Repositioning Aquatic Employment

In recent years many municipal, non-profit and private agencies have expanded their aquatic offerings while at the same time a large portion of youths that has traditionally sought aquatic-related part-time jobs have pursued other opportunities. In many metropolitan areas, the number of lifeguard and swim instructor applicants has decreased, sometimes forcing operators to hire less-qualified people. Also, university students who used to lifeguard in the summer are now seeking seasonal jobs, internships and co-ops in areas related to their major with the hope of enhancing their resume for the ultimate job hunt after college.

A college student explains, “My older sister was a lifeguard in the summers, and it seemed like a lot of fun with good pay. I considered taking a job like that this summer, but I needed to do something that was more degree- and career-related, something that would provide me experience, training and leadership opportunities to enhance my resume and prepare me for getting a good job when I graduate.”

As the college-graduate job market expects more from students prior to graduation, the number of seasonal college staff continues to dwindle. This may also affect a portion of the high school students who recognize the trend and seek an early start to their careers. The good news is that this trend does not have to affect a facility if you reposition the organization, the summer employment and development opportunities.

Many aquatic managers fail to market and publicize the value of seasonal aquatic work and the tremendous opportunities these positions offer to develop a work ethic, learn cooperative teamwork, and develop leadership skills. The entry-level, seasonal aquatic position and mid-level management positions also provide initial training and experience that can lead to a variety of public service- and safety-related careers. Marketing this side of the “lifeguard experience” can have a significant impact on the overall number--as well as the quality--of applicants.

The following is a brief review of the most important careers related to aquatics and career development opportunities that begin when a young person accepts that first lifeguard, swim instructor or cashier position.

General Aquatic Careers

It is not surprising that most of today’s aquatic professionals work in swimming pool environments, but there is a myriad of public and private agencies that employ effective aquatic managers. When most people think of a career in recreation or aquatics, they naturally consider municipalities as the primary source of jobs. But there are many other recreation and aquatic providers too. Most notably, in aquatics, is the YMCA. The YMCA has a rich history in swimming and lifesaving as one of the first organized trainers of lifeguards, and it offered some of the earliest swimming-lesson programs. The YMCA, along with other nonprofit agencies such as Jewish Community Centers, receives no tax money nor is otherwise publicly funded. Therefore, the challenges facing professionals working for these organizations are much different than those working for government agencies.

In addition to traditional municipalities and special recreation districts, many pools and aquatic facilities are operated by state and federal government entities. Many state parks, for example, own and operate aquatic facilities. The MassachusettsState Park system operates over 66 aquatic facilities, including 20 swimming pools, 38 inland beaches and eight ocean beaches. The federal government, on the other hand, operates many pools through the Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR) branch of the military. The MWR is a civilian branch charged with providing recreation to U.S. soldiers and their families on bases all over the world.

Another large operator of swimming pools is higher education institutions. Campus recreation departments at colleges and universities across the country are in need of competent aquatic professionals. Traditionally, university facilities have been built for student athletes, the swimming and diving teams and aquatic instruction/activity classes. The trend in the last decade, however, has been a move toward more leisure amenities to make them attractive for all students.

There is also the commercial aquatic sector. Waterparks and waterpark resorts are some of the fastest-growing areas of the industry. Because these organizations are typically very large, aquatic professionals are more specialized in areas such as lifeguard/employee management, programming, pool operations, business operations, etc.

Traditional resort recreation opportunities also exist in many locations, some of which are exotic. Before the recent waterpark resort boom, hotels like MandalayBay and Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas hired year-round, full-time aquatic directors and pool operators to manage the pools.

Pool Service/Sales

Another world exists in the swimming pool industry--sales and service. Seemingly unknown to many aquatic managers, a lot of money can be made in swimming pools and aquatics. Most professional pool operators have equivalent knowledge and skills of the pool service and sales people, and in many cases, much more. It is an easy transition from operating public pools to servicing the smaller pools of hotels/motels, apartment/neighborhood association pools and residential pools.

An offshoot of the pool service and sales industry is pool management companies. These organizations are hired by smaller entities, such as country clubs and neighborhood pools, to manage the facility. This usually includes staffing lifeguards, operating the pools and sometimes running programs such as swimming lessons. This is a growing sector that is in need of experienced professionals capable of business administration in addition to aquatic management skills.

Open-Water Lifesaving

Swimming pool professionals and open-water lifesaving professionals tend to see their jobs as very different, but the skills required to be effective are much the same. The usual suspect--when thinking of ocean rescue--is the beach patrol. Many beach lifeguards, especially those who work all year, are full-time employees with benefits and wages similar to other public-safety lines of work, such as police and firefighters.

Numerous lakes and riverfronts with public (or private) swimming beaches also provide lifeguard services. Many of these operate through state park systems, organized camps and other government or not-for-profit entitites.

Another ocean-rescue career is that of a Coast Guard rescue swimmer, made famous by Kevin Costner and Ashton Kutcher in the film The Guardian. Rescue swimmers are some of the most highly trained personnel in all of the armed forces, much like Navy SEALs.

Other Recreation Careers

Another career option for those with a strong aquatics background is to venture into other areas of the recreation profession. This is a logical transition for many who work for parks and recreation departments. Recreation offers many different areas for qualified managers. Positions range from programmers to marketing specialists, and facility operations to special-event coordinators. The best way to learn more about other recreation careers is to peruse the articles in this magazine to find out what people are doing or attend conferences.

Lifeguarding: A Gateway to Public Service and Professional Safety Careers

In addition to all the aquatic and recreation career options, other careers, such as firefighting, have similar characteristics. The emphasis is on safety and prevention. This is similar to Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs). That may be the reason so many full-time aquatic professionals are EMTs and volunteer firefighters in their off-time.

It is now clear that there are many different career opportunities in aquatics and other closely related fields. Professional aquatic managers should use this information to mentor staff members who exhibit the necessary skills. After all, many current aquatic professionals exist because someone recognized their passion and informed them that it can be a fulfilling and stable career. This strategy can be used to recruit new employees who may or may not choose to stay in the field, but the job skills will last a lifetime.

Matthew Griffith , CPRP, is the pool operator for Georgia Institute of Technology. He has an extensive aquatics background managing municipal, private, school district and university programs. As an instructor, Griffith has taught CPO courses around the country, and holds numerous other certifications in pool operations and service. He can be reached via e-mail at

Joseph Walker is an assistant professor of recreation at the University of North Texas. His recreation background includes aquatics, community/special event programming, facility operations/development, staff management and comprehensive planning. He can be reached via e-mail at