Apr 14, 2022 - News

Lifeguard shortage squeezes Twin Cities lakes and pools again

Illustration of a sign saying "Off Duty" but the O is a life preserver.
Illustration: Allie Carl/Axios

A lifeguard shortage is once again looming as the Twin Cities' summer swimming season approaches.

Why it matters: These whistle-equipped water watchers ensure that we all splash and swim safely.

Plus: Vacancies could mean decreased hours and access — or in some cases full closures — for local lakes and pools.

State of staffing: YMCA of the North has about 400 spots open across the aquatics program, which covers roughly 20 pools. Lifeguards and swim instructors are in high demand.

  • The Minneapolis Parks and Recreation Board is also "far far short," with roughly 80 of the 135-150 lifeguards it needs to fully staff lakes and pools, according to aquatics manager Sarah Chillo.

Driving the shortage: Parks departments and private pools have for years struggled to hire enough guards. Pandemic closures slowed the pipeline for training and certifying new staff.

  • Now, another summer with a tight labor market is compounding the problem.

Flashback: Hiring was a big problem last summer, too. Just three out of 12 Minneapolis beaches were guarded as of early June.

What they're saying: "We're in a worse shortage than we were last year because all of our customers are back, people want to use pools, they want to have fun, and we still can't hire and retain our lifeguards," YMCA aquatics director Shannon Kinstler told Axios.

What they're doing: The Y has changed its job qualifications and lowered the minimum age for some positions to 15. It's also offering paid training for candidates to gain mandatory certifications.

  • Plus: It's increased flexibility for scheduling and introduced a $100 hiring bonus for lifeguards and swim instructors. Members can also earn $150 by referring applicants.
  • Minneapolis, which reimburses hires for the certification, has raised its starting wage to about $17. Pre-pandemic, pay was closer to $13.

Yes, but: Chillo said the higher pay so far "has had no impact on our ability to get more applicants." While last year's staff are returning at high rates, postings are attracting a "very small pool of new people."

  • "I'm not getting a sense that everyone's just working somewhere else, because it doesn't sound like anybody's having an easy time," she said of the seasonal labor market.

Between the lines: School closures promoted by the March teachers' strike also cut down on opportunities to recruit high school students in person, she added.

Of note: While the jobs are popular among high school and college students, the Y has seen some interest from seniors looking for an active part-time job.

  • One such hire, a 65-year-old retiree, came back to the job decades after lifeguarding in college.

The bottom line: If hiring doesn't pick up, the Minneapolis Park Board and leaders of other local swimming sites will have to decide which pools and beaches to staff and, in some cases, keep open again this year.

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