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 Aquatic Management.

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, Osinski says.

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 free classes?

“I think a lot of patrons would feel a lot safer with a grandparent watching the pool than a 15-year-old,” Griffiths says.

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 volunteers.

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 organization].”

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 guidelines.

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 says.

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 operation afloat.