At my very first journalism class, the professor put it in plain terms: Anyone who wanted to make money was in the wrong major. As a newspaper journalist, I could expect to make substandard wages, work long hours and be generally vilified for what I did.
He was right. My first job out of college, I made a whopping $12,000 a year — before taxes. I was accused of muckraking, sensationalizing and ruining people’s lives. But I kept at it because I loved what I did. Every now and then, I’d get a call that made me realize I was making a difference. “Thank you,” these people would say. “Thank you for telling me what I need to know.” I thought it was enough.
It wasn’t. Eventually, I left newspapers, partially because I realized I‘d never be paid what I was worth.
In many ways, aquatics is a similar profession. It is filled with passionate people who love what they do — and, for the most part, get paid very little for it. Many of them started from the ranks of the lifeguards and worked their way up. They started out making peanuts, and have no problem starting their own guards at those wages. It’s a vicious cycle.
And it needs to end.
If aquatics is going to continue growing in a healthy manner, if aquatics directors are ever going to find and keep qualified guards and other staffers, we must start paying people what they’re worth. We must make the nonaquatics higher-ups understand why this is necessary.
A good first step is Aquatics International’s comprehensive salary survey in this issue. Hundreds of aquatics professionals across the nation were polled to find out their pay, benefits and other key wage data and demographics.
It’s the kind of ammunition operators can use to show their bosses why they should pay lifeguards better. For instance, one of our Facility Snapshots reports that the retail attendants actually start out at higher pay than lifeguards. Just to put that into perspective, it means the person ringing up an order of fries gets paid more than someone who might have to save a life. Something is not right.
By contrast there’s the Santa Monica Swim Center. Its pool lifeguards start — start! — at $18.20 an hour. You can bet that facility has no trouble when it’s time to hire more guards. The rest of you aren’t so lucky. More than 70 percent of survey respondents say they’ve experienced a staff shortage in the past five years.
Of course, not every facility can offer the generous salaries that Santa Monica does. But certainly, every facility and every operator can work toward raising lifeguard salaries, not to mention their own. After all, retail attendants don’t have to be certified. Lifeguards do. It’s time they start getting paid for being the responsible professionals they are. It’s time for all aquatics professionals to start making that clear.
I hope the salary survey is the first step toward making that happen. Still, I know it’s not perfect. I’ve already heard from some of you that our minimums started out too high. Many facilities pay even less than what we thought was the rock bottom. I’d like to hear more feedback so we can improve the survey for next year and continue to give you the information you need to raise your salaries.
Just because you love your job, doesn’t mean it has to be a labor of love.