WICHITA — During a normal year, Brian Hill doesn’t have much trouble hiring enough lifeguards to staff Wichita’s six public swimming pools.
Not in this pandemic year.
“Usually I’m about 80% staffed by February,” said Hill, Wichita’s aquatics director. “This year, I was about 10% staffed.”
Lifeguarding took a hit last summer, when the COVID-19 pandemic closed most gyms, water parks and community pools. High school and college students who would normally work as guards took the summer off or found other jobs. Training classes were cancelled. So were junior lifeguard programs for 11- to 14-year-olds.
“That’s our pipeline,” Hill said. “In a lot of ways, we were kind of starting this summer from scratch.”
Wichita is not alone.
Roeland Park in Johnson County recently spent $1.6 million to renovate its community aquatic center, adding new slides, a climbing wall, shade structures and splash pads. The grand opening was Memorial Day weekend.
But the pool will open for limited hours — only Tuesdays, Thursdays and weekends — because there aren’t enough guards to staff it.
Roeland Park boosted lifeguard pay to $12 an hour, up from $10 an hour. Other cities offer signing bonuses and other perks or recruit younger teens.
Prairie Village cut back its pool hours this summer because of the shortage. So will the city of Shawnee in Johnson County.
Shawnee County last month initially didn’t have sufficient lifeguards, but some new hires left it with “just enough” to staff its seven aquatics facilities at their full complement of hours, Shawnee County Parks and Recreation said in a civic alert posted Friday.
The American Lifeguard Association says lifeguard shortages are common across the country. The traditional summer job is more nostalgia than reality because teens and young adults increasingly look for year-round work.
COVID-related travel restrictions have limited the number of seasonal college and foreign exchange students. And overall interest in lifeguarding is declining.
Pools depend on guards returning year after year, and on younger swimmers envisioning themselves on the lifeguard stand.
“So much of it is kids growing up going to the pool every day,” said Joe Hutchinson, a high school swim coach who manages a private pool in east Wichita. “They see their older friends who are lifeguards, and they say, ‘I want to do that next summer,’ and then they start getting ready for that job and getting certified.
“Since there wasn’t the opportunity to see your friends be lifeguards last summer,” he said, “that new wave of lifeguards that normally fills in those empty spots just isn’t there.”
It’s also hot-weather work that toggles between boredom and stress — part babysitting, part lifesaving. And it’s not for everybody.
“It can be very difficult to deal with people. That’s the hardest part,” said 18-year-old Jacob Steffen, who has worked at