As temperatures heat up this summer, Edina aquatics facilities are facing a chilly reception from the lifeguard labor market.
Mirroring a wider trend among pools in the Twin Cities and across the country, aquatics facilities in Edina struggled to recruit lifeguards as the summer season grew closer this year. While it appears most have been able to run their operations normally, facilities reported challenges as they got ready to open this year related to a smaller pool of candidates, relying on word-of-mouth promotions and other incentives to bring in much-needed lifeguards.
“We do have the number of lifeguards that are needed right now. … But we definitely had to pursue every single lead,” Patty McGrath, general manager of the Edina Aquatic Center, told the Sun Current. “There’s a lot of competition out there for the same workforce.”
The American Lifeguard Association estimated that at least a third of public pools and beaches in the U.S. would be impacted by lifeguard shortages. The estimation, which was based on the difference in the number of candidates the association typically certifies over a period of time, turned out to be lower than what has come to fruition, Bernard J. Fisher II, the director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association, told the Sun Current. “Regretfully, it’s done every bit of that,” he said.
Fisher added that he’s been in the industry for 50 years. “I’ve never seen it that we don’t have anywhere near the numbers that we need.”
Struggle to find lifeguards
Though interviewing for lifeguards started in February, it continued up until the last week before the Edina Aquatic Center opened to the public earlier this month, McGrath said. To fully operate the center’s various pools, slides and water attractions, it needed 57 lifeguards with 20 on-duty at a time, which McGrath said the center was able to achieve.
An influx of applications came in around Memorial Day, McGrath said, staving off what was becoming a stressful situation. Patrons had already purchased season passes and planned group events.
“I felt like, ‘OK, we’re gonna get there. We’re gonna have enough people,’” McGrath recalled thinking. Had the center been unable to recruit enough lifeguards, it was possible that hours or certain attractions would have been impacted, she said.
Other facilities in Edina have also been successful in gathering a full slate of lifeguard staff this year, such as the Interlachen Country Club, which opened its pool in late May, and Edina Public Schools, which revived its swim program at the South View Middle School pool earlier this month.
Both spots recruited their needed number of lifeguards, but grappled with a tight labor market, their managers said.
Due to increases in wages within the labor market and previous employees moving away or graduating college, recruitment was “challenging” this year, Carrie Eyler, assistant general manager of Interlachen Country Club, said in an email to the Sun Current. The country club employs 20 lifeguards for its pool, she said.
The district began looking for people to take up a lifeguard position around February. By Memorial Day, it was still looking, said Brandon Sieck, the district’s aquatics enrichment program supervisor.
Sieck was eventually able to secure one full-time lifeguard and a backup lifeguard, both stepping in from their roles as district recreation leaders to meet the program’s need. “(I’m) extremely thankful and happy that we were able to get our own lifeguards through our rec team.”
Other Edina area facilities weren’t as lucky.
Edina’s Life Time athletic center at Southdale Center, which includes a year-round indoor pool and a rooftop outdoor pool that opened Memorial Day weekend, has about half the number of lifeguards it typically desires during the summer months, said Life Time’s Edina Aquatics Manager Karla Risan.
“We’re still short, still looking for people,” she said.
In spite of this, the athletic center’s pools have been operating normally, Risan noted. Tighter scheduling among the staff has been the main obstacle as a result of the shortage, she said.
“Between myself and my assistant and supervisors, we try and cover those gaps and keep at least four lifeguards on stand available at all points of the day,” Risan said.
Because of the shortage, Southdale YMCA has needed to limit the opening of its leisure pool to certain hours when it had enough staff, Shannon Kinstler, senior director of aquatics for the YMCA of the North, said in a statement provided to the Sun Current. Though it did not say how many more lifeguards are yet needed at the Edina facility, a spokesperson for the YMCA said the entire region is still looking for about 100 more lifeguards.
“Since the pandemic we haven’t had the flow of applicants as in previous years,” Kinstler said.
Reasons for the shortage, ways to combat
Fisher, of the American Lifeguard Association, points to reliance on school-age youth to be lifeguards and obstacles to certification due to years of the COVID-19 pandemic as contributors to the shortage. A lifeguard must undergo recertification every two years, which booted out many lifeguards as pools were closed in 2020 and somewhat open last year, he said.
“They’re not even there available to hire. So that’s the crisis,” Fisher added. “All the schools are out. People want to go on vacation, and we’re trying to get the pools open, and we just don’t have the candidates to be able to do so.”
A tight labor market, limited available lifeguarding courses and the recertification process being interrupted by the pandemic were reasons Risan cited as to why facilities are experiencing fewer candidates. To recruit more, Risan said bonuses for employees who refer others to become lifeguards at Life Time were used.
Word of mouth was the most important recruitment tool at the Edina Aquatics Center, McGrath said. Employees who referred lifeguards – and the new lifeguards themselves – could receive $200 for staying with the facility for the season. Other incentives, like free employee certification and uniforms, were also offered to the lifeguards for the first time this year, she added.
“It’s really awesome to see these young people come together to take on this responsibility and help us run a fun, safe operation,” McGrath said. The general age group of lifeguards employed at the center are ages 16-20.
Facilities need to offer free lifeguard training for their prospective employees, Fisher said. “This is something that’s completely new to the lifeguard profession.”
Similar hourly jobs saw an increase in wages, putting pressure on the facility to heighten pay for lifeguards, Eyler said. But the club is “grateful” to have the resources to offer competitive wages and that positive referrals from existing staff helped the facility have “a strong team going into summer,” she said.
Kinstler said the YMCA also offered incentives like sign-on and referral bonuses, free and paid time training and extra pay over 20 hours of work.
There are other reasons the wider public should care about the lifeguard shortage, particularly when it comes to water safety concerns like drowning, Kay Zuccaro, a certified lifeguard and water safety instructor in Edina, pointed out.
Because people are not becoming familiar with water safety procedures as a lifeguard earlier, this could lead to less swimming teachers, and subsequently, not as many opportunities for kids to learn how to swim, Zuccaro said.
Being a lifeguard and water safety instructor is “a fun job, it’s an important job,” she added.
Fisher suggested that a person who has spare time should get trained as a lifeguard and that facilities should continuously train lifeguards to ease any future shortage.
“The value of having guarded areas are tremendous to society,” Fisher said.
– Follow Caitlin Anderson on Twitter @EdinaSunCurrent