With warm weather making a much-awaited return to the Okanagan, many families are in search of a place to cool off, but a lifeguard shortage seen not just in this province but across the country is keeping some out of the water.
“There is certainly a lifeguard shortage across Canada and for some parents of younger ones who aren’t strong swimmers, it may keep them away from aquatic centres or lakes this summer,” explained Dale Miller, Lifesaving Society executive director.
For many young children in Canada, taking swimming lessons for the past two years wasn’t an option due to the pandemic. This is the first summer since 2019 where public health restrictions aren’t in place, but a lack of swimming instructors may further keep kids from learning to swim.
“Swim lessons may not be as available as they have been in the past,” said Miller.
“I certainly encourage youth to get into the job of lifeguard instructing because it’s a great job. You learn an incredible skill that will serve you through your life. It’s well-paying, flexible hours — all those kinds of things.”
With a sign attached to their front door requesting lifeguards, The Johnson Bentley Memorial Aquatic Centre is just one of many recreation facilities in the Okanagan in need, but the problem isn’t just in this region or even this country.
“The aquatic staff shortage really is global,” said Miller.
“I think in B.C., in talking to colleagues across the country, it’s less so here than across the rest of the country and even less so than the shortage seen in the States, but it is still an issue that we’re dealing with.”
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Swim Bay in Peachland is the only beach in the Okanagan that has an on-site lifeguard during the summer months. While the District of Peachland had no issue bringing back returning staff and hiring new recruits this summer, it’s the future they’re unsure about.
“Our intake numbers for training we’re just at the level of what we needed, said Ben Stringer, District of Peachland recreation manager.
“We are covered but there’s not a lot of extra, so what we’re looking for is what’s going to happen after this year, do we get new people coming in next year?”
Lifeguard supervision at Swim Bay runs from the end of June until the end of August, but already this year they’ve dealt with several close calls that further show why their job is so important.
“With some school groups and some tourist groups coming in, the lifeguards have done six in-water rescues,” said Stringer.
“Now the good thing about that is the guards are here to intervene before there’s an emergency, so the first sign of trouble they’re able to get in and pull people from the water rather than someone struggling, and you know, at the risk of getting back to shore themselves.”
Becoming a lifeguard isn’t as easy as some may think. You need to be a strong swimmer and must take several mandatory training courses that take anywhere between 20 to 40 hours, but Stringer says it’s a highly rewarding job that can lead to many other job opportunities.
“I understand that this is a summer job, and really, we’re functioning like a weight station and a stopping point for people to grow their new skills and move on and some of them do some really fantastic things,” described Stringer.
“We’ve got ex-lifeguards who are now lawyers, doctors, optometrists, engineers, and it’s a good career builder and resume builder for them in the long run.”