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It’s still tight, but Utah won’t see the lifeguard shortage it saw last summer

The diving board at Redwood Recreation Swimming Pool in West Valley City, May 28, 2023.
Jim Hill
The diving board at Redwood Recreation Swimming Pool in West Valley City, May 28, 2023.

In 2022, about a third of the country's swimming pools operated with limited hours or didn't open at all due to a shortage of lifeguards. The American Lifeguard Association said current data indicates the issue is still ongoing.

"The tight labor market has made it increasingly difficult for pools nationwide to hire a sufficient number of lifeguards,” said Bernard Fisher, the association’s director of health and safety. “Unfortunately, the training numbers we have observed from last year and during the winter now indicate that approximately half of the country's 309,000 pools are at risk of either being unable to open or needing to reduce their operating hours."

Utah seems to be faring better with getting lifeguards trained and working but there is still a need at city- and county-operated pools.

The Provo Recreation Center’s indoor and outdoor pools are open with staff on hand. Over the summer, Parks and Recreation Director Scott Henderson said they typically have between 80 and 130 employees.

"We are shooting for 130 this year to be able to operate all of our programs and be able to operate all of our open swims and outdoor pools. But probably if we were looking for an ideal to be able to have more extended staff to be able to accommodate days off and schedule changes and the comings and goings, the staff were probably looking at 150."

He believes the shortage is a lingering effect of the pandemic when lifeguard training programs were scarce.

"When those certifications and training were not happening over those two years, then I think we found that we just didn't have that stockpile of lifeguards in our world to be able to cover these positions."

Henderson said the average age of their lifeguards is between 16 and 26. The city has also implemented incentives to get more applications and keep staff around longer.

"We have tried every innovative way to staff looking at someone coming into front desk positions where we're full, but maybe saying we've got this lifeguard position and make it contingent and teaching them and also getting them to pass the lifeguard test there where we can divert some interest in working for Provo Parks and Recreation into the areas of greatest need," Henderson said.

The starting hourly pay with Provo Parks and Recreation is $12. In Salt Lake County, it ranges from $14 to $18 an hour.

In 2022, the Liberty Park pool delayed its opening until after Memorial Day due to a lack of staff.

"Last year, I think we were closer to like 500 or 600 lifeguards at this time,” said Callista Pearson, the county parks and recreation communications director. “This year we're at 1,100. So we're making huge strides in getting recruitment and getting people staffed in those positions. And we're really hopeful and we do believe that there will be even more lifeguards joining our teams once they're completely out of school."

Salt Lake County operates 19 pools, and all but two are open by Memorial Day weekend. The Liberty Park pool and Redwood pool are set to open on June 10.

Aside from limited availability for swim lessons or after-hour parties, Pearson doesn't anticipate any other disruptions.

"We are getting requests and interest from parents asking if we're still hiring for lifeguards and yes, we're still hiring for lifeguards as a fun, great thing for the student to do for the summer. It's a great learning opportunity and gives them responsibility and teaches them a lot and they get to have fun."

Pearson said the county has also extended its training program for those still interested in becoming a lifeguard through the end of June.

"We're finding that a lot of these young people will come back year after year once they've done it because they have such a great time out there. A lot of them will start inviting their friends to come work with them. And we were giving them a referral pay for any time they referred someone and they joined the team."

Curtis Booker is KUER’s growth, wealth and poverty reporter in Central Utah.
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