There is a shortage of lifeguards in the land of 10,000 lakes this summer.
Many Minnesota communities are raising salaries and extending staff hours in hopes of opening pools this year. Some beaches, however, will be left without a lifeguard on duty. And a few pools will continue to follow pandemic operations, allowing access by reservation only.
Nationally, one-third of public swimming pools in the United States are at risk of closing or changing hours due to staffing shortages, according to the American Lifeguard Association.
“In my time in the profession, this has become the worst year of my life,” said Bernard J. Fisher II, director of health and safety at the American Lifeguard Association.
How bad is that?
- Ramsey County will not staff lifeguards at its five beaches.
- Minneapolis Parks has about 110 lifeguards, but wants at least 30 more.
- The YMCA of the North, which manages pools and beaches across the state, needs about 100 additional lifeguards.
This summer, Fisher warns that even pools that are opening will struggle to stay open through Labor Day, as many lifeguards are in high demand and face more work pressures.
How we got here
The shortage is blamed on a tight job market and the pandemic pause for lifeguard training opportunities in Minnesota. Lifeguards are certified every two years.
Every year, about 300,000 new lifeguards are trained nationwide, Fisher said. But in the first year of the pandemic, “we hardly trained” as many public swimming pools and beaches closed, he added. In the summer of 2021, many remained closed or opened late in the season, relying heavily on lifeguards in their final year of certification.
“Requirement [for lifeguards] is so high. But the supply, we lost it. It’s almost like we’re starting from scratch,” Fisher said.
A tight labor market has put pressure on managers seeking to fill often temporary and lower-paying positions during the summer months.
“You can go push caddies at Menards for more than … anyone pays lifeguards,” said Larry Umphrey, director of aquatics, athletics, rinks and golf at the Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board.
The most recent unemployment rate is 2.2% in Minnesota, where there are two job openings for every unemployed person, according to the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.
When Caroline Hull started as a lifeguard in 2013, she recalls Ramsey County’s five beaches and the Battle Creek Waterworks had a full complement of at least 50 lifeguards. This year, there are just enough for Battle Creek Waterworks, a sprawling water park in Maplewood, to open on Saturday.
“It’s frustrating to see that we don’t have enough staff,” said Hull, who is in his third year as head guard. Due to budget concerns, head guards take on more responsibilities while also stepping in as lifeguards when needed.
The potential for overworked and overworked rescuers poses burnout and public safety risks, Fisher said.
“We’re working a lot and in the hot sun, and it’s really hard to fight burnout when there aren’t a lot of people to go through,” said Aaron Ramsey, also county guard chief. Ramsey, about the staff.
The problem is exacerbated by the fact that the coronavirus and the risks of its easy spread still weigh on the minds of some job seekers, said Kris Lencowski, director of operations for Ramsey County Parks and Recreation. Lifeguards are in close contact with other people in a pool and may be asked to perform lifesaving measures like CPR.
Pool managers are already taking steps to recruit and retain more lifeguards. They raise salaries, lower age requirements and pay bonuses and more for overtime.
Starting pay at the YMCA of the North — where access to indoor pools will once again be by reservation only — starts at $15 an hour. But if lifeguards work more than 20 hours a week, they earn $2 more per hour. The YMCA also offers paid training and has lowered the age to 15 to be a lifeguard.
At Minneapolis Parks, Umphrey said he raised pay to between $16.50 and $20 an hour.
“I think we’re definitely open to every opportunity we can to recruit as many lifeguards as possible,” Umphrey said. Some options include referral bonuses and bonuses for staying all season.
The lack of lifeguards increases the risk of potential drownings, Fisher said. There were 53 non-boating drownings in Minnesota in 2021, most of them unrelated to public pools and beaches, according to the state Department of Natural Resources.
Fewer lifeguards means fewer swimming lessons from lifeguards, which means fewer people learning to swim.
Families should exercise caution when at pools or beaches without lifeguards this summer. Fisher suggests having a designated water lifeguard at all times and making sure children who are beginning swimmers wear life jackets and obey posted warning signs.