Recruit, Retain Aquatic Staff

As Aquatic Facilities Build Capacity, Training Can Help

Most aquatic facilities in the U.S. are in the process of trying to get back to a level of pre-pandemic operations, which underscores the critical need to ensure that lifeguards and swim instructors are properly trained and constantly improving to fill any knowledge gaps.


What's more, offering a robust training and skills program can help facilities recruit and retain staff. This is especially crucial at a time when many are attempting to return to full capacity but are experiencing the labor shortage befalling numerous industries.

As aquatic professionals, we naturally focus most of our attention on continual training for the lifeguard staff. It's a critical need, of course, because if they can't perform their job responsibilities, people can get injured, or worse. And while training the swim instructors may not seem a life-and-death situation, improving their abilities and knowledge can breathe life into an aquatic program and bolster the bottom line.

A Solid Swim Instructor Program

Lifeguards provide the safety at aquatic facilities, but swim instructors bring in customers and the next generation of swimmers who will patronize pools and potentially become lifeguards and instructors. To meet customer expectations, facilities must keep the swim instructor staff trained to the highest level possible.

The issue is how to keep this level of training when many swim instructors, unlike lifeguards, only need to take an in-person certification course once, recertifying for subsequent cycles using an online assessment.

That's why certification is just the first step. People lose knowledge and skills quickly unless they can apply the information and get feedback, and swim instructors are no exception. When the goal is teaching children or adults confidence in the water, for life, it is essential that instructors engage in regular, in-service training where core principles are revisited.

Today's swim instructors should participate in regular stroke drills and skills teaching methods, including how to make accommodations for inclusion. They should also be participating in developmental trainings to help connect their experiences as an instructor to course content.

Additionally, the American Red Cross encourages that science updates be communicated to ensure that swim instructors know the latest information and the best techniques. For example, the Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council, a committee of experts that studies the evolving science and incorporates it into all training, offers guidance to instructors on important safety information related to aquatics and swim instruction. The Council posts this information on the Red Cross instructor portal, online and in the Red Cross Swim app.

"Those who become top-notch instructors get there through a combination of ongoing professional training and experience," said Dr. William Ramos, associate professor at the School of Public Health, Indiana University Bloomington and a member of the Red Cross Scientific Advisory Council's Aquatics Sub-council. "Facilities should conduct regular in-service sessions for swim instructors so they can build upon their on-the-job teaching experiences to improve confidence with the subject matter and help expand their ability to teach other age groups and levels."

Ultimately, professional training serves as an opportunity to invest in and show instructional staff future career paths such as on-deck lesson coordinator, aquatics programmer or even an instructor training other instructors.

Effective Lifeguard Training

For lifeguards, effective training is an especially strong tool for attracting the best talent and mitigating the extensive labor shortages around the U.S. For many communities, that means pushing to fully fund lifeguard training for applicants.

In Allentown, Pa., for example, a local company donated funds to the city's Parks and Recreation Department to cover fees for lifeguard certification courses and mandatory background checks. The same is true in Cleveland, Ohio, where the YMCA of Greater Cleveland also aims to correct the shortage of qualified lifeguards by paying for their Red Cross training and certification.

"To make [lifeguarding] accessible, we are removing barriers," said Phillip Hearne, aquatics director at the Hillcrest Family YMCA in the Cleveland area. "A lot of rec centers, a lot of places make you pay for your certification to work for them, whereas we are waiving or reimbursing that lifeguard class fee if you come and work for us."

Training is a powerful facet of the recruitment strategy. It can be leveraged as an essential retention tool that may open the door to other employment options both inside and outside the aquatics industry.

Successful aquatic facilities that are effective at retention ensure a viable career path—from swim instructor or lifeguard up to other positions with increasing management responsibilities, such as on-deck coordinator, instructor training, aquatics programmer on up to aquatics manager or director.

Owen Long, president and CEO of Sertified LLC near Baltimore, a Red Cross training provider, said that lifeguard certification is more than a summer job—it is a pathway to a career in aquatics. "You can start out as a lifeguard and there's career opportunities," Long said. "Maybe you want to move into management, or maybe you want to become an instructor, and I think this really diversifies and promotes opportunity for advancement within the aquatic workplace."

Long tells the story of a lifeguard he had trained who was inspired professionally when she saved the life of someone in cardiac arrest. "She has made a career as a full-time lifeguarding instructor because she took the skills that she learned in a class, applied them and immediately thought other people need to use these skills," he said.

Sometimes, the career paths can lead to related fields of endeavor. Dr. Kate Krause, a newly minted physician in Dallas, was inspired by her Red Cross lifeguard training as a young adult to seek out a career in emergency medicine.

Krause corroborates that aquatic facilities offer many opportunities. But she also added, "Should you choose to do something else, there's a lot of skills you can take with you." RM



Stephanie Shook is a Certified Park and Recreation Professional (CPRP) and the senior product manager of aquatics and instructors for the American Red Cross. In this position she directs the development of Red Cross Aquatic and Instructor Trainer Aquatic programs, including Lifeguarding, Swimming and Water Safety, Lifeguard Management and the Aquatic Examiner Service. Visit for more information about Red Cross aquatic programs.


Stephanie Shook