Every year, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department (PARD) has a target goal of recruiting some 750 lifeguards to fully staff its 36 lifeguarded sites. “Six-hundred-and-fifty to 750 [lifeguards] would allow us to ensure all facilities and amenities are available for use by the public while maintaining flexible work schedules for our staff,” says Program Manager, Wayne Simmons, CPRE. The YMCA of Austin also has several year-round facilities in addition to country clubs and other facilities for which lifeguards are needed.
Recruiting for lifeguard positions is challenging, particularly on the scale needed by PARD. The city targets individuals from 15 years of age to recent retirees, and, in an attempt to encourage people to sign on earlier to be lifeguards, began offering hiring incentives. “We have a partnership with the Austin Parks Foundation, and this is the second year that they’re offering $100 hiring incentives,” says Simmons. “This year, the first 400 lifeguards who are on payroll with the city of Austin by May 23 will get this incentive.”
Recruiting a diverse lifeguard workforce that is reflective of the surrounding community is doubly challenging. So, when a local school board member approached the city to see how to address this two-fold challenge, PARD, the YMCA of Austin and the Austin Independent School District got together and developed a pilot program they dubbed SwimATX. This innovative program offers a semester-long swim class for which students earn physical education credit. At the end of the semester, interested students receive scholarships for free lifeguard certification classes which, when successfully completed, lead to employment as lifeguards with the city and/or the YMCA.
SwimATX got started in January 2015 with a total of 88 students from Reagan Early College and LBJ Early College high schools who participated in 12 weeks of swim instruction at city of Austin or YMCA pools during school hours. PARD staff members, the pilot schools and the YMCA developed a curriculum that draws on the adult fitness swimmer material from the American Red Cross Learn to Swim program. Simmons explains: “This program takes students with limited swimming abilities and works on improving their strength and stamina in the water. Coaches focus on developing the front crawl and breast stroke, which students must utilize in order to complete the American Red Cross lifeguarding course at the end of each semester.
“One of the things we ran into the first fall semester was that there were some students who were still 14 years old at the end of the semester and couldn’t actually take the Red Cross lifeguarding course. So, we are exploring other options for them to receive a certification such as first aid or CPR certification, so they have something tangible when they leave.” The students apparently had such a good experience that many of the 14-year-olds re-enrolled the following semester so they could earn their lifeguard certification.
Each of the organizations is heavily invested in making the program as convenient as possible for the students to participate. SwimATX is offered free of charge, but most of the students don’t have the necessary swimwear or gear. The YMCA fundraises and solicits for items like goggles, swim suits and swim caps so the students don’t have to worry about investing in those items, and they are given a red suit to use as their uniform once they’re hired on by either agency.
As far as the actual instruction goes, the YMCA and PARD each provide two instructors per class and then PARD provides the instructors to teach the lifeguarding course at the end of the semester. The schools provide transportation to and from the training courses and adjust the students’ schedules for finals week to allow them to take their exams early so they can spend the full week doing lifeguard training during school hours. The schools have also allowed both agencies to visit students at school to conduct hiring activities such as applications and interviews. “We’ve had some really dedicated teachers from both schools who motivate the students, get them excited about coming to class and go out of their way to assist the students with navigating the hiring processes,” adds Simmons.
Every effort is made to keep the students together and moving forward during the course of the semester. This is sometimes difficult, however, because many of them are in college prep courses and are adding and dropping classes several weeks into the semester. Having a good ratio of instructors to students allows for some flexibility. Late-joining students can be grouped with other students of similar skill level, and, depending on how fast or slow they’re progressing, students can be moved from one group to another. In addition, to help the students quickly build strength and stamina, they have free pool access during the semester so they can get practice in outside of class time.
Recruiting qualified lifeguards is the ultimate goal of the SwimATX program with the measure of success being the number of students who complete the lifeguarding course and are hired on by either PARD or the YMCA. However, a secondary, but equally important goal is ensuring that the students learn how to swim or improve their ability to do so, gaining a lifelong skill that allows them to safely enjoy any aquatic environment. According to the CDC, between 1999 and 2010, “The drowning rates for African-American children were significantly higher than those for Caucasians and Hispanics at every age from five years through 18 years.” The neighborhoods from which Reagan and LBJ high schools draw are largely Latino and African-American and experience some of the highest number of drowning incidents in Texas.
From the first class of 88, about two or three students passed the course and got hired on as lifeguards for the summer of 2015. When those kids went back to school in the fall, they talked up the program to their friends and got other students excited about it. This word-of-mouth advertising, coupled with the tangible financial gains the students enjoyed, was a big help to SwimATX’s marketing efforts. “Last fall we had 67 students who participated at some point during the semester, and this semester, we have about 60 kids we’ve had contact with through these classes,” says Simmons. “Thirteen of the 67 students from fall completed the course and got certified and at least six have applied and been hired by [PARD].” This number could go higher once the department checks its number against the YMCA’s, as hiring is done between both organizations. “We promote that the kids can work for both agencies at the same time. That allows the students to receive the benefits each agency has to offer while helping each agency safely staff each of their aquatic facilities,” he adds.
SwimATX is only in its second year but is already proving to be a definite win-win for all parties involved. It not only creates a pipeline of qualified lifeguards for PARD and the YMCA, but also helps to increase the number of minority teens who, in addition to gaining employment skills, are gaining a lifelong skill that can help lower their drowning risk. The goal is to eventually expand the program throughout the Austin Independent School District which has a total of 17 high schools.
To learn more about SwimATX, contact Wayne Simmons.
Sonia Myrick is the Managing Editor of Parks & Recreation magazine.