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Canadian towns and cities try creative ways to recruit lifeguards amid shortage

Pool and beach staffing can be somewhat challenging at the best of times

Staff running pools across Canada are trying to entice people to work as lifeguards amid a shortage, the Lifesaving Society says.

Pool and beach staffing can be somewhat challenging at the best of times, since the job often appeals to high school students between 16 to 18 who then leave to go away for post-secondary education, said Stephanie Bakalar, spokesperson for the Lifesaving Society Ontario.

But COVID-19 made things worse.

“You have those couple of years where hardly anyone got certified because the pools (were) open a little bit here and there, but not consistently enough to be able to really plan and run all these (training) programs,” Bakalar said.

“It’s not like we could just put everyone on Zoom and say, ‘Oh, you could be a lifeguard,’” she said.

“You need to be physically in the water.”

On Friday, the Ontario government lowered the minimum age requirement for lifeguards from 16 to 15 years old in a move aimed at addressing the staffing shortage.

Municipal governments and recreation centres have been getting “creative” to attract more people to the job while still ensuring they meet the rigorous training required by the Lifesaving Society, Bakalar said.

Christine Pelletier, director of aquatics, fitness and health at Dovercourt Recreation Centre in Ottawa, said they had already hired 15-year-olds who had completed their certification and gave them jobs as assistant instructors until they turned 16.

Another strategy is to train and hire older swimmers, Pelletier said.

Sometimes they’re people who are now retired and used to lifeguard when they were younger, she said.

“Or (they’re) people who are master swimmers who already have the swimming ability and maybe are looking to try something new, a new challenge to become a lifeguard for the first time in their lives.”

Older adults who had been certified lifeguards in the past would just need to be re-certified, Pelletier said. Others who have the swimming ability could take the required lifeguard training on their own before they’re examined so they wouldn’t have to take classes with “a bunch of 13-year-olds,” she said.

There have been certified lifeguards in Canada who are around 80 years old, Bakalar said.

“There’s a minimum age, but there’s no maximum age,” she said.

“As long as you can meet all of those criteria and you’re physically able and you have the right judgment and skill, you can lifeguard and every two years you’re going to re-certify and re-demonstrate those skills.”

Completing all the training to become a lifeguard can cost more than $1,000, so offering free training can be an important recruitment strategy, said Lenea Grace, executive director of the Lifesaving Society of BC and Yukon.

The Lifesaving Society provides lifeguards at BC Hydro-owned Buntzen Lake and Hayward Lake, she said, so the society covers the cost of their waterfront lifeguarding course, she said.

Municipalities such as New Westminster, B.C., recently offered paid training or scholarships “to help people attain the certifications they need,” Grace said.

Such programs can help lower-income people who want to be lifeguards but “may have had cost as a barrier,” she said.

Not all Canadian municipalities are facing a lifeguard shortage.

In an emailed statement to The Canadian Press on Friday, the city of Toronto said it has recruited “approximately 2,400 certified aquatic staff to supervise leisure and instructional programs at indoor and outdoor pools and waterfront beach operations.”

“While City of Toronto programs have an appropriate complement of lifeguards ready for this summer — thanks to all of the proactive work that has gone on in the background for the past two years to address the shortages created by the pandemic — recruitment for all recreation staff, including lifeguards, remains ongoing,” the statement said.

Nicole Ireland, The Canadian Press

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