As labor shortages continue to plague virtually every sector of the American economy, your local swimming pool might be the latest to feel the pain.
That’s because pools and recreation centers across the country are facing a severe shortage of lifeguards and swim instructors — the worst such shortage in at least a decade, by some accounting. Nationally, nearly 8 out of 10 parks departments don’t have enough staff, according to the National Recreation and Park Association.
Things are no different in Utah, where pools are just barely keeping their operations afloat, and some have had to drastically reduce hours or even delay their seasonal openings due to being understaffed.
Why is there a lifeguard shortage?
In many ways, the shortage of lifeguards is no different than labor shortages at restaurants and grocery stores, and they’re seemingly caused by the same set of factors. After disruptions to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, younger workers are increasingly seeking jobs with higher pay, more flexibility and less stress.
For David Gray, who runs human resources for Lagoon Amusement Park, lifeguards are just one small part of the seasonal talent he is constantly racing to recruit.
“This year it’s been even more of a struggle to attract applicants to the lifeguard position, more so than we’ve seen in the past,” he said. “But, we struggle in all of our seasonal positions. ... I wouldn’t say it’s a much larger struggle than any of our others, for food service and games and merchandise, those have been a struggle as well.”
“There have been a lot of articles that there is a lifeguard shortage, and I find that interesting, because to me, there’s not a lifeguard shortage. There’s a labor shortage for summer work,” he continued.
Although lifeguards are required to complete training in order to work, Gray points out that it’s not a job like that of a nurse or a doctor, which requires years of specialized education and training. Most pools provide on-the-job training for prospective guards, which — in the past — has made it an ideal alternative to working fast food for many teenagers and college students, Gray said.
Among other trends, Gray said he has noticed that an increase in summer programs — camps, music, school, athletics — has reduced the number of students who want a summer job, and limited the availability of many job seekers.
It’s becoming more common to interview potential hires who can only work one or two days per 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 can’t be easily remedied with creative scheduling or organization. Being short a few lifeguards doesn’t mean longer lines at the ticket office or the concession stand, it would put patrons in real danger.
“We have an obligation that we take extremely seriously,” Gray said. “If we have guests in our pools or in our slides, there must be a lifeguard present. If we didn’t have a lifeguard to operate the slide or to watch the water to keep our guests safe, we wouldn’t operate those areas.”
How the shortage is affecting Utah pools
Lagoon hasn’t had to cut back yet, although other pools haven’t been as lucky. The Liberty Park Pool in Salt Lake City generally opens on Memorial Day weekend, but due to lack of staffing, Salt Lake County Parks and Recreation — which operates Liberty Park — had to push back opening day by at least a few weeks at several pools.
The Liberty Park Pool will open June 18 but is only scheduled to operate for limited hours on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays — Juneteenth, Independence Day and Labor Day — for the rest of the summer.
The Redwood Pool in West Valley City isn’t slated to open until July 1, unless things change that would allow it to open sooner.
Liz Sollis, spokeswoman for the county, said she has heard from patrons who are frustrated by the closures and understands the downsides of having limited availability — especially as Utah is blanketed with heat waves — but said safety is always their top concern.
Given the high temperatures, outdoor pools like the one at Liberty Park need to have enough lifeguards on staff to rotate them inside so that no one is exposed to the summer heat for the entirety of their shift. Without adequate staffing, the pool staff are forced to shorten the operating hours — like they’re doing on Juneteenth, when the pool will only open from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Sollis said she knows some have complained that if hotels or other pools occasionally operate without lifeguards, the county-operated pools should too. But, she points out that sunlight and shade make it harder to see through the water in outdoor pools, necessitating more highly-trained observers than are needed in small, infrequently used spaces.
“I think a lot of times when people think about lifeguards, they think they’re there for kids, but a lifeguard is there for everyone,” Sollis said. “We’ve had adults who have had things happen when they’re swimming, and it’s required a life-saving response.”
According to Evelyn Everton, spokeswoman for the city of Sandy, the Alta Canyon Sports Center pool is experiencing a shortage of about 50% compared to previous years. The pool hasn’t had to cut hours, but they have reduced amenities like swimming lessons because of a similar shortage of swimming instructors.
Everton told the Deseret News in an email that the shortage is the worst they’ve experienced in at least 12 years. She cited concerns similar to what Gray mentioned, saying many employees have limited availabilities and only a few hours that they are free to work each week
Like many other businesses, pools have tried a variety of incentives to get more people to work, starting with increased wages.
Lagoon has offered bonuses to employees who stay on through the summer and Alta Canyon is providing lifeguards with free gym memberships and discounts on other city amenities.
Liberty Park Pool is offering increased wages that go as high as $19 per hour based on certification level and prior experience.
But have the increased perks actually helped? Gray said business and hiring is always “cyclical,” and while he sees things turning around 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 do not think it has helped in our case or any other case in the valley,” Everton said.
Gray, Sollis and Everton all emphasized that they will continue to recruit lifeguards throughout the summer, and encouraged those interested to apply on their websites.