PHOENIX – As the weather warms up and COVID-19 restrictions ease, swimming pools across the country are re-opening but finding enough lifeguards to help protect swimmers is turning out to be difficult.
Lifeguarding is another one of those professions hit hard by the pandemic after gyms, waterparks, beaches, and community pools were forced to close down. Demand is now higher than ever, but the pool of applicants just isn’t there.
Jocelyn Ramey a seasoned lifeguard of four years is no stranger to busy days in the sun. This summer she'll be working for the Life Time, fitness chain which has more than 150 locations in 41 North American cities.
"I really value the first responder aspects and always being on my toes, as well as enforcing the rules and keeping our members safe," said Ramey.
The start date for Ramey was a little delayed due to COVID but she’s back at the pool now. Across the country, thousands of lifeguards were furloughed due to the pandemic. Many deciding to take up new career paths. Pools nationwide are trying to stay afloat with the staff they currently have as new applicants aren’t exactly diving in.
"It’s an important role, I really do want to see more people coming back to it," said Wyatt Werneth, National Spokesperson for the American Lifeguard Associations, Inc.
The association (ALA) helps train and certify new lifeguards across the country. The group claims there are several reasons for the shortage. First, lifeguard training and certification programs are backlogged because COVID-19 canceled classes.
"It takes quite a while to train the lifeguards, they go through an extensive training period," said Werneth who noted that the social distancing rules forced the cancelation of training sessions.
"We couldn't get in close quarters obviously or get out and train, and we have to train in pools, we have to grab people and pull them and learn how to handle swimmers, it's up close and personal," Werneth said in explaining the training backlog.
The good news added Werneth, is that "now things are starting to open back up we're having to train them now"
Adding to the shortage is COVID travel restrictions have limited the number of seasonal college and foreign exchange students. Remote learning means many students are staying home. The majority of lifeguards are high school through college-aged.
In addition, older lifeguards and swimming instructors are retiring early. Some of the older guards may be at a higher risk of contracting the virus forcing the retirements.
However, Werneth also admits that interest in lifeguarding is declining which makes it difficult to facilitate 309,000 pools across the country. While the ALA has been offering lifeguard courses for more than 30 years, this year's shortage has made it "a task trying to get these guys out, trying to get them trained and get them ready to go."
Life Time is one of the largest employers of aquatic professionals with approximately 3,000-4,000 lifeguards nationwide at 110 of its health clubs. Typically the chain will have more than 10 million visits to their pools each summer.
"The lifeguard shortage is very real, especially here in the Phoenix market, because we're opening up all of our pools right now," said Jackie Flores Regional Aquatics Manager at Life Time.
In Arizona's largest city, Life Time is looking for as many as 30-40 team members at some locations. To fill the need, the company has turned to social media to get the word out.
"We are doing a big marketing play via social media, and we're hoping to advertise some of the benefits of being a team member at Life Time including a complimentary membership, paid trainings, and best of all they don't need any experience to be a team member with us, we'll teach you how to do everything," said Flores.
For anyone interested in becoming a lifeguard, first, you must get certified. It requires about 30 hours of training and passing a swim test is required. Most pools, including Life Time, will provide the training if you are hired.
The American Lifeguard Association wants to remind everyone to always swim near a lifeguard, check the weather conditions in your area, and of course, learn to swim.