City of Phoenix Parks and Recreation

The hiring of lifeguards from underrepresented communities has become a goal in the aquatics industry. There is a pragmatic side to this ideal, which came to our attention in the City of Phoenix about 10 years ago, prompting us to embark on an ambitious community-outreach campaign.

This broad-sweeping initiative has changed the longevity and makeup of our city’s aquatics team for the better.

The challenge

Like everyone across the nation, we were having an increasingly difficult time finding lifeguards. This was particularly true in specific communities. Of the 29 City of Phoenix pools, 18 are in the western and southern parts of the city. Very few of our lifeguard candidates came from those areas, which were mostly lower-income.

The majority of our lifeguards came from the north Phoenix area. This occurred because we recruited heavily from high-school swim teams, which are absent from many parts of the city.

During this time, we were able to staff every pool. However, the return rate was low in west and south Phoenix. When we hired new lifeguards, we placed them at specific pools based on available openings, so many of them had to drive across the city to work. The next summer, they would frequently request a transfer closer to home. That was understandable: Driving 40 minutes to work is a huge issue for teenagers and their parents. But this made it difficult to build a long-term team. We struggled to create the sense of community that comes when residents know their swim instructors and lifeguards from the previous year. It is also important to build continuity of a veteran returning staff.

We decided to implement a community outreach campaign to recruit lifeguards from those neighborhoods to work at their local pools.

The obstacles

Our Managers Advisory Committee, consisting of six pool managers, explored the dynamics preventing potential candidates from taking an interest in lifeguarding. We found four main obstacles:

1. Cost. At the time, a lifeguard certification class cost $125. Many could not afford that.

2. Travel. We taught the majority of our certification classes in the winter and spring. The five heated pools are located on the outskirts of the city. We identified that, since none of the pools in south and west Phoenix were heated, many candidates from these communities had to travel immense distances.

3. Swimming ability. We consistently found high school students in these communities who were very interested in a lifeguard job. However, they didn’t feel their swimming ability was advanced enough to be a lifeguard. There was a misconception, which still exists today, that only competitive swimmers are qualified to lifeguard. This is false. Several students only needed some development, especially since many of these areas didn’t have swimming programs in their high schools. We focused on improving their abilities so they could be successful in a lifeguard class.

4. Time. While many of these students were involved in high school sports, our lifeguard classes were scheduled on weekdays during practice and game times. We needed to offer classes when these students were available.

The strategy

To remove these obstacles, we started with the issue of cost. We garnered sponsorships from outside organizations, primarily the Community Economic Development Department (CED) in the City of Phoenix, which helps underserved youth to get jobs. To access funding from CED, we had to meet several criteria, which included tracking the recipient’s ethnicity, high school and home address. Thanks to this partnership and backing, we could provide scholarships for $105 to help with the cost of certification class.

We visited high schools and worked with their career centers to find potential candidates who wanted to be lifeguards. Once a candidate showed an interest and agreed to attend the training, they would receive a scholarship through CED to take the class. These opportunities were available to anybody from the targeted neighborhoods.

To address the travel distances, we partnered with community center staff to provide transportation. These staff members would transport the students to and from the lifeguard classes.

To address the time issue, we began holding certification classes during the weekends to reduce conflicts with students’ schedules.

Finally, we focused on helping these students improve their swimming abilities. To qualify, they already had to know how to swim and feel comfortable in the water, but we wanted to make them really strong swimmers. We added six hours of instruction to the lifeguard certification class.

This part of the plan meant our lifeguard instructors needed to adjust their teaching methods by adding more stroke development at the start of the certification class. Our new mindset was to help these students be successful. Previously, the instructor would complete a swim assessment on the first day, and the student either passed or failed. Even if they came close, they couldn’t participate in the class if they could not complete the prerequisites the first day. Now, we invest time to make sure they were able to meet all prerequisites before the lifeguard skills are taught.

The lifeguard instructors embraced the new method. In fact, the candidates’ efforts made a great impression: These students became the most sought-out candidates during hiring!

The surprise lesson

Early on we discovered that registering these students in a traditional lifeguard class was an obstacle. Many of them were intimidated by the competitive swimmers and dropped out after the first day of class. We underestimated their perception that only competitive swimmers qualified. They didn’t understand that candidates don’t need to butterfly or do flip-turns to lifeguard. It is more important to have the ability to pay attention, focus and keep people safe. Good lifeguards prevent incidents, and competitive swimming doesn’t necessarily correlate with preventive lifeguarding.

To remove the intimidation factor, we held the outreach classes separately. This was a huge success. One of our outreach students took an interest in learning the butterfly stroke once he was hired as a lifeguard. The assistant pool manager worked with him and he went on to qualify for the high school state championship in butterfly. There are so many tremendous athletes in these communities – they just need a little time and instruction to become strong swimmers.

The results

We intensely focused on our community outreach program for five years. It proved successful, and we were able to meet our goal for obtaining lifeguards from underserved communities. Our turnover rate reduced tremendously. In many of these neighborhoods we attract new lifeguard candidates with little to no effort, as siblings, cousins and friends of our lifeguards seek to work at their community pools.

As an important benefit, our lifeguard team began to more closely reflect the communities they serve. In 2011, 17% of our lifeguards belonged to minority groups. In one year, the percentage increased to 39%. Ten years later, the majority of our pools reflect the diversity of their communities.

Due to the pandemic, the City of Phoenix pools remained closed for the 2020 summer season. Like so many aquatics programs in the U.S., we foresee that hiring enough lifeguards for 2021 will be an obstacle. To help, we plan to re-establish this program. Currently we are building new partnerships, reaching out to various foundations for funding, and finding youth interested in becoming lifeguards. It’s one thing to get the funding, but it’s another to find the lifeguard candidates.

We are really proud of the success the City of Phoenix found with this outreach program. As we look back, it wasn’t as difficult as you might imagine: It just took effort, focus and determination. Once you get it rolling, it will just take off.