RACINE – On a recent sun-splashed, summer afternoon, you’d expect to see the SC Johnson Community Aquatic Center, 2800 Ohio St., packed with fun-seekers splashing, swimming, wading, playing, laughing. Instead, all is quiet.
A sign taped to a locked entrance door says it all: “The Aquatic Center Pool is CLOSED this weekend. We apologize due to National lifeguard shortage.”
For most of this summer, the facility, which is owned by Racine County and managed by the Racine Family YMCA, has been open in the mornings (6 a.m. to 9 a.m. or 9 a.m. to noon) if it’s open at all. Aquatic Center users are asked to check its Facebook page for updates.
The center was built with a $6.5 million donation from SC Johnson, A Family Company. Opened in 2018, it has nearly 14,000 square feet of water surface, including two swimming pools, water slides, water spray features and lounge areas.
Ahmad Qawi, the YMCA’s president/CEO, doesn’t like seeing the Aquatic Center’s locked gates.
“Normally, in the summer we would be jam-packed. At times, we’ve had to look at limiting capacity to ensure everyone’s safety,” he said. “But the (lifeguard) shortage is really affecting everything.”
The Aquatic Center is fully staffed with 15 lifeguards, Qawi explained. To keep staff and guests safe – particularly on hot summer days – the guards rotate outdoors and indoors.
Much of the YMCA’s seasonal lifeguard staff is part-time. That has meant that the staff for the Aquatic Center are only available for a morning shift before leaving for other jobs later in the day. Said Qawi: “We can only be open when we have the lifeguards.”
But more help is on the way. Qawi said last Thursday that a group of seven new lifeguards recently completed training. Of that group, five are now fully certified and can start work. He added that the additional lifeguards will be full-time and assigned to the Aquatic Center for afternoon and evening sessions.
Lifeguard shortage not new
Although reported lifeguard shortages have made headlines around the country in 2022, lifeguards have been in short supply for some time now.
“I’ve been here 17 years, and we’ve always experienced a shortage compared with what (lifeguard staffing levels) we’d like to have,” Qawi said. In addition to the Aquatic Center, which is open during the summer months, YMCA lifeguards work at the Sealed Air Branch indoor pools, open daily all year-round.
The American Red Cross trains about 300,000 lifeguards nationally each year through its Lifeguard Certification Program, said Justin Kern, communications director at American Red Cross of Wisconsin. His organization trains lifeguards for cities and other organizations.
Prospective lifeguards must be at least 15 years old, complete 25 hours of training and successfully pass an exam. The Red Cross Lifeguard Certification is valid for two years before renewal. The certification training fee is about $75 to $110. Information about the Red Cross Lifeguard Certification program can be found at: redcross.org/take-a-class.
“Even before COVID, there was a decline in the number of people signing up to be lifeguards,” Kern said. “It’s become a chronic issue now.”
Kern cites pay rates, limited seasonal hours and generational changes as factors behind an overall smaller pool of lifeguards.
“In the 1980s and into the ‘90s, it was just a thing that a lot of kids did in the summer – lifeguarding or working in an ice cream shop,” he said. “But the side hustle for young people is more varied now. You’ve got food delivery, online positions, all kinds of things. We’re just seeing fewer and fewer applicants from that pool of people.”
Experienced lifeguards are in demand and can command pay of $15 to $20 (per hour), Kern added.
The Red Cross is addressing the lifeguard supply by offering blended training that combines online and personal instruction. It has also offered to add a year to the two-year certifications that lifeguards earned during the pandemic-affected summers of 2020 and 2021.
Pay, competition are factors
The overall worker shortage has been a struggle, said Qawi.
“I don’t know what COVID did. I do know that you see job openings up and down the streets everywhere you go. It just made staffing a challenge,” he said.
The Racine Family YMCA offers $10 per hour starting pay for lifeguards and provides certification training in-house. Qawi acknowledges the pay rate is not as competitive as he’d like. The 200-employee organization is reviewing its entire pay structure.
The local Y is also competing for seasonal summer lifeguards with several swimming facilities in Eastern Racine County, including the City of Racine beaches, Racine Unified School District’s Aquatic Center and the Meadowbrook and Racine Country Clubs.
Qawi added that the Y used Racine County’s employment outreach portal to help recruit lifeguard candidates.
The City of Racine adopted an hourly minimum wage of $15 for all employees, including part-time and seasonal workers, in October 2021. Racine County’s minimum wage of $15 per hour for full-time employees was enacted in March of this year.
By contrast, the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour – last changed in 2009.
Swim safety is key
Citing an average of 4,000 drowning deaths in the U.S. every year, the Red Cross is stepping up swim safety skills training via local public schools.
For example, Kern said the Red Cross worked with the Kenosha YMCA to offer a six-week water/swim safety class at that city’s Curtis Strange Elementary School.
“We’ve found that taking a holistic approach is very effective,” he said.
The American Red Cross offers a free swim safety app, called Swim, containing tips for the whole family. It’s available on most devices’ online app store, by texting SWIM to 90999 or at redcross.org/apps.
Qawi is hoping that more teens with an interest in swimming will complete lifeguard certification training.
“It’s really a great job for high schoolers,” he said. “It gives you some important skills that you’ll be able to use for the rest of your life.”