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Navigating Staffing Challenges

Where have all the workers gone? When you drive through town or visit the store, it sure seems like there are still the same amount of people around. And yet, many businesses are dealing with serious staffing challenges, whether it be seasonal, part-time or full-time help. Of course, the lion's share of these employee shortages have taken place since the pandemic hit, in what many have referred to as The Great Resignation. A U.S. Chamber of Commerce article published this past spring reported that in 2021, more than 47 million workers quit their jobs, many of whom were "in search of an improved work-life balance and flexibility, increased compensation and a strong company culture."


The recreation, sports and fitness sectors are certainly experiencing their own staffing challenges. IAAPA is the global association for the attractions industry, and Michael Shelton is vice president and executive director at IAAPA North America. He explained that while they saw staffing concerns become a larger issue during the pandemic, they actually saw the beginning of those concerns in 2019. "As we all know, employees around the world discovered that priorities shifted, and some have chosen to find work in other fields. Others, however, weren't able to go back to regular work for a variety of reasons, including possible health concerns, lack of childcare options and more."

Shelton said their members are experiencing a combination of staffing concerns. "Our seasonal staffing struggles not only stemmed from regular would-be employees choosing not to go back to work at places like attractions and destinations, but also ongoing issues with federal work visas." He described how IAAPA actively works to mitigate ongoing workforce concerns, including advocating for expanding the J-1 Summer Work Travel Program (SWT) and H-2B visas. J-1 provides foreign students with an opportunity to live and work in the U.S. during their summer vacation from college. "Currently, the SWT program is capped at 109,000 participants, but we've advocated to expand that. Even with the lingering impacts of COVID on the program, participation rates are up 65% when compared to 2020."

Since the beginning of the pandemic, IAAPA increased their virtual education programs to ensure that they were still supporting and reaching members, according to Shelton. "We focused on a combination of professional development options, but also offered courses in employee retention and HR matters." He shared some examples of webinar titles including "How to Increase Output for Increased Wages"; "Key Strategies for Opening a Facility That Thrives"; and "Waterparks: How to Hire and Keep Your Lifeguards This Season." "Later this year, we'll offer education sessions on talent acquisition during today's hiring struggles and one called 'The How you Doin' Panel: Taking Care of Ourselves, Our Teams, and Overcoming Staffing Challenges.'"


Earlier this year, IAAPA oversaw a gathering titled "Staffing Hot Topics," led by amusement park executives. One operator spoke about a program their park initiated called "10-Day Work and Play," aimed at finding people to work at the park during the 10 most difficult days of the year, targeting those available on weekdays, like the elderly. In addition to normal wages, they were offered four season passes. Last year the program was a success, even attracting a retired surgeon who'd always dreamed of working at an amusement park. Some other strategies park managers shared included targeting parents and convincing them to get their kids to apply; leaving business cards with contact information at restaurants or businesses if someone had provided exceptional service; getting current employees to help recruit new workers by offering them cash bonuses for referrals; giving out awards to employees at season's end to entice them to return; and offering training at off hours when more potential employees could attend.

Parks & Rec

Municipalities and parks departments certainly haven't been immune to staffing challenges, often resulting in reduction of hours or services. Amanda Hutcheson is the director of Parks and Recreation in Broadview Heights, Ohio, and she said that while the struggles continue, it has improved over a year ago. "We did a big push on social media to get people in for interviews."

And while they've had to reduce hours in their natatorium, they have found some successful ways to entice young people to become-or stay-lifeguards. "Shorter shifts for the teenage guards and the ability to be home by 8:30 on school days has helped retain more guards and keep parents happy. We also let the guards have a voice in what makes them happy and keeps them there. Choosing the lifeguard attire and food at in-service was a big request. Plus we've offered the lifeguard course and Water Safety Instructor course for free and pay for their vests if they pass."

Any other ways to attract and retain park employees? "Wages, wages, wages," said Hutcheson. "In the fall of 2021 we were given the go-ahead to increase the pay for guards and water safety instructors, as well as custodial and resident service attendants. The mayor, city council and HR fully supported the raise in pay rates to get quality staff and have rates that are matching or above surrounding communities. We also now offer any part-time staff member that has worked for us for six months and a minimum of 16 hours a week four paid holidays, PTO time and a free rec membership."




In Morris Township, N.J., Director of Parks and Recreation Bill Foelsch reported that they're down 20% on the number of lifeguards employed compared to a non-COVID year and are "additionally challenged in staffing by seasonal workers who only want limited hours or no schedules at all."


To attract workers, Foelsch said they've advertised extensively, including with social media, lawn signs, electronic message centers and direct outreach to local schools and universities. "We held our own in-house lifeguard training and certification course for the first time and we provide subsidies to those employees who train and work a minimum number of hours during the (swimming) season."


Foelsch is also president of the American Academy for Park & Recreation Administration (AAPRA), and he said that in addition to lifeguard shortages, they're also hearing that numerous entry-level maintenance and operations job positions are going unfilled due to better pay available in other sectors.


Carrie Fullerton, director at AAPRA and executive director at the Arlington Heights, Ill., Park District, reported that some colleagues have had to shutter facilities for the unforeseen future due to lack of available human resources. "Every community's situation is different, and everyone is doing the best they can."


Foelsch explained that AAPRA's mission is to support research, professional development and use of management best practices for the parks and rec field. "The academy convenes membership task forces, committees and educational programs that focus on all aspects of parks and recreation administration. We operate as a peer network with current issues at the center of our discussion. Recruitment and training of qualified staff are a top concern."




Fullerton added that "One of the most amazing things about our industry is the ability and willingness of our professionals to share information, strategies and best practices. This frequently happens through specialized/targeted social media groups, email inquiries and remote/in-person meetings."


Fullerton also confirmed that her district has experienced staffing challenges throughout the agency. "While we recognize that the park district is an amazing place to be employed due to the fact that our collective work positively impacts the quality of life of our community, we also understand that we still need to be competitive in attracting and retaining our team members."


She listed some agency characteristics that they believe future and current employees will find valuable: flexible schedules; diversity, equity and inclusion focus and initiatives; part-time advisory council; excellent benefit package; remote work opportunities; work/life integration; engaging, fun activities provided by their FUN committee; competitive wages; innovation awards program; and opportunities to serve on task forces to work collaboratively to tackle larger challenges as a team.




Arlington Heights operates one of the largest aquatic operations in Illinois, according to Fullerton, with five outdoor facilities and one indoor facility hosting four bodies of water. Prior to opening this year, they'd hired 260 of the approximately 275 necessary lifeguards. "We believe we're able to obtain 90% of our guards from our various inter-park swim teams. Additionally, we opened most of our pools in 2020 and didn't miss a year of operations, allowing for retention of existing staff from 2019. This year we expanded our reach to hiring more 15-year-olds as well, giving us an additional pool of candidates for these valued jobs."


She explained how they took a creative approach early in the pandemic, working hard to keep as many services and programs open and accessible as possible. "Through the use of Zoom, non-traditional staffing and outdoor spaces, we kept many services going for our residents when they needed them the most."


Over in Crown Point, Ind., Chris Nawracaj is the general manager of Deep River Waterpark, which is operated by Lake County Parks. He said that finding part-time help in general has been a struggle across all of their parks. In 2020, they were unable to open the waterpark until July due to state mandates, and because of that they only opened half of their park with half the usual staff. "So in 2021 when we were able to be fully open, we struggled as we didn't have the normal retention rates we would've had if we had a full staff in 2020."


And in 2022 the challenges continue, according to Nawracaj, who said it's difficult to get people to respond after applying, and some simply don't show up after being hired. "We've also seen an increase in the number of kids who can't pass the prerequisites in order to start a Red Cross lifeguard training class."




He said that potential guards get paid for the hours spent in training, and their training and uniforms are free. "We've tried spending more money on advertising on social media trying to attract people to work, along with almost doubling our starting wages; a lifeguard went from $7.25 to $14 an hour. A lifeguard who has worked for us the previous year makes $15. We did this across all departments in order to try and get our retention rates higher." Nawracaj said they've also had trouble finding certain full-time staff, including a waterpark maintenance manager, and they've tried-with some success-to "move around" who's responsible for certain tasks. "We've also tried adding frontline supervisors as another level of management to try and take some of the load off our full-time management staff. I've had to pitch in and help fulfill a lot of the tasks the maintenance manager would be doing along with our water safety manager. So we've been splitting the work, trying to compensate for not having a maintenance manager."


Fullerton proudly said that everyone at her district stepped up and helped where they could. "Some of our administrative assistants were pulling weeds at the golf course, and many of our department heads were working early morning, much-needed child care shifts to ensure our residents had safe, fun daycare for their children while they worked. Some staff took on another entire set of additional job responsibilities. It's been said that you can learn a great deal about people and their intentions when the going gets tough."

Lifeguards & Aquatics


As you've gathered, finding lifeguards has been a huge challenge, and Executive Director and CEO of the Association of Aquatic Professionals (AOAP) Juliene Hefter reported that facilities have gotten creative with their hiring strategies. "We're seeing full-blown marketing campaigns that are trying to attract any individual with strong swimming abilities and any age group from 15 to senior citizens." Promotions include free lifeguard training for individuals that are able to pass initial skills tests and give a commitment to work for the organization for a minimum length of time, and offering apprenticeship training to younger individuals so when they turn 15 they're able to pass the guard course and immediately start working.




Other promotions/strategies Hefter mentioned include: paid training for those taking the lifeguarding and swim instructor courses; sign-on bonuses and higher hourly wages; bonuses at season's end, based on a minimum number of hours worked during the season and working through a specific date; hiring not only high school and college students, but also adults, including those that are teachers, firefighters, paramedics and senior citizens; providing as much flexibility on schedules as possible; working with local school districts to provide PE credits for those lifeguards in high school; and employees getting paid daily for their hours instead of every two weeks.


Hefter said that while all aquatic staff have been affected, any positions requiring additional certifications and fees-including learn-to-swim instructors-have been most impacted. The AOAP works to provide information to members that they're able to take to their boards and commissions to show what other communities are doing to get the appropriate level of staffing and retain them. "We do this by being part of larger groups such as the Aquatics Coalition, which is comprised of more than 20 water safety and competitive water sports organizations from learn-to-swim-programs and health and rehabilitation groups to competitive aquatic organizations."


Sabeena Hickman, president and CEO of the Pool & Hot Tub Alliance (PHTA), said that in addition to lifeguards, pool facilities are having a tough time finding workers to assist in operations. "In general, the labor shortage is a hurdle for employers as we all continue to grapple with the impact of the pandemic, an aging workforce, shifting priorities among students and changes to the traditional work environment."


But Hickman said they're excited about sharing the many strengths and benefits of working in the aquatics industry. "From job security and robust training programs to excellent benefits and career advancement tracks, PHTA is building its own workforce development program to help our members attract and hire qualified job candidates, as well as provide resources that will help in the recruitment, training and retention process. We're looking forward to officially launching this program to our members in late 2022."


Sports Officials


Another big staffing challenge involves the recruitment and retention of sports officials, with a recent survey of state high school associations indicating that approximately 50,000 individuals have discontinued serving as high school officials since the 2018-2019 season, the last one unaffected by the pandemic. To address the problem and promote collaboration, the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS) held the first-ever NFHS Officials Consortium in Indianapolis this past April.




Dana Pappas, director of officiating services at NFHS, said the consortium was very successful, with more than 40 sports organizations in attendance, including the NBA, NFL, NCAA and various state associations and governing bodies for Olympic sports. "We worked together to examine barriers, both internal and external, to officiating, as well as to devise solutions in terms of recruitment and retention of officials, as well as the behavior of spectators."


According to Pappas, the shortage is affecting all levels of officiating. "The pool from which we're drawing is the same people; professional draws from college, college from high school, high school from youth. If one part of that pool is shallow we all suffer."


Some of the many recruitment solutions discussed included increasing pay, stipends and incentives; targeted recruitment for women and minorities and outreach to military; make training available through high school and college curriculums; better training/education of officials and improved relationships with coaches and administrative entities; and sharing resources.


"We're also launching a behavioral campaign to address the issue of sportsmanship and treatment of officials. We're sending a toolkit to state associations and any other entity wanting to be part of the solution, with ideas to address officiating shortages."


What's to Come


Shelton remains optimistic about the future, and said that facility operators in the attractions industry are reporting increases in staffing levels, no longer at the low levels of 2020 and 2021. "Our operators continue to utilize creative ways to incentivize their workforce to pick up additional shifts or extend hours and now some are able to increase their operating hours and operate the full offerings at their facilities."


Back in Ohio, Hutcheson said they all want to be educated and assist wherever they can: "Teamwork!" RM