sector will be concentrating on funding flows. Equally important, however, are the ‘people strategies’ for workforce, coaching and volunteering. After all, we are fundamentally a people business.

The Department of Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) Sporting Future strategy clearly outlined its priority, saying: “we want the sport sector to be at the forefront of changing the way frontline staff interact with customers, focusing more on soft skills to build a welcoming and inclusive environment for everyone, regardless of background or ability.”

This means all frontline providers, including those in our leisure sector and coaches and volunteers in our National Governing Bodies (NGB). It also includes the new physical activity activators and community development teams who are the new frontline in the fight against inactivity. The skills required in these roles will be very different to those employed in ‘competitive’ sport environments. As one local team sports development manager told me – her job is now 60 per cent social work. Are we ready for this changed emphasis in our sector?

The right skills
Research from a recent sector skills report showed that employers don’t feel people are getting the right skills for the workplace through their education and degrees. The report revealed that 82 per cent of employers believe that soft skills represent the greatest skills gap in individuals across the sector.

In Leicestershire, at the Local Enterprise Partnership where I sit as a private sector board member, we’ve just launched the Economic Growth Plan for Sport and Physical Activity. We have – of course – identified the development of key skills as a high priority. But we’ve also identified entrepreneurship as a feature of the brightest in our sector.

Do we want university graduates who are simply ready for the workplace? Or are we more ambitious and do we want them set up to be capable of independent thinking and ready to challenge our norms?

Disruptive thinkers
We need the right balance between a graduate who is able to walk into the modern workplace with all the soft skills employers have identified and a clone who simply fits into our current culture and doesn’t challenge it.

I like disruptive thinkers. They keep our sector thriving. Education should be about creating critical thinkers who advocate change through their entrepreneurial spirit. I have tried to embed this in the MBA in international sports management and the MSc at the Institute for Sport Business at Loughborough University. I believe leadership and innovation are key skills that can be better developed.

Since there are up to 600,000 of us in the sector, we must develop a sector skills plan to attract the brightest and best to what is an exciting sector to work in – despite all the frustrations we feel. We feel them more because we are passionate about what we do. I hope we never lose that as we ‘professionalise’ the sector and create a brighter future for our workforce.

Andy Reed is a former MP for Loughborough and the founder of Sports Think Tank. sportsthinktank.com

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