While many water sports centers across the country are struggling to stay afloat due to ongoing staff shortages, Spray Lake Sawmills Family Sports Center is relieved to report that they are managing to stay afloat.
While many water sports centers across the country are struggling to stay afloat due to ongoing staff shortages, the Spray Lake Sawmills Family Sports Center (SLSFSC) is relieved to report that they are managing to stay afloat.
Swimming facilities have been slow to recover from the COVID-19 pandemic, and reports of lifeguard and swimming instructor shortages have raised alarms across the country. However, it appears that the Cochrane pool has made some successful attempts to patch up the punches.
The water system is up and running again, says SLSFSC Human Resources Director Jolee Coulter.
“We currently have about 50 employees who are certified as both lifeguards and swimming instructors,” she said.
Michelle Everett, SLSFSC director of sales and marketing, said the pool is also offering the same number of swim lessons as in 2019.
The facility’s recovery is due in part to actions taken by the management team early after the reopening, Everett said. This is also due to the fact that they were able to open earlier than much of the rest of Canada since provincial restrictions on swimming pools and recreation centers in Alberta were lifted last July.
Everett said the facility’s commitment to being open to the community whenever it could was a decision that has allowed them to get a foothold sooner or later despite some financial pitfalls.
“Running an aquatic center is extremely expensive,” she said. “So if the restrictions change and we’re allowed to open and two weeks later we’re not, it’s actually easier and cheaper for us to just stay closed.”
But they didn’t.
“We chose to be open whenever we could while some pools remain closed and save a bit of money,” Everett said.
The result, she added, is that the facility experienced lifeguard shortages much earlier than others because it was an identifiable problem earlier in their recovery.
The pinch came in September 2021, when many of their young summer associates were going back to school.
“We were beginning to see the very real effects of understaffing,” Coulter said. “There were days when we had to close in the afternoon just to allow staff to have a little break.
“The community would have seen that, it was pretty obvious that we were also having major capacity issues and periodic closures.”
The facility’s management team decided it was time to go back to the drawing board and consider how they could address the staffing shortage they were seeing.
The answer they came up with? Offer training incentives to new and existing employees.
“We started offering incentives to pay for their certifications if they agreed to work part-time with us for a year,” Everett said. “It was a good call and we saw a lot of encouragement.”
At one point, the MNP Community and Sport Center (formerly the Repsol Sport Center) contacted SLSFSC to inquire about the sponsorship program, and they began making the same offer, Everett added.
Just last month, the Quebec government announced they were rolling out the same incentive, making it free for anyone to become a certified lifeguard or swimming instructor in the province.
The Cochrane facility paid for the National Lifeguard certifications offered by the Alberta and Northwest Territories branch of the Lifesaving Society, the water safety instructor courses, and the required standard first aid and CPR training provided by the Canadian Red Cross Society were offered.
They also offered to pay the training costs for the Bronze Cross and Bronze Medallion prerequisite courses for National Lifeguard certification.
Typically, all courses combined can bring in about $1,000 per person.
“We did everything we could to stay open and stay ahead of the curve,” Everett said. “And it worked.”
It has also improved their staff efficiency. They operate normally with fewer pool staff than before the pandemic, employing staff certified as both lifeguards and swimming instructors.
The challenge they face now is getting enough hours a day in the pool to teach a two-year backlog of young swimmers.
“It will be some time before everyone has access to some lessons [here] just because of the insanely high demand,” Everett said, adding that she thinks it’s a short-term issue that can and will be resolved.
“There is a demand for swimming lessons, but not more than before because the kids are so behind on their lessons,” she said. “However, it is worrying because we attach great importance to children and adults being able to swim.”
Demand for swim levels 1 through 5 is always full and always has a waiting list, Everett explained.
“Those are the levels that kids are in the water without parents and these lessons are so important for young swimmers to grow,” she explained. “We’re trying to find creative ways to offer more of these high-demand swim levels.”
The facility plans to add about 10 more lifeguards and swimming instructors to its staff in the fall, Everett added. However, they don’t currently offer the same incentive to pay for training as they did at the end of last year.
The President of the Cochrane Piranhas Summer Swim Club, James Lange, said the importance of providing and meeting the demand for swimming lessons in the community and across the country cannot be underestimated.
“If you’re not a good swimmer, you run the risk of having a tragic accident at some point,” he said. “It’s not pretty to think about, but the truth is that at some point in your life, there’s a chance you’ll have to put your swimming skills to the test.
“Just for safety reasons, it’s really important that all people learn to swim.”
Lange said local swim clubs can provide breathing space for those who may be on a waiting list for swim lessons.
While the cost and overall experience will vary, they’re largely the same in that both create a confident swimmer in the water. At a club, Lange added, swimmers generally spend more hours in the pool to become extremely strong, fast swimmers.
A good test of swimming ability, according to Lange, is being able to tread water and swim in full clothing without support for three minutes.
“It’s difficult to swim with all your clothes on, even if you’re a really strong swimmer,” he said. “But it’s not that hard to imagine falling off a boat or a dock fully clothed. It happens and it’s important to have the ability to get to safety.”