Some swimming pools across Kansas are struggling to fill shifts because teenagers aren't taking lifeguard jobs
WICHITA — During a normal year, Brian Hill doesn’t have much trouble hiring enough lifeguards to staff Wichita’s six public swimming pools.
Not in this pandemic year.
“Usually I’m about 80% staffed by February,” said Hill, Wichita’s aquatics director. “This year, I was about 10% staffed.”
Lifeguarding took a hit last summer, when the COVID-19 pandemic closed most gyms, water parks and community pools. High school and college students who would normally work as guards took the summer off or found other jobs. Training classes were cancelled. So were junior lifeguard programs for 11- to 14-year-olds.
“That’s our pipeline,” Hill said. “In a lot of ways, we were kind of starting this summer from scratch.”
Wichita is not alone.
Roeland Park in Johnson County recently spent $1.6 million to renovate its community aquatic center, adding new slides, a climbing wall, shade structures and splash pads. The grand opening was Memorial Day weekend.
But the pool will open for limited hours — only Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends — because there aren’t enough guards to staff it.
Roeland Park boosted lifeguard pay to $12 an hour, up from $10 an hour. Other cities offer signing bonuses and other perks or recruit younger teens.
Prairie Village cut back its pool hours this summer because of the shortage. So will the city of Shawnee in Johnson County.
Shawnee County last month initially didn't have sufficient lifeguards, but some new hires left it with "just enough" to staff its seven aquatics facilities at their full complement of hours, Shawnee County Parks and Recreation said in a civic alert posted Friday.
The American Lifeguard Association says lifeguard shortages are common across the country. The traditional summer job is more nostalgia than reality because teens and young adults increasingly look for year-round work.
COVID-related travel restrictions have limited the number of seasonal college and foreign exchange students. And overall interest in lifeguarding is declining.
Pools depend on guards returning year after year, and on younger swimmers envisioning themselves on the lifeguard stand.
“So much of it is kids growing up going to the pool every day,” said Joe Hutchinson, a high school swim coach who manages a private pool in east Wichita. “They see their older friends who are lifeguards, and they say, ‘I want to do that next summer,’ and then they start getting ready for that job and getting certified.
“Since there wasn’t the opportunity to see your friends be lifeguards last summer,” he said, “that new wave of lifeguards that normally fills in those empty spots just isn’t there.”
It’s also hot-weather work that toggles between boredom and stress — part babysitting, part lifesaving. And it’s not for everybody.
“It can be very difficult to deal with people. That’s the hardest part,” said 18-year-old Jacob Steffen, who has worked at Wichita-area pools for two years.
“Last summer we had a very weird schedule due to the coronavirus, so we were open for two hours at a time and then closed for an hour,” he said. “So I had to deal with a lot of very angry people, because you have to kick them out of the pool.”
Jared Rutti, recreation supervisor of Garden Rapids at the Big Pool water park in Garden City, said he has 44 lifeguards hired so far. He could use up to 60.
Garden City’s century-old community pool was demolished last year and a $14 million aquatics park built in its place.
Aaron Stewart, Garden City’s parks and recreation director, said the novelty of the new park has helped with recruiting lifeguards and other employees.
“We have a brand new water park for people to work at,” Stewart said. “So that’s attractive and exciting.”
Saving lives is part of the job
As vaccinations increase and COVID restrictions ease, swimming pools, beaches and water parks are reopening across the state. And they require teams of lifeguards to keep them running safely.
Alanis Balza Medina, a 20-year-old who started lifeguarding when she was 16, is glad to be back.
“It’s my go-to summer job,” said Balza Medina, who is pursuing a degree in elementary education at Emporia State University. “This is the job that I enjoy and (that) gives me a lot of training for my future. ... And it’s a great work environment to be in as well.”
She swam at Wichita’s Harvest Pool as a young child and remembers admiring the lifeguards and appreciating how friendly they were. She started lifeguarding at Wichita’s Evergreen Pool and worked her way up to the head guard position. Now she manages Orchard Pool and trains guards throughout the summer.
“It’s a tough job sometimes. However, when it’s just the guards, it’s a community — basically a family — that you become, because you’re always with these people,” she said.
“You have to learn to work as a team and make sure you can function together as a whole. Because if you don’t, there’s someone’s life in danger.”
Lifeguards need to be at least 15, complete a three-day training session and pass a certification test.
Talk to any longtime lifeguard, and you’ll hear stories about life-saving rescues. Balza Medina recalls an incident in 2018, when a young girl fell off the side of an elevated diving board and had to be treated on site and taken to the hospital.
“That was probably the scariest situation that I’ve had,” she said. “It’s not something that people necessarily think about, but we go through very extensive training to be prepared to protect our patrons.”
Sam Cortes was only 15 and a first-year guard at Minisa Pool in Wichita when he performed his first save. During a pool party, a young child fell into the deep end. His father panicked and jumped in after him. Neither one could swim.
“So my very first save was a double rescue,” said Cortes, who trains guards and manages the aquatics program at McConnell Air Force Base.
“It was all adrenaline, because like I tell people: It goes back to our training,” he said. “You’re only as good as your training, so in any emergency you go back to what you’ve trained for.”
Suzanne Perez reports on education for KMUW in Wichita and the Kansas News Service.