Goals and challenges
In 2013 and 2014, The Woodlands Township faced the same problem many aquatic facilities still must confront — staffing shortages ⁋ What started as an occasional shortfall for its 14 facilities cascaded into a significant problem.
For staffing, the Woodlands team called similar city organizations and businesses where teens might work to see if pay was in line. Once confident that they offered competitive rates, they began to focus on recruitment.
But the team had limited options to get the word out. The Township’s Facebook page mostly reaches parents, and roadside signs are illegal. The team decided to go where the kids were: local schools. That approach has been wildly successful: Since 2015, lifeguard applications jumped 25%, and the township was able to cancel its last round of June training classes because it had all the staff it needed.
How they did it
One of the biggest drivers for lifeguard recruitment turned out to be The Woodlands’ holiday party, which was heavily publicized in local schools and timed for optimal attendance. Set on the last day of the high school semester, it got former lifeguards back in the door, but also encouraged prospective guards to fill out the application. Along with free food, the team gave away uniforms, training classes and a “pick your pool” option to lucky winners.
“It became a legitimate social event,” says Karl Shaw, the Township’s aquatic superintendent. “Lifeguards (and some WSIs) showed up for the high schools, as well as the kids who had been away for their first semester of college, and they got to catch up with each other …”
The township further greases the skids by making it easy to become a lifeguard. Training costs and supplies are heavily subsidized, especially early in the program. For example, an early-season review might cost only $15 to $25, while a subsequent spring review might cost $75. By paying at least a nominal fee, lifeguards become more invested, Shaw says, so they're less likely to fail or go AWOL.
Once they have guards in the door, The Woodlands keeps the fun going with Splash Day, a 4th of July theme party in which each pool gets a small sum to develop a theme and games for kids. “Lifeguards have to maintain normal uniform, rotations and scanning when on surveillance duty,” Shaw says. “But whenever not on the guard stand, they can be as crazy and have as much fun as a family atmosphere allows.”
The Township uses a variety of other events and awards to keep guards motivated all season. Pony beads of various colors are awarded for accomplishments such as well-executed rescues and completion of training. A pool leadership outing in June gets guards bowling or shooting each other in a laser tag game. In-house lifeguard competitions keep the teams sharp. And a banquet in August honors the lifeguard of the year for each pool.
Additionally, the team hands out lifeguard skills competition awards, spirit awards, pool of the year awards, raffle prizes and end-of-season bonuses that include 75 cents an hour beginning August 1 and $2 an hour beginning Sept. 1. It’s all part of a continuing recruitment campaign. “We depend very highly on word of mouth and our reputation for taking care of the staff,” Shaw says.