Hiring and training staff members is a key responsibility for nearly three-quarters of those who responded to a December 2011 online Aquatics International survey of 405 readers. And, for most organizations, staffing makes up one of the largest expenses. Some experts estimate that wages may be as much as half the total budget at a typical facility.
That may have worked under an old paradigm, by which aquatics
facilities operated at a loss, and that was OK. But since the
recession, that has changed. Today, too many pools running in the
red are being closed, and operators who want to ensure the future
of their facilities must find ways to staff affordably.
That’s especially true in municipal settings. “You
can’t continue to just do it the way it was,” says
Alison Osinski, Ph.D., owner of Aquatic Consulting
Services, an Avalon, Calif.-based aquatics facility design/risk
management company. “The taxpayers aren’t just going to
keep paying anymore.”
In a retail, manufacturing or business setting, the solution might
come down to simply eliminating staff positions, but in aquatics,
no one can afford to reduce their level of safety, professionalism
and customer service. So what gives?
“Every operator owes it to [himself] to look at reducing
inefficiencies and implementing cost-cutting measures,” says
Jim Wheeler, recreation services manager for the San Francisco Recreation
and Parks Department, and owner of Total
Below are several strategies that may help lower the cost of
staffing your facility — without sacrificing safety.
Eliminate overstaffing. If you’ve got more
lifeguards at the pool at any given moment than guests, it’s
time to make some adjustments. That sounds like a no-brainer, but
it’s not altogether uncommon, say the experts. And when city
officials or board members see staff members not fully engaged in
work, it sends up a red flag that maybe it’s time to make
cuts, notes Lee Yarger, coordinator of aquatic degree programs at
Ball State University, Muncie, Ind.
To ensure that you have the most efficient scheduling possible, he
suggests taking a thorough look at procedures. Start with your open
and close process. Conduct a time/task analysis by noting how long
it takes to complete each task every day for several weeks. You can
then use the data to be sure that you don’t have more staff
members on duty than necessary.
If you find that you have periods in the day where one section of
the facility is underutilized, consider closing it off. By reducing
the number of amenities or open lanes, you can reduce staffing
costs. An alternative — shutting down entirely for a few
hours or days — is not ideal because no revenue is coming in
while there are still expenses for chemicals and pool maintenance,
Hire creatively. Many operators have found success
by looking beyond traditional staffing. Local high schools,
colleges and universities are a given, but they may provide some
unique opportunities as well, says Tom Griffiths, founder of the
Aquatic Safety Research Group in State College, Pa. Students may be able to
fill staffing needs, either as interns or volunteers. Young people
not trained as lifeguards could potentially work concessions,
perform some clerical tasks or serve as deck hands, responsible for
duties such as picking up stray trash and safety checks.
Recruiting some of your regulars is another strategy to consider,
Griffiths adds. Do you have a group of active, fit seniors who
might be interested in lifeguarding in exchange for membership or
“I think a lot of patrons would feel a lot safer with a
grandparent watching the pool than a 15-year-old,” Griffiths
The city of Chula Vista, Calif., has tapped into another strategy,
says Manuel Gonzalez, aquatic supervisor III. The city has reduced
staffing expenses by working with nonprofit agencies. Through one
program, a group of at-risk teens was recruited to help answer
questions and promote programming. The teens were paid through the
nonprofit and worked for Chula Vista, essentially as
Under another program, San Diego Work Force, Gonzalez received
funding to run a lifeguard training class for qualified individuals
seeking work. The class included 10 individuals who became employed
guards for Chula Vista.
“It tapped into a new market, he adds. “We knew
everybody who was going through our lifeguarding class was going to
work for us [rather than taking training, then moving to another
Independent contractors are another option that Gonzalez has
implemented to save on staffing. “It’s been fairly
prevalent with land programs, but less so when it comes to
aquatics,” he says. Contractors may be ideal for specialized
programs, such as an aqua yoga class. If you’re considering
this option, be sure to understand Internal Revenue Service
Look within. Organizational change is never easy, but when
it comes to making the hard choices that many agencies have faced,
it may be a necessity.
Wheeler’s agency has seen significant cuts. To maintain the
same level of service, some previously full-time positions will be
split into part-time jobs when they next become vacant.
Chula Vista has taken another approach. Some part-time positions
there have been eliminated, and full-time staffers have taken over
the responsibilities, Gonzalez says.
Also consider cross-training staffers for multiple duties, suggests
Sue Nelson, aquatic program specialist at USA Swimming in
Colorado Springs, Colo. Candidates might include guards who want a
possible career in aquatics, swim instructors who want to learn
more about aquatic fitness, and swim coaches.
“Most swim coaches have to have multiple jobs: a primary job,
then coaching (which is usually like a supplemental job and what
the person really loves most, but it just does not always pay
much). So this population is a great resource to develop the
perfect ‘aquatic fitness center,’” Nelson
By adopting or modifying these strategies, reducing staffing costs
can be a reality. But remember that staffing is more than wages.
Don’t overlook training costs, the expenses of marketing
employment opportunities, insurance, uniforms, certifications,
benefits for full-time staff and continuing-education costs
(attending professional development, conferences and other such
training). Changes such as making materials available online could
add up to savings that will go a long way toward keeping your