One-third of the 309,000 public pools in the U.S. risk closing due to shortage of qualified lifeguards
If you know any able-bodied teenagers, there is one job that you can almost guarantee them they can get this summer. Lifeguards are in high demand across the country.
The swim season is approaching in a hurry, and from California to New York, Michigan to Texas, everyone is sounding the alarm that they don’t have enough lifeguards to staff their beaches, lakes, ponds, and swimming pools. Reduced swimming hours and shuttered swimming pools are likely for many aquatic venues this summer.
In fact, according to the American Lifeguard Association, at least onethird of public pools across the U.S. are looking at shutting down or reducing hours in response to the imminent staff shortage.
“Regretfully, it’s probably going to be the worst summer,” ALA Director Bernard Fisher told Newsweek. “We have 309,000 public pools in the U.S., but we don’t have the youth in the ratio to the population.”
The shortage is the result of several variables. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, public pools relied heavily on foreigners with J1 visas for lifeguards. These summer visitors brought tens of thousands of lifeguards to help staff the country’s
Drowning is the number one cause of accidental death for children between the ages of 1-5. Fortunately, the rates are declining due to more security and increased awareness. hundreds of thousands of pools. But the pandemic put the kibosh on international travel, and those visas were temporarily suspended.
Meanwhile, much of our domestic supply of lifeguards simply don’t have adequate swimming skills to fill the positions.
“Some of these kids haven’t been in the water in two years,” Fisher said. “Not only do we have a lifeguard shortage, but now we don’t have enough kids who know how to swim, who can’t become lifeguards in 5 to 10 years.”
Theresa Sheridan, regional aquatics director for the YMCA of Lansing, Michigan, agrees that the lifeguard problem got worse during the pandemic.
“Because we didn’t train for a while, we missed a whole year of training for staff, so that made it a little harder,” said Sheridan.
The result is an unprecedented scarcity of labor.
The City of Austin, Texas, is currently looking for 600 lifeguards. Salt Lake City, Utah, is down 200 lifeguards. The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation is looking to fill 600 positions.
If the cities can’t find workers, the result will be closed public pools, and many cities have already declared that they won’t be opening their pools this summer because they will not operate pools without lifeguards.
The city of Phoenix, Arizona, has stated that half of their public pools will remain closed. Two-thirds of Omaha, Nebraska’s public pools will not open. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, may open only a quarter of the city’s pools. Last year, a similar shortage meant that only 70 percent of Philadelphia’s pools were open.
Just about everywhere, parks and recreation departments are putting together aggressive recruitment programs.
In Massachusetts, the state’s Department of Conservation and Recreation is offering a $500 bonus to those lifeguards who stay through the summer season as well as a $500 signing bonus, and they are bumping up wages to $21-$26 per hour. After last year’s lifeguard shortage and spike in drownings, state officials are hopeful these incentives will draw new recruits.
Phoenix is offering a $2,500 hiring bonus, which Parks Director Cynthia Aguilar said is attracting more applicants. However, about 40 percent of them fail to appear for the certification course and another 10-12 percent do not pass the course.
In Austin, an April memo from the city’s parks department detailed an elaborate plan to attract new lifeguards. It proposes raising the wage by $1, waiving the $20 training fee, providing free uniforms, giving lifeguards a $500 bonus for completing the summer, another $500 bonus for lifeguards who commit to working a certain schedule and a $250 bonus for lifeguards who obtain advanced lifeguarding certifications.
But you can’t squeeze blood from a turnip. If a trained teenage workforce doesn’t exist, all the incentives in the world can’t draw them to lifeguarding, and some have proposed seeking applicants from a different demographic.
Fisher told Newsweek that a solution to the lifeguard shortage is to target recent retirees who already swim for exercise and simply train them to be lifeguards as well. It’s a long-term plan and too late for this season, but it may be an answer going forward.
“The solution is tapping the retirees, and just getting the word out,” Fisher said. “It’s a 10-year plan that we need, it’s not going to be a short fix. There are opportunities; we need to target retirees.”
It’s a strategy that is already working at the YMCA of Lansing, Michigan, according to Teresa Sheridan.
“I look at some of our older population and retired people. A lot of those are doing my morning shifts right now for us,” Sheridan said.