Pooling Resources

Hiring, training, and retaining a quality lifeguard staff presents many challenges. Managers depend on the lifeguards to keep the pools safe, the public happy and the facilities clean.

While safety is obviously the most important aspect of the lifeguards’ duties, customer service and the ability to keep the pool area clean are probably the next most important job functions for most agencies.

So how do you get the most out of the lifeguard staff when many of them are high-school or college age, and expected to perform such important duties? Let’s face it: the lifeguard staff can make supervisors look either impeccable or horrible. Few municipal staff members will have as much contact with the public as lifeguards, and even fewer will have as much impact on public safety. Most police or firefighters might not save as many people as the average teenage lifeguard does on a busy summer day.

Even though lifeguards can be a fickle group, there are some measures that can be taken to improve the quality of the staff, and have fun doing it.

Constantly Cut The Least-Productive 10 Percent

OK, this doesn’t sound like much fun, but chances are there’s at least one person on staff who has overstayed his or her welcome.

In Jack Welch’s book Winning, the former General Electric CEO discusses the importance of constantly cutting the least-productive 10 percent--to the point it can be painful. Maintain this philosophy, and at some point the least-productive 10 percent are going to be some rather good employees. Welch might say to keep cutting, but it’s probably safe to stop there (temporarily).

Recruit From The Area

Odds are there are some local kids who grew up swimming at the facility and have a strong emotional connection to the place. This is a good thing. Work with the human-resources department, local advertisers or whatever resources are available to get the word out that the city is hiring.

Offer lifeguard-training courses, junior-lifeguard programs, or anything else that will bring potential staff members knocking on the door. Advertise at local high schools or colleges, if possible.

If someone wants to apply at a time of year when there are no openings, take down his or her information and contact them when there are openings. Don’t let the next potential employee-of-the-year slip away because of poor timing.

Offer In-House Training

If it’s possible to offer lifeguard-training courses to the public at the facility, by all means do so. This affords the opportunity to size up potential job applicants before they even fill out applications. If someone is late, falls asleep in class, or is a poor swimmer, you’ll be the first to know. This process also reveals who is really motivated, and who is there because “My mom said I need to get a job this summer.” Let that person work somewhere else.

Pair Rookies With Experienced Staff

Newly-hired guards are like sponges, and will soak up everything that’s going on around them--both good and bad. So don’t let the least-productive 10 percent influence new staff--let the best performers influence them. It is a disservice to the new staff to do otherwise.

Pick Your Battles

Some issues--like safety--cannot be compromised. Paying attention, staying alert, acting as a professional--there’s no substitute for these acts. Customer service and cleanliness probably won’t be compromised either.

However, some supervisors may be stricter than others about a lifeguard wearing a uniform, allowing a boyfriend or girlfriend to bring an employee dinner, or setting a standard for appearance (hair, jewelry, tattoos, etc.).

One area to be flexible on is scheduling. Remember when you were in high school and really wanted to go to the prom or on a vacation, or needed extra time to study for the SATs?

Well, young people are still that way. Certain situations are going to come up that are life and death to these teenagers. Do the best to give prom night off. While unexcused absences, tardiness, and calling in sick at the last minute don’t have to be tolerated, good employees who need time off shouldn’t be penalized. If a lifeguard is that good, he or she will be able to find another job. Letting that person go means you just cut the top 10 percent instead of the bottom 10 percent.

Treat teens fairly in this one area, and word will get out that you are a good employer, and there will be a larger group of potential employees to choose from. Remember: these young adults still have social lives.

Knowledge Is Power

There’s nothing worse than receiving a phone call from the mayor (or any elected official) asking why the lifeguard was talking to his girlfriend for 30 minutes while she and her family were at the pool the previous day. Make sure the staff knows and understands who the local stakeholders are. Whether it’s a member of the board of directors, city council, commissioners, etc., every patron may have some connection to persons of influence, and the staff needs to understand this.

Recognizing the hierarchy of the organization guarantees employees will take their jobs much more seriously, and have a greater sense of pride. Take the time to explain the big picture, especially if the facility is part of a government agency. Show the lifeguards an organizational chart, and where they fit into it. Explain who’s elected, who’s an employee, etc.

Chances are these teens don’t know much about local politics (who does at that age?), so take the time to show them. Then, when an elected official’s brother-in-law, neighbor, etc., swims at the facility, he or she will relay the message of how attentive, courteous and professional the staff was. Not only will the lifeguards take pride in hearing these compliments, they will realize that the public is watching them, and cares about what they do.

Andrew Fine is the community services supervisor for the city of Mission Viejo in California. He can be reached via e-mail at affine@cityofmissionviejo.org.