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Community pools are facing lifeguard shortages as the summer season approaches, according to pool managers from Fairway and Prairie Village city pools. Pools were short as many as 10 applications when they began taking applications in February.
Teens are choosing other jobs due to higher pay and easier work requirements according to management.
“I was just the other day at a grocery store in the area and saw that they were hiring cashiers for $12 an hour,” Fairway Parks and Recreation Director Nathan Nogelmeier said. “Lifeguards’ salary starts at about 8.75 an hour. You can either work really hard and be a lifeguard or sit on your rear and be a cashier.”
Anywhere from 25-50 guards are needed for the average pool staff, depending on the size and occupancy of the pool. At the beginning of February, Fairway City Pool had 25 applications, 10 short of the minimum 35 potential applicants they would need to hire enough lifeguards.
“We have to make sure we have a minimum number [of guards] to have enough eyes on the water,” Nogelmeier said. “[Not having enough guards] can be sometimes stressful for the staff and they can end up working seven days a week for a long stretch.”
Junior Lana Reeves, who worked as a lifeguard last year, did not enjoy the constant heat, cleaning bathrooms and taking out the trash. The long hours of intense pressure can wear lifeguards down, especially by the end of the summer, junior John Arnspiger said.
“You have to know how to keep someone alive,” Arnspiger said. “It’s a lot [of technique] to know and pretty stressful.”
In order to retain employees, Fairway City Pool has begun offering incentives.
Fairway City Pool now offers reimbursement for the $250 training and $40 uniforms, whereas lifeguards had to cover these costs themselves in past years. Staff members can potentially receive a $150 “head-hunting” bonus for bringing new lifeguards who then work for the whole summer.
The pool also raised its hourly wage just two years ago, from $8.25 to $8.75.
“Municipalities just don’t have it within their budget to say ‘OK I’m going to pay you $2 more an hour now,’” Nogelmeier said. “We have to be creative with how we can entice people to come work for us.”
Both senior Sam McDonald and Reaves, who are returning to Fairway this year for another summer, experienced the long hours last year. However, they believe that the proximity to home, time outdoors and camaraderie with coworkers outweigh any stress that may come from the job, they said.
“Until you turn 18, it’s the best job you can get for the summer,” Reaves said.
But according to Nogelmeier, other opportunities provided by fast food restaurants and grocery stores are pulling teens away from lifeguarding because they pay more and are considered less strenuous.
According to Nogelmeier, Kansas City isn’t the only place experiencing problems. In 2014, two out of three municipal pools in St. Joseph, Mo. were closed for the summer due to lifeguard shortages. When there aren’t enough guards, city pools are forced to close because shortages limit the attention patrons receive, which increases potentially dangerous situations.
Instead of having trouble hiring employees, private pools often can’t keep employees the entire summer, said Chuck Hammons, pool manager for Indian Hills Country Club. Indian Hills Country Club pool loses about 50 percent of staff by the time the pool closes in September.
Along with the pay and stress, pools lose workers to internships, nannying and vacations, Hammons said. To compensate for lower numbers, Hammons began interviewing for positions much earlier this year than in past years.
To increase flexibility for scheduling shifts, Indian Hills Country Club has increased their staff from 22 guards in 2012 to 27 in 2016. Hammons can now expect an average of two years from his workers. In the past, guards have stuck around for five, six, even seven years at a time.
“It’s a different mindset today. Kids want their space, they want time,” Hammons said. “But back in the day, they wanted money.”