Feature Article - August 2022
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Team Up!

Navigating Staffing Challenges

By Dave Ramont


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."