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Tackling the lifeguard shortage: Sage advice for recruiting and retaining team members

By George Deines

Aquatic facilities in major metropolitan areas need to find proactive ways to show potential employees the value and benefits of being a lifeguard.
Aquatic facilities in major metropolitan areas need to find proactive ways to show potential employees the value and benefits of being a lifeguard.

Headlines from various news outlets across Canada and the U.S. this year have summed up what this author heard from aquatic facility operators on a weekly basis—a shortage of lifeguards exists within the aquatics industry. However, is this really the case? This article will seek to define the lifeguard shortage issue, identify creative ways to recruit and retain great lifeguards, and give some practical advice for facility operators to find, hire, and train enough lifeguards for the 2019 season.

Before tackling the lifeguard shortage head on, one must consider if the shortfall is related to a lack of people, a shortage of those willing to become lifeguards, as well as what role the aquatic facility itself plays with respect to recruiting lifeguards (e.g. starting salary). While aquatic facilities in major metropolitan areas cannot use the excuse of a lack of people as a reason for fewer lifeguards like a smaller community might, they need to find proactive ways to show potential employees the value and benefits of being a lifeguard.

The days of sitting around and waiting for lifeguard applicants to come in have ended; therefore, a detailed and comprehensive plan of attack is needed for the recruitment of lifeguards.
The days of sitting around and waiting for lifeguard applicants to come in have ended; therefore, a detailed and comprehensive plan of attack is needed for the recruitment of lifeguards.

A great place for aquatic facility managers to start is ensuring they offer a starting salary that is competitive and comparable to other employers seeking the same workforce. While the historical age for lifeguards ranges between 16 and 24, a more recent move exists to branch out and start to explore ways to recruit, hire, and train retirees who would not only appreciate the supplemental income, but also give them a reason to stay active and engaged in his/her community.

How can an aquatic facility operators recruit lifeguards?

Several hurdles exist to recruiting and retaining lifeguards, including money (primarily), attitude, time, and the physical component of the job. In addition to the starting salary, another major hurdle that exists lies with the initial cost of lifeguard certification, which in some areas can cost more than $300.

This author believes facility operators need to seriously consider reducing the cost of the certification course dramatically to attract more candidates. As a former operator, this author always maintained it is more important to have a lifeguard who can work 200 to 300 hours over the course of the summer than the cost of the certification course. As a result, the author dropped the cost of the lifeguard certification course at his last facility to $49—just enough to cover the cost of the textbook and pocket mask.

Several hurdles exist to recruiting and retaining lifeguards, including money (primarily), attitude, time, and the physical component of the job.
Several hurdles exist to recruiting and retaining lifeguards, including money (primarily), attitude, time, and the physical component of the job.

Attitude also plays a key role in the ability to recruit. According to some facility operators, their current workforce is either apathetic towards lifeguarding or lack the responsibility it takes to be one. Couple this with a lack of willingness to spend the required 30 to 40 hours in a lifeguard certification course and it becomes a recipe for a shortage. Facility operators can combat some of this by giving their prospective lifeguards complete assurance that if they successfully complete the certification course, they will be hired for a position. After all, if they are comfortable certifying a person as a lifeguard, they should also be comfortable to employ them.

Finding solutions to the problem

Facility operators can focus on several possible solutions to help them recruit lifeguards for their team.

  • Pay for training—Aquatic facility pays for training fees for employees because the cost of lifeguard certification has become a significant hurdle in recruiting employees.
  • Tuition reimbursement—Aquatic facility pays for lifeguard training fees after they have worked a certain period of time (typically six to 12 months).
  • Six-month pay increase—Aquatic facility provides a pay increase after the employee has worked for six months.
  • Incorporating vision/culture into recruitment process—Aquatic facility promotes its vision and culture of greatness, excitement, and making a difference into the recruiting process. This helps operators find potential employees who are motivated to work at a facility where they have a sense of belonging and feel his/her day-to-day job makes a difference in the lives of others.
  • Ability to advance—Potential employees want to have the ability to advance in his/her position. The recruitment process should show potential candidates they have the ability to advance, whether it is becoming a lead or head lifeguard or even a pool manager.
  • Promotion of flexible schedules—As most aquatic facilities are typically open from morning until evening, promoting the ability to have a flexible schedule, including mornings, mid-days, nights, and weekends can entice potential candidates to join the facility’s team.

While the above ideas can work great once there is a core group of people to recruit, facility managers need to ensure he/she gets any lifeguard openings out to the masses. This can be accomplished by, first and foremost, getting out of the office. The days of sitting around and waiting for applicants to come in have ended; therefore, a detailed and comprehensive plan of attack is needed for the recruitment of lifeguards.

The recruitment process

There are few jobs that offer the opportunity to save a life and provide aquatic experiences to the community and this should be stressed to the team consistently.
There are few jobs that offer the opportunity to save a life and provide aquatic experiences to the community and this should be stressed to the team consistently.

Taking advantage of the local high schools, community colleges, and universities is a great first step. Most high schools have a student activities co-ordinator who helps organize the various groups that have opportunities for the school’s students. Meeting this person and developing a good relationship with them can play a huge role when trying to recruit potential lifeguards from these local schools.

Schools love to partner with employers who can offer students real-life experiences and quality employment opportunities—aquatic facilities offer both of these.

After recruiting from high schools, facility operators should contact the local community colleges and university career centres as most of them offer the ability to post positions online, attend career fairs, and set up a table in the student centre during school hours. The best time to focus on this recruitment effort is October to April for seasonal facilities, while for those that operate year-round a more concerted effort must be taken. Facility operators should go on recruiting visits at least once a month to ensure they keep the lifeguard team fully staffed all year.

For seasonal recruiting, operators should make an effort to visit each school twice—once before spring break and once after—as it takes a while to get interested candidates to apply for the position and register for the lifeguard course.

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