Pools around the metro area are gearing up to open for the summer. That is, if there are enough lifeguards.
The years-long trend where pools have cut hours or closed altogether appears to be waning, though it’s still a possibility in some places, according to aquatics managers across the Denver area, who are more optimistic than in past years, but still concerned as summer nears.
For instance, South Suburban Parks and Recreation needs 250 lifeguards for its peak summer season but has only 183 ready to go.
Karl Brehm, the recreation district’s aquatics manager, hopes to get closer to the goal as summer approaches but wonders why applications are so slow to roll in.
“I have seen, more and more, less interest in the position,” Brehm said.
He’s been in the business for a long time. Brehm worked at Elitch Gardens for five seasons and the Highlands Ranch Community Association for 16 years. He said he’s seen a general lack of interest, generationally, from young people who want to do the job. Fewer people are becoming CPR certified as well, he added.
“I’ve often wondered why we were having those issues,” Brehm said. “Back in the day, I remember if you didn’t have your job by spring break, you weren’t getting a summer job.”
The problem could affect South Suburban pools across the district, which serves more than 150,000 residents in Bow Mar, Columbine Valley, Littleton, Sheridan, Lone Tree and parts of Centennial and Douglas, Jefferson and Arapahoe counties.
If he can’t hire enough lifeguards, hours at pools could be cut, Brehm said. It’s not for a lack of trying, though. The district has introduced incentives, bonuses, pay bumps and more in hopes of luring in more lifeguards.
South Suburban isn’t alone.
There’s a national lifeguard shortage, which was exacerbated by the pandemic. Lifeguard shortages affected roughly a third of public pools throughout the country.
In response last year, Gov. Jared Polis announced a “Pools Special Initiative 2022,” in which Colorado introduced incentives. Chief among them was a $1,000 payment to those who completed lifeguard training to fight pool postponements and decreasing operating hours.
Now, out of necessity, hiring lifeguards is ongoing throughout the entire summer season, Brehm said. Lifeguards for South Suburban make between $15 and $19.14 per hour, per South Suburban's website. A head lifeguard makes $15.75 - $19.93 per hour.
But there are additional costs to South Suburban. Though lifeguards are generally seen as first-time, fun summer jobs, they must possess crucial knowledge regarding saving human lives. A full-course lifeguard training at South Suburban through Red Cross costs $175. Community First Aid, CPR and AED training/blended learning costs $80. After 75 hours of work, South Suburban reimburses course fees, excluding the $40 certification fee.
Despite such incentives, lifeguards still make less than sports officials at South Suburban. A youth sports official starts at $20.00 per hour.
North of Denver, in Federal Heights, the Hyland Hills Parks and Recreation, a youth baseball/softball umpire makes $65 per 90 minutes. A Pilates instructor for Brighton makes $1 more than a lifeguard per hour. The discrepancy is notable, especially considering most lifeguards work on a part-time basis.
Yet, the lifeguard numbers are booming for Hyland Hills. Generally, the district employs roughly 300 lifeguards per season. This season, it’s closer to 375, according to Director of Communications Joann Cortez.
The main focus in hiring and retaining their lifeguards at Hyland Hills pools and the massive Water World water park is legacy, Cortez said. Water World is in its 43rd operating season.
“We’ve been in the water park business for over 40 years, and we’re very aware of the nationwide shortage of lifeguards,” she said. “I think what has helped us is we have a legacy pool of candidates. Kids often know Water World just from coming for the experience, and if one of their older siblings takes a job with us, eventually the ones that are following can’t wait for their turn. We’re just very, very fortunate in that way.”
Cortez said Hyland Hills is committed to creating a memorable first-job experience. It should be fun, but also taken seriously. It’s a constant balance of managing a “fun job” and literally monitoring people’s lives daily. Recruiting is big, and so are the incentives. The employees get free soft drinks, free membership, and even fun events like “prom night” during the season.
Hyland Hills has an end-of-season bonus as well, with the ability to earn an additional dollar per hour’s pay. The lifeguards’ pay ranges depending on the position, such as a guard lifeguard, a shallow-water lifeguard and a deep-water lifeguard.
On the Water World website, lifeguards are hired at $16.15 per hour. A “lifeguard attendant” makes $16.00 per hour. Returning lifeguards make slightly more depending on experience. Cortez said the main factor in keeping employees is how they treat them.
“We’re in a very favorable position, but we’re sad there aren’t enough lifeguards to go around,” Cortez said.
Meanwhile, local pools and recreation centers around the Denver area have conducted pointed campaigns to ensure their numbers are sustainable and their pools are ready for the masses.
While it remains to be seen if that strategy will work for South Suruban, it seems to be working elsewhere. Recreation centers in the City of Brighton, for example, are fully staffed ahead of the summer. They were last year, too.
“It’s been tough at different agencies, municipalities, and neighborhood pools. There was definitely a lifeguard shortage the last several years, especially last year,” said Jeffrey Hulett, assistant director of recreation services for Brighton. “But we were fully staffed last year.”
There have been a number of initiatives and incentives they’ve introduced to get ahead of the lifeguard shortage crisis, he said. It was a top-to-bottom effort in Brighton to make sure the crisis was minimized. Pay was a main focus. It wasn’t too long ago they were paying lifeguards just $13 per hour, he said. Now, it’s up to $17. And it goes up each season for returnees. Head lifeguards make roughly $1.50 more per hour.
Recreation benefits were expanded to the staff and their families, even part-time employees. That includes complimentary membership to the recreation center and discounts on youth programs. There’s also an end-of-season bonus for those that work the entire summer.
The grants from the governor’s office gave Brighton flexibility to expand efforts in hiring and retaining employees. According to Aquatics Supervisor Nicole Chapman, it can be difficult to retain lifeguards for pools and centers too big or too small. Brighton, fortunately, was right in a “sweet spot.”
“Some of the much larger municipalities are running into an issue where, physically, the staff we hire are local kids who want to work at their local pool,” Chapman explained. “And if they get hired on by a larger municipality, the expectation is to expect your staff to be willing to work at any of your city rec facilities, and that’s just not feasible for a lot of younger kids that don’t have their own transportation. They’re really there looking for a summer job around the corner.”
Brighton only has two locations — the Brighton Recreation Center and Brighton Oasis Family Aquatic Park — and Chapman said, and there are options for those living on either side of the city. But it’s still a small enough area that employees can work at both locations.
Perhaps back in the day, they could wait for the applications, and they’d have more than they knew what to do with come pool season. Now, that’s simply not the case. Recruiting is essential, both in the high schools and at job fairs, as well as providing affordable training opportunities and classes in-house — something Hulett said they’d never do before.
Brighton had 88 lifeguards in 2022, which is considered fully staffed. They currently have 70 lifeguards for the upcoming summer, but Chapman said she expects those numbers to fill out to 88 again considering guards in training are set to graduate from classes by the end of the month.
Meanwhile, back in South Suburban, Brehm is looking for dozens more lifeguards to fully staff pools this summer.
High school students and student athletes are encouraged to apply. They can learn valuable skills and essential life-saving procedures they’ll carry with them forever, Brehm said. Plus, it’s an ideal time for student athletes to make money, considering many sports are inactive over the summer.
As the pandemic continues to dwindle, the lifeguard participation numbers are expected to make a leap. But the job itself, and those working it, must be valued consistently to hire and retain those numbers season after season.
“We really look for not just kids, but really anyone who is going to take the job seriously and understand just how much of a vital role they play every summer in keeping the community safe,” Chapman said. “We really try to emphasize that with our staff, and there are always staff members that really take that to heart, and those are the ones we want to see come back.”
Finding a balance between making sure lifeguards understand the seriousness of the role and not taking all the fun out of the job is a fine line to walk, she said. But they have to walk it every season.