A National Lifeguard Shortage Forces Cincinnati Pools to Rethink

Lifeguard hiring and training practices at the Cincinnati Recreation Commission are shifting to keep pools open and staffed.

Sunbathing, swimming, and lounging plans have been the unfortunate victim of this summer’s lifeguard shortages. The American Lifeguard Association predicted the shortage could affect from one-third to one-half of public pools in the U.S. In early May, the Cincinnati Recreation Commission announced that only eight of the city’s 23 pools would be open for the season.

So far, the national and regional effects of the shortage have caused the CRC to restructure and rethink its practices. Within the last month, the commission was able to begin opening another two public pools as the result of a robust hiring campaign. Provided that they complete the full season, lifeguards now will receive an increased $11.15 an hour wage and a $2,000 bonus. However, recent shortages aren’t merely due to uncompetitive pay—inadequate marketing practices have an effect, too.

For CRC’s Director of Recreation Daniel Betts, the solution lies in better recruitment efforts. Seeking to foster stronger community-based leadership, for him, means focusing on the community. “We need a strong marketing push in the urban core,” explains Betts. “We need to do more local hiring of young people in our neighborhoods where we’re having a shortage of lifeguards. That’s a must.”

Cincinnati also faces a training infrastructure issue. Due to the lack of an adequate indoor training facility, lifeguards can only receive training in the Spring and Summer months—keeping CRC and other recreation organizations from comprehensive recruitment for lifeguards during the Fall or Winter.

The situation isn’t completely dire—CRC, 3CDC, and the City of Cincinnati have formed a partnership aimed at building a state-of-the-art indoor pool aquatic facility. As of now, the project remains in “design mode,” according to Betts. The facility will likely not be up and running until 2024 or 2025. Until then, CRC hopes to partner with an aquatics academy in Youngstown as a part of their year-round training consortium.

For lifeguards and pool managers working in Cincinnati’s pools, one effect has been in the sense of community. Isabel Hosmann has worked within CRC for over five years, two as a lifeguard trainer. This summer’s staffing shortage has changed her work experience. “It’s been hard to create a family bond when we have a lack of lifeguards working at the pools,” she says. Accustomed to working at a busier pool, the influx of guests due to closures at other pools has not posed an extreme challenge for her, but Hosmann has noticed a greater strain on the new patrons. “It is hard, disconnecting people in the community from their pools. They have to find a way to come to a different location. That’s definitely something that I know has been challenging for quite a few people in the community.”

Image provided by CRC

Image provided by CRC

The situation here in Cincinnati largely parallels the struggles of many other American cities. Through the National Parks and Recreation Association, Betts stays in regular contact with colleagues experiencing similar issues. “They’re taking a page from our playbook, or we’re taking a page from their playbook, I’m not sure. But again, we all share information.”

This summer was Morris Gray’s first year as a CRC lifeguard. “It’s been a really good experience,” says Gray. “There’s a really nice environment. I’ve learned so much this summer, working with CRC, I’ve gained so many new skills.” For Gray, becoming a lifeguard was a childhood dream. The pool was a place to connect with the community, its lifeguards, mentors.

Hosmann echoes that sentiment. “I’ve kind of grown up in the pools, like from a very young age at a pool right down the street that was connected with CRC. So that was a big place for me to find a lot of role models.”

Lifeguarding places young adults in the center of their communities, as they build professional skills in what, for many, is a first job. Connecting with their neighbors of all ages is a large part of the experience. “That’s always been something I’ve wanted to do, just interact with the kids,” Gray says, “and get to really build my community and know everybody that lives here around the pool.”

For cities across the country, the effort going forward is similar: recruit local guards, at competitive wages, and do so throughout the year. “We need more guards. I cannot stress that enough,” Betts says, emphasizing the diverse crowd CRC is seeking to hire: young adults, adults, and seniors. For those interested, proactive hiring will continue throughout the year, to ensure enough guards for January training and pool duty in May 2023.

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