Swimming & Diving

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Will Lifeguard Shortage Hurt Swim Meets this Summer?

10 Jul, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

Lifeguards used to hold the same iconic status as football quarterbacks, head cheerleaders and the class president – the most desirable position to hold for high school and college students.

Now, pool owners and operators are having a hard time even getting enough interest to recruit guards. Retaining them from year to year has almost become a lost cause. It has caused facility managers to get creative in their hiring – and could give sports event owners concerns if events aren’t able to go forward without safety supervision.

Multiple factors have been cited in the shortage, which is reported as being nationwide:

Low pay: Lifeguarding, sadly, doesn’t pay much and it doesn’t offer health insurance and similar benefits. Flipping burgers even pays more. NPR noted that multiple park districts have tried upping the wage – without much success. In fact, the article points out, in Glendive, Montana, officials raised pay by a dollar, up to $9.25 an hour, in an attempt to bring in more guards. Other states have tried similar tactics; the Philadelphia Inquirer notes that some area guards can make up to $15 an hour – but it’s still hard to get them to commit to the job.

The obstacles to get the job are more formidable: In addition to being a strong enough swimmer to pass lifesaving tests set forth by the American Red Cross and other organizations, lifeguards are required to be certified in first aid, CPR and pool operations (including water chemistry). Some states require additional certifications. The costs of enrollment and certification are generally borne by the individual – and many of those costs are out of reach to someone who isn’t currently working regular hours – the status of most high school and college students. Additionally, many certifications need to be renewed annually in order for the lifeguard to keep his or her job. An individual can guard in most states at the age of 15 – but few can afford the certification at that age.

The timing is bad: It can take several months for a student to be able to take all the courses he or she needs in order to be a lifeguard, but that time may only be available to him or her in the summer – when it’s too late to get a job as a guard.

The role of the lifeguard is fluid, at best: At many community pools, lifeguards find themselves expected to take on jobs other than that of just guarding, including maintenance of the pool area (including cleaning rest rooms and doing upkeep of deck furniture) and making sure unaccompanied children stay out of trouble.

Fewer teens and young adults want to work hourly summer jobs: According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, just 35 percent of teens ages 16 to 19 currently have jobs, down from 52 percent two decades ago. Many pursue internships or other programs in the summer that they see as having value later in life. Some take classes to get ahead in school. Others go to sports camps or play on travel teams. Some, well, just take it easy.

It’s a job without a future: Despite the image projected by Baywatch, lifeguarding is not a job that appeals to adults, since it doesn’t generally fold into any career path – in addition to paying little and not offering benefits.

The labor pool is shrinking: In an article in Associations Now, the Association of Pool & Spa Professionals said that tough visa rules could be a playing a role. In a May news release, APSP noted that the many applicants to the Summer Work and Travel Exchange Visitor Program, which have long helped many pools fill the positions, had been denied.

“This year, for reasons unknown at this time, there has been a surge in visa denials in certain countries, which now will result in many pools in the Mid-Atlantic (where most jurisdictions require lifeguards at all commercial and condo pools) and across the East Coast from opening on time,” APSP President and CEO Lawrence Caniglia, CAE, said in the release. (In addition, the visa fees have skyrocketed.)

And while many municipal pools are having to shorten hours, or even close, as a result of not having adequate guards to ensure safety, it’s those pools that host competitive events that need the staffing just as much. And not even a competitive swimming culture changes that; in fact, NPR noted that back as far as 2015, the Raleigh-Cary area, one of the top competitive swimming regions in the country, according to USA Swimming and Speedo, was suffering from a lifeguard shortage.

A swimming competition that is sanctioned by a national governing body is bound by its rules. USA Swimming’s Director of Events, Dean Ekeren, stated, “We do not mandate lifeguard coverage, but we do require safety marshals on all pools and first aid/medical services on site. Typically this involves venue lifeguards as the first responders, and paramedics and/or physician on site for emergencies.”

Laws regarding the presence of lifeguards, and the ratio of guards to swimmers, vary from state to state, as well as from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. Local, state and regional swim meets are generally governed by the municipality in which they take place.

“Lifeguards are a facility issue,” says George Ward, USA Swimming Senior Director of Risk Management. “Member clubs, when they lease or rent pool time, will have to first comply with the facility requirements. Many states have laws. As an example, New Jersey has a Bather Code which advises how many lifeguards are required of an aquatic facility. However, there can also be city, county, and state codes that have to complied with by a facility. In most cases, the member club pays the facility for pool time and lifeguard, etc.  Only a small percentage of our clubs own their own facility.”

Even at the Olympics, athletes in any body of water, including swimmers, water polo players, triathletes and others must have the supervision specified by the area they’re competing in, and the highest governing body. The New York Times noted that FINA, swimming’s international governing body, does not explicitly require lifeguards at the Olympics. Guidelines in FINA’s “Facilities Rules” for Olympics and world championships state: “In order to protect the health and safety of persons using swimming facilities for the purposes of recreation, training and competition, owners of public pools or pools restricted only to training and competition must comply with the requirements established by law and the health authorities in the country where the pool is situated.”

Case in point: In Rio, in 2016, state law required the presence of lifeguards at swimming pools larger than six meters by six meters, or about 20 by 20 feet. And that meant all water-based athletes (yes, even Michael Phelps) were watched by a crew of lifeguards each day. (The combination of bored-looking lifeguards and buff Olympic swimmers led to some spectacularly funny memes that flew around social media).

As a result of the shortfall, facilities have gotten creative in their hiring practices. The American Lifeguard Association and other groups have developed their own workarounds, which spokesman B.J. Fisher described to The Washington Post.

“We’re starting to think outside the box: baby boomers, seniors, retired lawyers and accountants,” Fisher said. “Employers are starting to look internally, too: Maybe that custodian who swims laps after work can get certified.”

In some cases, seasonal workers, such as ski instructors, teachers and other school personnel, are targeted as recruits for lifeguard positions.

Meanwhile, some local organizations, such as the YMCA in Rochester, New York, have started to offer free certification courses, with the goal of getting some of those newly certified lifeguards to work at their facilities. Other organizations have lowered the cost of certification if a person commits to working in local pools, and still more have devised a way to let lifeguard hopefuls take their coursework without up-front costs, then pay it back by having it deducted from their paychecks later.

Still, pool operators around the U.S. are seeking ways to fill positions. Some suggestions include offering courses during high school hours as an adjunct to P.E., or offering courses after school. 

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