Supplement Feature - February 2009
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At the Ready

Staffing Aquatic Facilities

By Jessica Royer Ocken

Holland Aquatic Center
Holland, Michigan

What they have: The Holland Aquatic Center in Michigan is an indoor aquatic center, open year round.

What they offer: Programming includes competitive swim teams and water polo teams, swim lessons, open swim and organized recreational activities, aerobics classes and physical therapy. In addition, swim lessons are part of the curriculum at local public schools, so first- through fifth-graders come for two weeks each year.

Staff size: The aquatic center maintains a staff of 80 to 100 employees (50 or 60 lifeguards). But depending on the schedule, between four and 12 work at a time.

Required training: Lifeguard candidates must be 16 and have their lifesaving certification.

"I administer a pre-hire test along with the interview to check and make sure the skills that they have learned in class are still understood," said Darin Masselink, supervisor of recreation. "The pre-hire test also tests their abilities in our facility, as our water may be deeper than the facility they certified in. We also conduct in-service training every six weeks where we review skills but also talk about facility policies and procedure."

How they make it work: There's no doubt that lifeguard hiring brings challenges.

"The class costs around $200 to become certified—add to that the limited number of people who have the ability to complete the class," Masselink said. "Combine those two factors and the numbers you are drawing from are very limited."

However, Masselink also noted that his experience is a little different from many other aquatic centers and pools. "Everyone else is rushing in the summer and not worried about the school year because they're closed or cut way back on hours," he said. "But from a recreation standpoint, we are busier in the winter than the summer, and the availability of kids to work during the school year is less."

Fortunately, several local school districts offer lifeguard training, which produces potential employees, and there's also a college nearby. Masselink advertises there, usually during the month before school starts, "and really I haven't had to go to the paper too often. …I don't even know if [advertising in] the paper would work," he added. "It's such a specific thing."

It helps that "most kids who want a lifeguard job know to come here, [because] in the area we offer more hours during the school year."

In fact, Masselink has made this hiring challenge into part of his strategy: Guards who work during the school year are given preference when it comes to summer positions.

Also part of his strategy is keeping a lot of subs around.

"I like to keep 40 or 45 guards on the active phone list who are available to work," he said. This keeps last-minute conflicts from becoming a crisis.

Something else that helps keep the aquatic center running smoothly is division of labor. Three separate supervisors each manage a portion of the aquatic center staff. Masselink, in charge of recreation and fitness, handles lifeguards. Another supervisor hires and trains swimming instructors, and still another handles coaches and competitive programming.

In the future, Masselink hopes to get a junior lifeguard program up and running, particularly because most kids in the Holland area know how to swim, they just need additional instruction to make the leap to lifeguard.

"I'm hoping we can work with after-school programs in the community to [show] kids it's a job they can do, teach them what it's about. …Kids who might never think about taking lifeguarding might do that for fun."

Masselink even envisions providing some training and certification scholarships as part of the junior lifeguard program to open these jobs to a broader spectrum of applicants.