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Utah economy

Why is there a shortage of lifeguards? Staff to blame for pool closures

As labor shortages continue to plague virtually every sector of the U.S. economy, your local pool might be the last to feel the pain.

That’s because swimming pools and recreation centers across the country are facing a severe shortage of lifeguards and swim instructors – the worst shortage in at least a decade, by some accounts. Nationally, nearly 8 in 10 park departments do not have enough staff, according to the National Recreation and Park Association.

Things are no different in Utah, where pools are barely keeping operations afloat, and some have had to cut hours dramatically or even delay their seasonal openings due to a lack of staff.

Why is there a shortage of lifeguards?

In many ways, the shortage of lifeguards is no different from labor shortages in restaurants and grocery stores, and they are apparently caused by the same set of factors. After work disruptions during the COVID-19 pandemic, young workers are increasingly looking for better paying, more flexible and less stressful jobs.

For David Gray, who heads up human resources at the Lagoon theme park, lifeguards are just a small part of the seasonal talent he constantly seeks to recruit.

“This year it has been even more difficult to attract lifeguard candidates, more so than we have seen in the past,” he said. “But, we are struggling in all of our seasonal positions. … I wouldn’t say it’s a much bigger fight than any of our others, for food, games and merchandise, those have been a fight as well.

“There have been a lot of articles about the shortage of lifeguards, and I find that interesting, because for me there is no shortage of lifeguards. There is a labor shortage for summer jobs,” he continued.

A lifeguard from Kearns Oquirrh Park Fitness Center watches swimmers at Kearns Pool on Friday, June 10, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Although lifeguards are required to undergo training in order to work, Gray points out that it is not a job like that of a nurse or a doctor, which requires years of specialized education and training. Most pools offer on-the-job training for prospective guards, which — in the past — has made them an ideal alternative to fast-food work for many teenagers and college students, Gray said.

Among other trends, Gray said he’s noticed that an increase in summer programs — camps, music, school, athletics — has reduced the number of students wanting summer jobs and limited the availability of many job seekers. ‘use.

It’s increasingly common to interview potential recruits who can only work one or two days a week, making it harder to fill every shift in the schedule.

Why the Lifeguard Shortage Matters

Even with shortages across the board, Gray notes that lifeguards present a problem that cannot easily be solved with creative planning or organization. Running out of a few lifeguards doesn’t mean longer lines at the ticket office or at the concession stand, it would put customers at risk.

“We have an obligation that we take extremely seriously,” Gray said. “If we have guests in our pools or on our slides, there must be a lifeguard present. If we didn’t have a lifeguard to operate the slide or watch the water to keep our guests safe, we wouldn’t be operating these areas.

How the Shortage Affects Utah Pools

Lagoon hasn’t had to cut back yet, though other pools haven’t been so lucky. The Liberty Park pool in Salt Lake City typically opens on Memorial Day weekend, but due to staffing shortages, Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation — which operates Liberty Park — had to push the opening day back to at least a few weeks in several pools.

The Liberty Park pool will open June 18 but is expected to operate only for limited hours on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays — June 19, Independence Day and Labor Day — for the rest of the summer.

The Redwood Pool in West Valley City is not expected to open until July 1 unless things change to allow it to open earlier.

County spokeswoman Liz Sollis said she’s heard customers frustrated with the closures and understands the downsides of limited availability — especially as Utah is blanketed in heatwaves — but said that safety is always their primary concern.

Given the high temperatures, outdoor pools like the one at Liberty Park need to have enough lifeguards to rotate them inside so no one is exposed to the summer heat for the duration of their shift. Without adequate staff, pool staff are forced to shorten opening hours – as they are doing on June 16, when the pool will only open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Sollis said she knows some have complained that while hotels or other pools sometimes operate without lifeguards, county-operated pools should too. But, she points out that sunlight and shade make it harder to see through the water in outdoor pools, requiring more skilled spotters than needed in small, little-used spaces.

“I think a lot of times when people think of lifeguards they think they’re there for the kids, but a lifeguard is there for everyone,” Sollis said. “We’ve had adults who have had issues when they were swimming, and that required a life-saving response.”

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Lifeguard Mark Black watches swimmers in the pool at Kearns Oquirrh Park Fitness Center in Kearns on Friday, June 10, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

According to City of Sandy spokeswoman Evelyn Everton, the pool at the Alta Canyon Sports Center is experiencing a shortage of about 50 percent from previous years. The pool didn’t have to cut hours, but it did cut amenities like swimming lessons due to a similar shortage of swim instructors.

Everton told the Deseret News in an email that the shortage was the worst they had seen in at least 12 years. She cited similar concerns to what Gray mentioned, saying many employees have limited availability and only a few hours they are free to work each week.

And after?

Like many other companies, pools have tried a variety of incentives to get more people to work, starting with a pay rise.

Lagoon has offered bonuses to employees who stay through the summer, and Alta Canyon is giving lifeguards free gym memberships and discounts on other city amenities.

Liberty Park Pool offers increased wages of up to $19 per hour depending on certification level and previous experience.

But did the increased benefits really help? Gray said business and hiring are always “cyclical,” and while he sees things changing at some point in the future, he doesn’t expect a quick fix.

Others paint an even less rosy picture of their efforts to boost hiring.

“We don’t think it helped in our case or any other case in the Valley,” Everton said.

Gray, Sollis and Everton all stressed that they would continue to recruit lifeguards throughout the summer and encouraged those interested to apply on their websites.

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Kearns Oquirrh Park Fitness Center lifeguards watch swimmers at Kearns Pool on Friday, June 10, 2022.

Mengshin Lin, Deseret News

Mary Cashion

The author Mary Cashion