There was a familiar sound of desperation in Philadelphia Parks and Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell’s voice when we spoke the other day.
As the city stares down the prospect of another violent summer, the department is once again facing a shortage of lifeguards.
Public swimming pools in Philadelphia aren’t a perk, they’re a priority — and in many neighborhoods, they are as much a safe haven as a place for children and families to cool off. (Though hardly bulletproof, as we’ve seen too often in recent years.)
At a recent news conference where lifeguards were called “heroes,” Ott Lovell spelled it out: If more candidates don’t apply, and soon, officials will only be able to open about a quarter of the city’s pools. Last year, a similar shortage of lifeguards meant that only 70% of the city’s roughly 70 outdoor pools were able to open.
“The continued challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, an incredibly competitive labor market, and a growing nationwide lifeguard shortage have meant we have to work even harder to find new ways to hire and train lifeguards for our pools,” Ott Lovell said.
In an attempt to counter those challenges, the department bumped up the starting pay to $16 an hour — more than double the state’s dismal $7.25 minimum wage — for rookie guards who are at least 16 years old; experienced lifeguards can start at $18 an hour.
The city has five locations open to provide free training and certification seven days a week for lifeguard trainees — who don’t have to be Philly residents. You can book your training or screening test online. (To pass the test, you’ll have to be able to swim 300 yards nonstop, tread water for two minutes without using your arms, and retrieve a 10-pound brick from the bottom of the pool.)
And parks and rec officials have added a little star power to their recruiting efforts in the form of one of their veteran lifeguards, Khadijah Davis, an up-and-coming actress who’s helping with their soon-to-be-launched TikTok channel.
Davis, who’s been in a Herr’s potato chip commercial (she’s the one dancing in the green shirt and blue jacket) and the trailer for the Idris Elba film Concrete Cowboy (she’s on the bus with the little boy) has been a city lifeguard since she was 15. She’s now 24.
“I just think it’s a great job,” she said, adding that interacting with the public helps her hone her improvisation skills.
Davis said what she hopes to highlight on TikTok is that lifeguarding is a rewarding job that can also be a lot of fun.
“Especially for the high school lifeguards, it looks good on college resumes,” she said.
It was interesting that she mentioned that, because while talking to Ott Lovell, I wondered what else (other than offering more money) could entice people to sign up for a seasonal job that offers residents a vital neighborhood space.
Some ideas: Maybe college credits for lifeguards, much like internships. The creation of a Friends of Philadelphia Pools group — much like the groups that help steward Philly’s public parks. Maybe it’s time to consider private or corporate sponsorship of the pools?
Ott Lovell said she’s open to more creative approaches. If you have others, share them so we don’t continue to find ourselves in this position year after year.
“Everybody wants their pool open, you know, and I get it, but if you really want your pool open, then you’re going to help us find the lifeguards that we need to open it,” she said.
For now, it’s unclear how many pools will open. Parks and rec officials need to hire at least 350 lifeguards in order to get every pool open in time for the start of the season in June. There are about 200-plus applicants in the system right now, but they need more than 100 more to start training within the next two weeks to have all the pools open on time.
This city is passionate about its recreational facilities; it’s why residents get so fired up when their neighborhood rec centers or pools are shuttered or not maintained the way they should be. We can (and should) push the city to do better by our spaces.
In July, supporters of the Carousel House, the city’s only rec center for people with disabilities, protested its demolition.
More recently, residents have called on the Philadelphia Board of Education to reverse its decision to close Sayre-Morris Pool.
Look, we can debate whether the city did enough to deal with this shortage for the second year in a row. But right now, it’s on us to step up. If you love your neighborhood pool, then show it. The city needs you.
In a 24-hour period Thursday into Friday, Philadelphia averaged a shooting every hour; of the two dozen people who were shot, five were killed.
The start of summer is still two months away. We’re going to need every potential safe space we can get.