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Lifeguard shortage? B.C. communities find success with unique tactics

Many B.C. communities have come up with creative new ways to retain and attract lifeguards.

As the entire country faces a lifeguard shortage, many municipalities in B.C. have been able to hire full rosters of people for the season. 

With many outdoor pools already open, cities and municipalities have had to get creative to attract new lifeguards and keep existing ones. 

Kimiko Hirakida, swim and first aid program manager with Lifesaving Society, says lifeguards "are out there, there is a slew of young professionals out there that are looking for work.”

In 2022, she says the society trained more lifeguards than in 2019.

"That was very, very promising news,” she tells Glacier Media. 

Hirakida notes training for lifeguards and swim instructors was halted during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We weren't able to train lifeguards and swimming instructors for over two years. So we really are playing catch-up there,” she says, adding attracting and retaining aquatic professionals has changed and the newer generation wants shorter or fewer shifts. 

“They might be looking for different hours than what we have previously been used to in the aquatic industry,” says Hirakida. "The newer generation that's coming in has a really strong work-life balance because they've gone through COVID in a very formative time in their lives and understand the importance of taking time for themselves.”

Cities, affiliates and pools need to be flexible and adjust things, according to Hirakida.

“It is important for different cities and employers to be flexible with their employees to show that they offer a flexible workplace,” she says.

That includes flexible shifts for older adults who want to work around children or other jobs they have. 

“Paid training is always a very strong incentive. Not only do you have to take your courses to become a lifeguard and swimming instructor, you have to re-certify them every two years,” she says. "I know that there are some cities out there that are looking at a payment option for their staff.”

Retaining previous lifeguards is also very important right now, she says. 

“Keeping your aquatic professionals that have the experience to mentor the new ones coming in, you have to provide value to those staff members that have stuck with you through the pandemic.” 

B.C. communities make changes to programs 

Port Coquitlam was able to hire all the lifeguards it needed and even made the unique decision to offer its outdoor pool for free to its residents. 

Mayor Brad West is pleased with the efforts that the city has taken. 

"We recognized very early on that this was going to be an issue. We saw the North American trend of a lifeguard shortage and so our staff acted really quickly to implement a specific recruitment effort around lifeguards,” he says. 

Starting to recruit early, he believes, was the key to their success. 

“Just in the last couple of weeks, we've been able to hire five additional lifeguards to add to our current complement,” he tells Glacier Media.

Port Coquitlam also started a junior lifeguard program, investing in younger people with the hope that when they are old enough they will be lifeguards and stay with them. 

“There's a lot of advantages to someone being able to live and work in the same place,” says the mayor.

Having more lifeguards allows them to extend the hours of their operations for outdoor and indoor pools. 

“Every lifeguard we hire allows us to be able to offer more swimming lessons and these are things that are really in demand,” he says. 

Glenn Mitzel, Port Coquitlam's director of recreation, says they have 48 part-time aquatic leaders, compared to 30-35 in the past. 

"Since the beginning of 2023, we hosted three hiring opportunities and have hired 13 leaders and five attendants,” says Mitzel.  

'No vacancies at present'

Meanwhile, one B.C. community that struggled to bring in lifeguards last year decided to make a change this year. 

Stephanie Trasolini, manager of recreation services and facilities at the City of New Westminster, says a new scholarship program was created where they pay for individuals to go through their lifeguarding courses. Once completed, they will be hired on as staff. 

“That test scholarship program has been helping us onboard, many demographics and different types of staff that we normally wouldn't sort of reach out to or see apply,” she says. 

Trasolini echos what the Lifesaving Society has seen: the new generation of lifeguards want to work fewer hours. 

“It's not so much about how many staff we're hiring. It's really about their availability,” she says. “We've been really outreaching to people who've been retired, parents coming back into the workforce.”

West Vancouver also ramped up its screening and hiring process this year. 

“Instead of once a quarter, this year we are trying to hire new staff every six weeks and we have seen a positive impact from that,” says Natalie Roizman, a spokesperson with the district.

The National Lifeguard Waterfront course was offered for free to their current staff, she adds.

“This offering has almost doubled the amount of staff we have who can work the beaches this summer, from last year,” says Roizman. 

Right now, the district has 65 casual lifeguards on their roster, which is more than double the number of 32 lifeguards in 2022.

"Since last year we have been able to increase our pool hours of operation and are now back to seven days a week of operation and open on stat holidays,” explains Roizman. 

The City of Port Moody has 40 lifeguards hired and is fully staffed for the summer. 

“We have no vacancies at present,” says Anna Mathewson, general manager of community services.

In this Metro Vancouver community, there are only outdoor pools.

"Lifeguarding at our pools is seen as an attractive job so we don’t typically encounter large issues with hiring staff,” says Mathewson. "We now accept newly certified lifeguards without on-the-job experience, and we now mentor new lifeguards in-house.”

Another city in B.C. is not having any issues with finding lifeguards. 

The City of Victoria says recruitment and retention of lifeguards is not a problem, according to manager and spokesperson Colleen Mycroft. 

"Our roster of certified staff is as big, if not larger, than it has ever been,” she says. 

On the island, many lifeguards work at multiple facilities.

“Employers are often competing for the same pool of applicants and employees to fill schedules,” says Mycroft, noting the city does fund re-certification for existing staff.

Lifeguards 'impact the community'

Not everyone is having a smooth time hiring — including the City of Vancouver. 

Jay Deo, manager of recreation services (citywide) for the Vancouver Board of Parks and Recreation, says Vancouver has to fill positions for both indoor and outdoor pools, with some staff working both. 

"At present in our indoor system, we have over 350 auxiliary lifeguards and 35 full-time staff. Of these, we have four positions we are working to fill,” he says. 

For outdoor lifeguards, the City of Vancouver typically has between 180 and 240 auxiliary staff hired by mid-July.  

"As of right now, we expect to have between 170 to 190 this July,” he says. 

Deo tells Glacier Media recruitment for lifeguards starts before the summer season. 

"Beginning in May, we have 23 seasonal full-time lifeguard positions to start the outdoor season and at present, we have four vacancies,” he says. 

Deo notes Vancouver is ‘unique’ with lifeguard beaches, "which expands the staffing requirements for aquatic services required comparative to most municipalities.”

The Park Board is focusing on reducing recruitment barriers by increasing and diversifying lifeguard training opportunities, reducing the cost of lifeguard re-certification, and converting lifeguard positions into operationally efficient regular part-time positions, he says. 

The City of Vancouver is offering their certification courses at a significantly reduced price. 

"For individuals that are part of the Leisure Access program, the cost is further reduced,” he says, adding indoor lifeguard positions start between $25.21 to $29.63 per hour with an additional 12% in lieu of benefit. Starting pay for outdoor lifeguards starts at $30.81 per hour with an additional 12% in lieu of benefits.

A new pilot program is also hoping to attract lifeguards from other countries to work in B.C. 

“To allow potential employees that have current international lifesaving certifications to challenge the Canadian certifications and become certified locally at a much-reduced cost and in a very short timeline,” said Deo.

Targeted promotions are taking place in Australia to encourage eligible Australians who winter in Vancouver to consider local aquatic employment opportunities.

"I don't think a lot of people really know what lifeguards do and how they impact the community,’ says Trasolini. “It's providing safety, it's providing children and adults the opportunity for safety skills with swimming classes. 

“It's really critical that we're not cutting the services."

Since the start of the year, a total of eight people have drowned in B.C.