Explaining the 2021 Lifeguard Shortage

It’s what one doesn’t see that makes all the difference. This year, it could be an empty lifeguard chair. To paraphrase Don Henley, summer’s in the air but something’s out of reach.

Take a closer look at the waters and you’ll start to see the ripples take effect: A lifeguard shortage, exacerbated by the restrictions of the world’s deadliest pandemic in over a century.

No pool nor aquatics service company is left unscathed by the growing pains of an economy and a society eager to return to normalcy, yet too vulnerable to do so. If your pool hasn’t experienced any staffing shortages this year, consider yourself lucky. All pool operators are putting in a lot of extra time and energy behind the scenes to keep the pool gates open each day.

It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it likely won’t be the last, but the size of this lifeguard shortage is unprecedented. Keep reading to learn why, and what we’re doing to resolve this problem for the future.

How COVID-19 Restrictions Played a Role in the Lifeguard Shortage

Although many across the country are getting vaccinated and returning to regular lives after COVID-19, many of the processes to recruit and train lifeguards remain hindered.

In-Person Training

For one, a lack of in-person training slows down the certification process, and also deters many guards from even signing up. Preparing for any pool season requires training throughout the year. With so many indoor pools unavailable for that purpose, there is simply no way to make up for lost time in training. There can be no final certification without in-person training for obvious reasons.

International Travel

Often as a seasonal job, lifeguarding can be a big draw for international students looking for a new cultural experience. Our international exchange program, United Work & Travel, draws a large number of quality guards to staff our pools by offering a J-1 Summer Work and Travel experience.

However, because of the myriad international travel restrictions put in place due to COVID-19, this led to massive year-over-year deficits beginning in 2020. According to the Department of State, J-1 visas decreased by 83% in 2020, due to executive suspensions of J-1 visas that just expired in April.

Scheduling Challenges

Everyone wants to make up for lost time together. Seasonal staff availability has been truncated as families try to cram two years of family vacations and in-person celebrations into the 2021 summer.

An emerging scheduling challenge involves university students needing to report in person for on-campus COVID Testing before they start classes. While the tail end of every pool season is strained by the loss of college students, their last day of work could be a full week earlier this year.

Steps We’re Taking to Combat the Lifeguard Shortage

As we head into August, we can only predict that more and more guards will leave their position early to return to their studies at high school or college. However, we are continuing to monitor the situation and explore every avenue as we work to increase recruiting for future seasons.

As always, our recruitment activities occur 365 days a year. We’ve been expanding our recruitment net to target nontraditional seasonal workers that goes beyond the traditional lifeguarding demographic. We’ve been running classes every week so that new applicants get enrolled right away to earn their certifications.

We want to ensure the experience on the job is as positive as possible. We’ve been making changes to our operational plans so lifeguards get more time off-stand to tend to secondary duties, rehydrate, and refocus for safer swimming. Programs like our Lifeguard Appreciation Week can go a long way in retaining staff and earning their referrals.

Double-checking our lifeguard team’s last work days and confirming schedules through Labor Day help us size up the challenge. We’re working with clients to modify operating dates and schedules so that residents and members don’t end up with last-minute surprises. With the pool of lifeguards lower than a typical season, we have to be extremely tactical because the industry’s ability to respond to last-minute callouts is so diminished.

It’s important for all of us in the aquatics industry to communicate these major developments to our clients, customers, and guests. While America is restless to return to our normal ways of life, we also continue to battle this pandemic on a global scale. We’re fully confident that this lifeguard shortage is temporary, and you can rest assured that American Pool is doing everything we can to quell this difficult time for pools across the country.