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Recreation centres scramble to attract lifeguards to region's pools

“We’re just one illness away from being in trouble."
Lifeguard Savanah Van Nieuwkerk works at Crystal Pool, which is constantly looking to hire more lifeguards. ADRIAN LAM, TIMES COLONIST

Swim lessons are busting at the seams at indoor pools this summer as people emerge from two years of COVID-19 restrictions with a strong desire to resume their routines.

But while it looks like business as usual on the surface, some recreation centres offering aquatic programs have been scrambling to hire enough qualified lifeguards to keep the doors open.

“We’re just one illness away from being in trouble,” said Jeff Brehaut, manager of recreational services with the City of Victoria, which operates Crystal Pool. “We are continuously trying to attract new lifeguards.”

He said that despite a shortage nationally, the Crystal Pool is fortunate to have a number of lifeguards who have returned year after year.

“We have a core group that number in the high 40s that we can call on — that’s the sweet spot for us,” said Brehaut.

In neighbouring Saanich, as summer hours returned Saturday at Saanich Commonwealth Place, the rec centre has a roster of about 60 lifeguards, which is close to their ideal.

“I believe we are past the worst of it,” said facility manager Jennifer Jakobsen.

She said the facility’s competition pool, wave pool, dive tank and shallow tot pool can accommodate up to 500 swimmers on a busy summer day, all overseen by a team of eight to nine lifeguards, a team leader and several additional staff supervising activities.

At a bare minimum, the facility needs between three to four lifeguards on duty to open the pool, she said.

Until the beginning of this year, a shortage of qualified staff meant that supervisors regularly had to take shifts to keep the pool open.

The staff shortage was exacerbated by the pandemic, which disrupted lifeguard training for the last two years.

“We would offer the training course, but because of physical distancing guidelines, ­participants would have to come to class with a person from their bubble — usually a family ­member — for them to practice on. Obviously this wasn’t ideal or even possible,” said Jakobsen.

In addition, while all lifeguards need to take the 44-hour National Lifeguard Pool course, those seeking to work at indoor recreation centre pools also need a waterpark certification, which entails an additional 24 hours of training.

Staffing at Saanich Commonwealth Place was helped this year by the temporary closure of the pool at the Gordon Head Recreation Centre for repairs to that pool’s slab. It’s unknown how many staff members will return to that facility once repairs are completed in August.

In Sooke, the SEAPARC Leisure Complex is experiencing a shortage of qualified swim instructors, which is affecting swim lessons this summer and potentially into the fall, according to the Capital Regional District, which oversees the facility.

Andy Orr, senior manager of corporate communications for the CRD, said SEAPARC is planning to offer advanced aquatic courses through the summer as part of its on-going recruitment strategy.

The Rotary Club of Sooke is sponsoring local students’ lifeguard training, with the Sooke Lions Club sponsoring students to complete the water safety instructor course in the fall.

There is an adequate number of lifeguards, mainly students, at the Panorama Recreation Centre in North Saanich, which the CRD also oversees, said Orr.

While facilities in the region are set for this year, the future is far from certain.

Lifeguards typically are young adults, age 16 and older, who are either in high school or post-secondary facilities. Many work at a number of pools, picking up shifts and income between classes, study and an active social life.

That group has not returned in the same numbers as in previous years, Jakobsen said.

“While some have moved, others are telling us that they have gotten jobs in their fields of study — a full-time career job rather than a casual, auxiliary or part-time position, which is all [that] most municipalities offer,” she said, adding it’s a job-seeker’s market.

“We are experiencing the ‘great resignation’ generation, where people have a lot more choice in the market.”

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