Cities across Canada are struggling to find enough lifeguard staff to keep their pools and beaches open, as the national organization that certifies lifeguards urges employers to raise wages and cover training costs to further incentivize people to take the jobs.
Howie Dayton, Toronto’s director of community recreation, said the city needs an additional 250 lifeguards to fully staff its aquatic programs at pools and outdoor settings. One of its 10 beaches will be completely unstaffed this summer as a result of the shortage, and two will only be supervised on weekends, he added. The city announced Tuesday it would cancel 169 swimming classes this summer, affecting more than 1,100 students.
“The biggest challenge is that during COVID, for two years, we were not able to operate the courses, which are critical to getting young swimmers certified, trained and ready to take these positions,” Mr. Dayton said. Existing lifeguards were unable to get recertified.
“It’s not an overnight course ... it’s going to take time to rebuild that workforce,” Mr. Dayton said.
The City of Calgary said in a statement that it is offering less than half the number of swim classes it would in a normal year, and is reducing swimming facility hours as it struggles with a high attrition rate among lifeguards and other staff members. The statement said the city has only 65 per cent of the staff it would normally need to run its aquatic program.
And the City of Vancouver’s parks department said in a statement that it has only 60 per cent of the lifeguards it would normally employ for the summer season.
Barbara Byers, president of the Lifesaving Society, which trains and accredits lifeguards across Canada, said three years of the pandemic have created a logjam in the training system, and that there is a shortage not only of new lifeguards, but also of the instructors who teach lifeguards.
Ms. Byers said another problem for lifeguarding is that the jobs aren’t as popular among young people as they once were. Wages for the positions have stagnated, and summer workers can often find comparable pay at jobs that don’t require training, given the labour shortages many businesses are now facing.
The labour participation rate among teenagers is slowly recovering after it dropped to just 43.9 per cent in 2020, and some jobs that formerly paid minimum wage are now offering better compensation to attract workers.
“The challenge is that pay for a lifeguard is not that different from minimum wage,” Ms. Byers said. She noted that the average pay for a lifeguard, which is around $20 to $25 per hour, doesn’t reflect the high level of training and responsibility they take on.
“We would certainly support municipalities recognizing the skills and training that a person has to have to be a lifeguard, and putting a financial value on that,” she said.
Lifeguards have to complete 100 hours of training, which can cost roughly $1,000. Further training is required to be a swim instructor.
Ms. Byers said she would also encourage employers to remove the financial barrier to becoming a lifeguard by covering some or all of the cost of training.
The City of Vancouver said it is in the final stages of introducing a pilot project that would do that.
But Vancouver said it is not considering increasing wages, since it already pays $34 an hour for lifeguards and $28 an hour for lifeguard instructors.
In Toronto, Mr. Dayton said the city is in discussions with the union that represents lifeguards over ways attracting more staff.
In the meantime, the city is trying to compensate for the shortage by having existing staff take on more shifts. The next schedule for swim classes begins in August, and Mr. Dayton said he is hopeful Toronto can fill its lifeguard roster by then and avoid further cancellations.
“We feel we’re in a much better position in August, because it’ll allow us time to certify additional instructors and work with some of our existing instructors to see if they’re willing to take on additional classes,” he said.
Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.