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How the National Lifeguard Shortage Affects Us – by Sarah Barnett

A young man stands to the left of a woman. She is wearing a shirt with lifeguard written on it. He is holding a red floatation device that says guard on it. She is running a lifeguard class.

A young man stands to the left of a woman. She is wearing a shirt with lifeguard written on it. He is holding a red floatation device that says guard on it. She is running a lifeguard class.In early September, our Department announced that we were unable to consistently and safely staff our indoor pool during all hours of operation. As a result, we made the tough decision to close the pool Monday-Friday from 1:00pm-4:00pm and Sundays from 10:00am-12:00pm.

This was no hasty decision, as I’m accustomed to doing whatever it takes to provide a safe, clean, and staffed facility. To say that I felt like I was letting the City and all our patrons down would be an understatement. However, after reviewing the Aquatics Division’s schedule for September, there was just no possible way to make it work and maintain operating hours. Doing so would have required that some of my employees exceed 40 hours a week and go without a single day off. All of my employees are students, and requiring that they work under those conditions would not have been fair or safe.

This may be the first time you’ve heard of the national lifeguard shortage. We are not the only facility struggling through it. Locally, several indoor pools in Loudoun County have had to reduce their hours or close their pools. Nationally, municipalities all over are feeling the effects. A quick search online on this shortage will show you many of the headlines about pools not having adequate staff.

The shortage is not new, but this has probably been the biggest impact it has made on the aquatics industry. The shortage began in 2009, with aquatics facilities across the nation experiencing a decline in recruiting and retaining lifeguards. Traditionally, this shortage was felt when attempting to staff seasonal outdoor pool. Now the shortage is impacting year-round facilities. With more and more indoor pools being built, and a decreasing candidate pool for lifeguards, adequately staffing has become a real challenge.

At this point, the recruitment efforts for lifeguards has become a incredible challenge. Recently, I began the hiring process for a lifeguard who had worked for one of the local pool management companies over the summer. It was the same pool management company where I worked prior to taking the position with the City. I emailed one of the managers to get a reference check on the applicant. However, not even 24 hours later, that same pool management company offered the applicant a full-time position working at one of the indoor pools that they manage.  There is no doubt that they needed the lifeguard to work for them, so they convinced him to stay with an offer he could not refuse. We aren’t able to compete with these offers.

So why are we just now feeling the shortage when it has been going on for a decade? It’s certainly not from lack of planning! In February of this year, we unexpectedly lost three long-tenured head guards to full-time employment. We were able to stay afloat from March to May by making creative, but not always ideal, adjustments to keep the pool staffed. From mid-May and August, we had no issues with staffing due to the influx of college and high school students willing to work.

However, when the college students returned to school in August, staffing both the indoor pool and the waterpark became more difficult. Normally this sort of staffing shortage would be relieved once the waterpark closed for the season. However, just prior to the end of August, two more head guards left for full-time employment and the remaining head guard staff had reduced their availability more than expected due to their school schedules.

Additionally, in years prior, we have been able to hire a handful of lifeguards who had worked at other outdoor pools. However, we have not had any luck this year.  We have traditionally relied on a handful of recent graduates who chose to lifeguard in order to make money until they were able to find full-time employment. Coincidently, this is how I got started in the Aquatics field. Until recently, I could expect this layover period to last over a year. However, with the improving economy, recent graduates are now able to find full-time employment quicker. Less teens and young adults are entering the workforce and instead are focusing on school, sports, and internships. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment among 16 to 19 year olds is under 36%, which is down from 37.2% in August of 2009, and 52% in August of 2000.

While the national lifeguard shortage has no doubt led to our staffing issues, we are not just going to sit back and hope it goes away soon. Given that the shortage has only gotten worse over the last 10 years, we have to take proactive steps to solve our staffing shortage ASAP! While our Department provides free training and free uniforms, our pay is not comparable to what other local jurisdictions can offer.  We are working with our City Council to find funds to increase our pay range for lifeguards.

Inability to pass the lifeguard course prerequisites is another reason for our lifeguard shortage. Our lifeguard certification used to require that all candidates are able to swim 300 yards continuously using freestyle or breaststroke. While this may not sound like a daunting task for seasoned swimmers, it can be challenging to individuals who are recreational swimmers. While I’ve always known how to swim and been in good physical condition as a runner, the 300 yard swim was always the most challenging part of the entire certification process.

The American Red Cross recently addressed this challenge by creating lifeguard certifications for shallow water, where a 300 yard swim is not necessary. Fortunately, both our indoor pool and waterpark fall into the category of “shallow water facilities,” so we are able to reduce the 300 yard swim down to just a 100 yard swim. This takes away the need to be an avid swimmer in order to lifeguard and increases our candidate pool.

We’re increasing our recruitment efforts and we’re already starting to see more applications roll in. As a result of these initiatives, we’re very optimistic that in the next four to six weeks, we will be able to return to our normal operational hours.

We sincerely appreciate all the support and understanding that we have received from our patrons. So many of you, in lieu of getting frustrated, have instead helped spread the word of our staffing shortage and encouraged people to apply. This teamwork truly shows what a wonderful community we are in!

Additional resources:

Sarah Barnett is the Operations/Aquatics Supervisor for the City of Manassas Park, Department of Parks and Recreation. She can be reached at 703.335.8872 x1482 or via email at s.barnett@manassasparkva.gov.

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