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Where are the lifeguards? Applicants to work at some JoCo pools are dropping

Overland Park aquatics supervisor Renee Reis remembers when cities like hers had to turn down dozens of applicants for summer lifeguards.

It was the quintessential summer job — a way for teens and college students to earn cash, work experience and street cred in a position with both fun and responsibility.

Not so much anymore, said Reis and staffers from other cities who have watched applicants for such summer jobs dwindle.

“Our lifeguard positions have been getting harder and harder to fill over the years,” said Reis, who is responsible for hiring around 225 lifeguards to monitor Overland Park’s indoor and outdoor pools.

Reis still needs roughly 40 employees before the city’s last training session in May. Though summer is around the corner, cities including Mission, Shawnee and Olathe still have open lifeguard positions.

Some city officials and aquatic supervisors in Johnson County attribute the problem to a shift in priorities for the young people who typically take on these summer positions.

Reis said she recently talked to a student who didn’t know how she could fit a job into a summer schedule that included a family vacation, an overseas trip to France and a camping expedition — in addition to projects she was working on for school.

As getting into college becomes more competitive, teens have prioritized boosting resumes over the benefits of work. They are volunteering, going to summer school and seeking diverse experiences.

“There are so many other commitments they are making,” Reis said. “They don’t have time to work.”

“They’re building their resume, they’re getting internships and they’re taking classes over the summer,” said Konni Knabe, Olathe’s aquatic supervisor.

“We definitely have to do things now that we didn’t have to do in the past,” said Shawnee aquatics supervisor Sean Keenan, who pointed out that the health of the economy also usually plays a role in whether young people want to work in the summer.

While Keenan said he’s on track this year to meet demand, in other years he’s had to recruit more aggressively. That’s meant attending job fairs, posting in online forums and sharing job opportunities on social media for positions that used to attract an abundance of applicants.

Many applicants only want to work a few shifts, while cities need lifeguards to work 30 to 40 hours a week, Knabe said. On top of that, fewer summer employees stay on for multiple years.

“If I get to year three anymore, I’m thrilled,” Knabe said.

To help with recruiting, Olathe has pushed its hourly rate up to $10 an hour, Knabe said. The city has also partnered with Olathe West High School’s Public Safety Academy to recruit guards.

Reis said Overland Park has pushed information through Instagram and Facebook, invested in new advertisements and added a recruiting bonus for hirees.

Applicants can go to cities’ websites to apply. They must be at least 15 years old, hold or pursue certain first-aid and CPR certifications and take pre-employment classes that include swimming tests and other training.

Knabe said demand is greater when you consider the need for swim instructors and desk positions as well as lifeguards. So far, cities have been able to weather the challenges, but it just takes more effort and time.

“The interest isn’t where it used to be,” Knabe said, “and you are constantly recruiting.”

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