Thursday, June 08, 2000

Lifeguard jobs go begging

By Reid Forgrave
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Jenny Kreimer has a cushy summer job. All day, the sun bathes her and perfects her tan. If she is too hot, she jumps in the water. And every once in a while, she blows her whistle. Wouldn't anyone want that job? Apparently not.

        Throughout the Tristate, pool operators say the supply of lifeguards is drying up faster than a puddle on a pool deck. Some pools might restrict hours if more life guards aren't found, and those who have been hired often must work more hours than they lanned.

        At some swimming venues, there will be no lifeguards at all.

  • The Cincinnati Recreation Commission's next American Red Cross lifeguard training session will begin June 16. It is free to lifeguards seeking employment with the CRC. Call 357-POOL for more information. • Lifeguards interested in working for a YMCA of Greater Cincinnati pool can phone Jackie Matthews at 651-2100.
        Miss Kreimer often works the open hours of the Fairview pool, Monday through Saturday from noon to 5, without a minute's break. The two other lifeguards on staff give her the absolute minimum needed to operate the pool.

        “This is definitely the worst the lifeguard shortage has been,” said Miss Krei mer, 22 and a lifeguard for seven years. “I could really use another lifeguard like I had last year. By the end of the day, being in the sun and in the water really wears on you.”

        But Miss Kreimer and other pool managers shouldn't float their hopes too high. Despite stepped-up recruiting and pay raises, local pools have struggled to attract teen-agers to devote their summer to a demanding job that often pays less than McDonald's.

        “Let's just say the labor pool is very shallow,” said Julie Isphording, a spokeswoman for the Cincinnati Recreation Commission (CRC), which operates the Fairview pool and 45 others in the city. The CRC has 38 openings for its more than 320 lifeguard positions.

        “Have you driven by any fast-food restaurants or retail stores lately that don't have a sign saying "Help Wanted'? It's tough to compete with them,” Ms. Isphording said.

        Other cities have experienced similar shortages. In Detroit, the parks department has raised salaries to $10 an hour to combat a shortage that threatens to close pools and beaches.

        The CRC starts lifeguards at $7.50 an hour, better than many local pools, and gives free certification programs that would normally cost about $140. CRC head lifeguards are paid a maximum of $9.50 an hour. Most YMCAs don't foot the bill for certification, and YMCA lifeguards are paid $6 to $8 an hour.

        “It's a job that takes a lot of responsibility,” said Blue Ash YMCA aquatics director Jill Toennis, who needs five to 10 more lifeguards to fill her staff of 60. “But most kids would rather take a better-paying job with less responsibility.”

        There are more than 250 pools in the Tristate, plus three labor-gulping water parks and Coney Island's Sunlite Pool.

        Even some private clubs have felt the crunch. Chris Konerman, manager of the Bluegrass Swim Club in Fort Wright, said it took until mid-May to fill the 11 guard positions at his pool this year. In years past, he usually had filled the positions by March.

        Ten years ago, lifeguards were in much less demand, said Mike Leonard, senior program director at Powel Crosley YMCA in Springfield Township. Water parks began the erosion of available lifeguards. WaterWorks at Paramount's Kings Island, Surf Cincinnati, The Beach Water Park and Coney Island employ hundreds of lifeguards, with WaterWorks alone having more than 200.

        But it's not just other water-related businesses that vie for potential lifeguards. Mr. Leonard said pools just can't swim alongside the higher pay from fast-food restaurants and retail establishments. Mr. Leonard has raised his 40-some lifeguards' salaries from minimum wage to more than $6 an hour to close the gap.

        “There is an old adage that someone will take less money to work outside,” Mr. Leonard said. “That's not so true anymore.”

        So not true, in fact, that some state parks have decided not to have lifeguards at all. At East Fork State Park in Clermont County, its 2,160-acre lake was changed to a no-lifeguard lake three years ago.

        “We just can't find any lifeguards,” said John Brooks, assistant park manager.

        The three local water parks, however, say they do not share the troubles of pools. Nearly all of the more than 500 lifeguard positions at WaterWorks, Surf Cincinnati and The Beach Waterpark are filled. Water-park spokesmen attributed that to their high visibility and reputation as a fun place to work.

        Not all lifeguard candidates are flocking to easier jobs that may offer less pay. “I don't think I could stand flipping burgers, especially after having a lifeguard job,” said LaDon Coggins, 17, a second-year CRC lifeguard. “Plus, it's a great job on resumes.”

        Despite the lifeguard shortage, Miss Kreimer of Fairview City Pool loves her job. “You make do with what you got,” she says. “I'll be outside, so I'm happy.”


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