The last time John McGowan remembers his lifeguards getting a raise was perhaps two or three years ago.

“I think with the economy the way it’s been, they’ve kind of been on lock-down,” says the aquatics superintendent at The Woodlands Township, Texas.

Due to the recent recession, McGowan’s 300 person-plus guard staff is not alone. The same situation is true in many communities nationwide.

“The economy has affected aquatics as it has so many others out there,” says Roy Fielding, senior lecturer/ coordinator, exercise science program, Department of Kinesiology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte. “It’s like we’ve hit a pause button.”

According to our annual survey of Aquatics International readers, 65 percent of 471 respondents have been affected by the economic downturn.

As a result, the past three years have left operators treading stagnant waters when it comes to salaries. What’s more, our analysis shows that while the survey did reflect some good news, it appears the waiting game will continue in 2011.

Statistical significance

How do the numbers shake out?  Only 20 percent of respondents say that compared with 2010, they expect hourly salaries of lifeguards to increase. Two percent expect hourly salaries to decrease, while the majority, think hourly salaries of lifeguards will remain the same for fiscal year 2011. That’s up nearly 25 percent from 2009.

Lifeguards aren’t the only ones who are seeing frozen salaries. In 2009, 70 percent of survey respondents who identified their roles as facility management said they had received salary increases in 2008. In 2010, only 37 percent reported receiving raises, and 60 percent expect their salary will remain the same in 2011. While 36 percent are expecting a raise, 3 percent are prepared to see their salary decrease.

“It’s a double-edged sword. You can’t afford to give raises, but you can’t afford not to give raises,” says Kathy Fisher, aquatics director, West Morris (N.J.) Area YMCA. “We have some longtime people we don’t want to be without, so we have to take care of them. If we have staffers who keep our members happy, then that pays the bills and keeps our doors open.”

Staff by the numbers

Salaries aren’t really budging, and it appears neither is the number of employees. Survey results show that generally, most operators hire more than 25 lifeguards (full- and part-time), and the majority of pool operators do expect to hire the same number of staff members in 2011, compared with 2010. Almost 80 percent of respondents believe the number of new hires will remain the same, while 7 percent expect it to drop from last year’s levels. That’s down 4 percent from 2010.

“If they’re hiring the same number of staffers, it could mean they’re covering well, just maybe less hours,” says aquatics expert Tom Griffiths, founder of Aquatic Safety Research Group in State College, Pa.

So how much are first-year lifeguards making? The majority bring in less than $8.99 an hour. According to our survey, 30 percent are making between $7 and $7.99. Almost 40 percent of respondents say the average hourly starting salary for a first-year lifeguard is between $8 and $8.99, and that hasn’t changed at all in the last two years. Only 15 percent make more than $10 an hour.

When it comes to management, the majority (more than 80 percent) work full-time. Hourly salary for 27 percent of managers is $21 to $25.99, but nearly 40 percent make more than that. When asked the same question one year earlier, results were almost identical.

On the job

The good news is, certifications and training still seem to be a priority. Practically 100 percent of respondents require some in service training. Most — 42 percent — schedule it monthly.

American Red Cross certification is the most widely required (84 percent), and between 80- and 90 percent of respondents require CPR, AED and first aid certification. Only 35 percent require O2 certification. In addition, more than 90 percent have a certified pool operator on site, either full- or part-time.

“I think there’s a growing trend in doing more in-service training, and this is a positive,” Griffiths says. “People are realizing, from a risk management standpoint, they’re really going to be held liable. We’ve been beating that drum for 15 or 20 years now, and I think it’s finally catching on.”

Still, it appears that operators who can maintain the status quo are becoming something of the new gold standard, at least for now.

“I think schools and municipalities are just trying to maintain what they have,” Griffiths says.