Opinion: Learner-to-lifeguard pipeline springs leaks, putting pool safety and accessibility at risk

Photo by Malaya Sadler.

Editorial note: The following is a submitted Op/Ed. The views and opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of Kingstonist.

This summer season, we are in the midst of a massive lifeguard shortage, what is being referred to in the aquatics sector as a “broken learner-to-lifeguard pipeline.”

Becoming a lifeguard is a lengthy and demanding process that involves a series of progressive certification levels attached to age minimums and intense examinations on swimming proficiency, first aid and water rescue skills. All this costs upward of $1,000, involves up to 100 hours of lifeguard training, an additional 20+ hours to become a swimming instructor, and bi-annual recertification exams.

“The pipeline of lifeguard training is typically made up of 13-year-olds interested in becoming lifeguards,” explains Emma Austin, the Co-ordinator of Policy and Grants with Parks and Recreation Ontario, a non-profit organization that represents 6,500 members, including municipalities, non-profits and some private-sector groups such as swim schools, private childcare centres and summer camps. “Once they take their bronze medallion, bronze cross and first-aid training, then they volunteer at a pool. When they turn 15, they can take their national lifeguard course so that they can become lifeguards when they turn 16.”

Austin, reflecting on how the pause of courses disrupted an entire cohort of lifeguards, says that “the lack of certification courses during the pandemic was huge.”

“My read on it is it has never been this bad. I’ve talked to several aquatics professionals that have been doing this job for multiple decades and they’ve never had this hard of a time hiring.”

Austin adds that the “situation has resulted in decreased swim programming” with some municipalities reporting operating with only 50 per cent of their pools open because of staffing shortages.

“Parents across the province are finding it very difficult to get their children into swimming lessons because there are fewer swim classes running,” she says. “We are also seeing a reduction of hours, particularly for daytime open swim. This is significant for older adults and seniors, as this is typically when they like to exercise at the pool.”

It also has resulted in reduced certification offerings, with many lifeguard training programs now mandating 100 per cent attendance.

Last fall, Parks and Recreation Ontario conducted a survey on the nature of aquatics employment. The recently released Aquatics Wage Survey Report points out that the majority of aquatics positions are seasonal, part-time hourly jobs that lack benefits and offer few incentives or opportunities for upward mobility.

“All of this contributes to the precarity of the work and the type of people seeking it, and that is individuals who do not need or want regular, full-time work, such as students,” says Austin.

Austin and her colleagues also gathered wage information and found that the average wage range for a lifeguard is $17.80 to $20.39, and for a swim instructor $18.94 to $22.87.

“Rate of pay is a significant barrier to recruiting and retaining aquatics staff,” says Austin. “Aquatics positions are in competition with much less demanding positions that offer similar pay.

“A lot of young people are saying they can make more money working from home doing a remote job that doesn’t require them to do all the things that lifeguarding requires of them. With lifeguarding, you have to be there. You have to be in a bathing suit. You have to be on – you can’t do a job like lifeguarding without being totally present. Preventing drowning is a huge responsibility.”

Wendy Schultenkamper, Director of Operations for the Lifesaving Society of Canada, says many lifeguards moved on to other jobs during the pandemic. “The pandemic took what has been a shortage for decades and pushed it over the edge,” she says.

The Lifesaving Society has been around for 125 years and sets the standards for aquatic safety and provides lifeguard training. Working with partners across the country, it provides programs to approximately 1.2 million Canadians per year.

“In Canada, lifeguarding and swim instructing is viewed as a great job in high school and university until you go on to get your ‘real’ job,” says Schultenkamper. “This leaves a very narrow window of employment, and a window that closed for lifeguards and lifeguards-in-training in 2020 and 2021.”

Hannah Robinson’s exit from lifeguarding typifies the short learner-to-lifeguard pipeline that fractured during the pandemic.

Robinson, who grew up in Halton Hills, Ont., describes the work of a swim instructor as intense but rewarding. “I got so many bloody noses from the stray feet of kids learning to swim,” she says laughing. “Even as a young person, I knew what I was doing was really important work and a big responsibility.”

Robinson taught several evenings a week, five classes each night, with at least half a dozen younger kids per class in the learn-to-swim levels, and a dozen or more older kids per class at the bronze-medallion level.

Robinson had intended to continue as a lifeguard and swim instructor when she moved to Kingston, to begin her undergraduate studies at Queen’s University in 2019. But by the time she arrived, the hiring had been done for the season. Her certification expired in 2020 around the same time the pandemic hit.

“I was considering going back to it last spring,” she says, “but to renew my certification was one more expense when I was already struggling. And it would have meant devoting an entire weekend during the middle of exams.”

She was also questioning whether she could stack up enough work as a lifeguard to pay her tuition and living expenses. “Even full-time hours are 9 a.m. to 3 p.m., but normally it’s juggling lots of irregular shifts without flexibility to trade them. And really, it’s only a few dollars an hour more than minimum wage.

“I miss it sometimes, but I feel like I aged out of the system. It’s a good job for young people, maybe when they don’t have as much financial responsibility.”

Schultenkamper notes the lifeguard shortage is an international issue. “We are hearing from our international counterparts how desperate the situation is. The beauty of our vantage is we can also see the innovative responses coming from elsewhere.”

At the local and provincial levels in Canada, Schultenkamper specifically points to Quebec, which has committed $4.3 million to provide training free of cost for individuals with proficient swimming skills. Ontario has yet to commit to this issue financially, instead lowering the minimum age of employment to 15 for lifeguards and instructors.

“If other provinces could step up to do the same as Quebec, we might see some real traction on this,” says Schultenkamper.

In the meantime, individual communities are offering free or subsidized training and other employment incentives while waiting for provincial or territorial government grants.

One of the recommendations Parks and Recreation Ontario put forward is for low- or no-cost certification opportunities. Austin points to the success of a program launched by the City of Brampton.

“In 2022, the City of Brampton offered a free aquatic leadership program to anyone who passed their low stakes in pool assessment and partnered with the Brampton Public Library to make copies of the required course books to be available at no cost,” says Austin. “The program was very successful and led to 78 new staff members and 102 new aquatic volunteers.”

Another recommendation is for the development of a framework for collaboration with school boards to include aquatic leadership programs as credit programs to incentivize training and lower financial barriers.

“There are a few school boards in Ontario that already do this” notes Austin, “but we want to see this developed province-wide.”

Austin points out the importance of inclusive and quality recreational experiences to help ensure long-term participation in aquatics.

“We’ve seen success with parent and child co-participation programs and learn-to-swim for adults, who maybe didn’t learn to swim when they were children, or newcomers to Canada who don’t know how to swim.”

Schultenkamper says the Lifesaving Society “can only do so much” and needs commitments from all levels of government. “How Canada responds to this will determine the scale and persistence of this problem.”

Janette Leroux
Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the School of Rehabilitation Therapy,

Queen’s University, Kingston

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