Philadelphia Will Hire Lifeguards Who Can’t Swim, Offering Free Lessons Before Summer

In anticipation of the 2023 summer swim season, the City of Philadelphia is prepared to hire lifeguards that, at the time of application, cannot pass the swim test required for lifeguard training.

Per Philadelphia Magazine, the City of Philadelphia has already begun recruiting lifeguards for the 2023 summer season, even though it’s only January.

Unlike many summer jobs high school and college students might work, being a lifeguard imposes a barrier to entry many readers of this site might take for granted–the ability to swim, let alone the opportunities that allowed them to learn how to swim. That problem compounds itself – a city without public pools, because of lack of life guards, will also have fewer people who know how to swim.

This has become a growing problem for the city, and last year, they were unable to open many pools because of a lifeguard shortage – which stands amid a national trend of the same.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered pools for months in 2020, some for the entire summer season, the reopening of aquatic facilities in many communities across the United States has been a slow process. Because of staffing shortages, many cities with multiple public pools have been forced to keep many of their facilities closed, opening only a handful to the public–Philadelphia felt this pain, and plans to remedy it through these free swim lessons.

While it is tempting to conflate Philadelphia’s efforts with a program such as USA Swimming’s Make A Splash initiative, there are major differences. Primarily, Philadelphia wants to make use of its public resources, those being its 60+ pools, which will not be possible without lifeguards.

That said, it is commendable that the City of Philadelphia will offer free swim lessons in the months leading up to the summer season and the lifeguarding courses all potential lifeguards must pass in order to sit the stand. And, according Philadelphia Parks & Recreation Commissioner Kathryn Ott Lovell, the applicants they plan on training are not absolute beginners, but rather individuals in need of remedial lessons.

“We only have to train a handful of folks,” Lovell told The New York Post. “I wouldn’t say they can’t swim, they just can’t pass our screening test on the first try.”

Philadelphia Parks & Recreation has clarified that it will recruit and train individuals who are new to the job, but that it will not hire anyone who does not both pass the City’s lifeguard screening test and obtain a valid and current Red Cross lifeguarding certification.

A typical Red Cross lifeguarding course spans two or three days of in-person practice, and also includes an online component that is typically completed in the week or two prior to the instructor-led skills portions of the course that requires applicants to get in the water.

At the discretion of the Lifeguard Instructor (LGI) or the Lifeguard Instructor Trainer (LGIT), depending on who is teaching the lifeguarding course, lifeguard candidates who fail one of the “entry tests” such as the 300-yard swim test may try again each day of the course. So long as they are capable of completing the swim before the course has wrapped and the written test results are tallied, they can become a Red Cross-certified lifeguard.

A typical lifeguarding course costs anywhere between $150 and $250 for a new applicant, or anyone who was previously certified but whose certification is more than 30 days expired. Recertification courses, meanwhile, tend to cost between $75 and $125. This barrier will also be tackled by the City of Philadelphia, which is offering to waive all associated training fees for those that want to guard its public pools in the summer of 2023. In addition to the costs associated with training, Philadelphia recognizes the competition from other businesses that are also hiring.

“Every fast food place, every retail location is hiring,” Ott Lovell said. “They’re offering signing bonuses, and higher hourly rates.”

The City of Philadelphia, meanwhile, will pay lifeguards from $16-$18 per hour, which is significantly higher than the Pennsylvania minimum wage currently of $7.25 an hour.

Often when we think of free swim lessons offered in a large city–Philadelphia is the 6th-largest city in the United States–we ask if it grow the sport of swimming? A logical follow-up to that is, will this bring more traditionally underrepresented demographics into the sport of swimming? The answer to both questions is most likely no.

While it is possible and perhaps even likely that people who have never considered lifeguarding because they are weak swimmers will decide to pursue the job and enhance their skills in the water this summer–which is a positive outcome regardless–but it’s a stretch to imagine that these individuals will also register for a competitive swim team when the summer season is over. Impossible? No, but unlikely. Even so, more open pools is better for the sport. The point of bringing this up at all is to circle back to the temptation to compare the City of Philadelphia’s efforts with USA Swimming’s Make A Splash Foundation.

Make A Splash is in every sense of the word a social justice initiative focused on saving lives. If the kids who learn to swim through Make A Splash go on to swim competitively, that’s a nice bonus.

The City of Philadelphia, meanwhile, is doing something very worthwhile and something that other cities should seek to emulate. However, its goal is not to teach water safety to inner-city or other at-risk populations in order to lower drowning rates. As the City is struggling to staff its pools, it’s unlikely it has the resources to do also provide a broad-reaching zero-cost swim lessons program.

With any luck, this program will succeed and Philadelphia will be able to bring on the 400+ lifeguards needed to staff its pools. Hopefully it will also serve as a template for other cities to offer similar swim lessons programs in the future. And at the risk of being too optimistic, hopefully Philadelphia’s experiment will increase awareness for water safety training in big cities and create a snowball effect that sees the genesis of more cost-free learn-to-swim programs.

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1 month ago

if you cant swim, dont do a job that may requiring swimming to save someones life. I had to grab a 200+ lb drowning man from an 8 ft deep pool when i was a lifeguard, that wasnt easy and im a former D1 male swimmer. Someone just learning how to swim can likely not do that and could be dangerous

Reply to  mcswammerstein
1 month ago

The vast majority of Philly’s public pools don’t have deep ends. It’s like 5 out of the 65-76 (depending on who you ask). Most of the pools are not very big either.

That’s probably a big part of what makes this program possible.

They still have to complete the 300-yard swim test before they can certify and work as lifeguards. IMO, in a smaller city pool shallower than 5 feet, if you can complete a 300-yard swim, you are as qualified to make the rescue as anybody else with the same training.

I don’t see why someone should need to be able to swim a sub-6 minute 500 free to make a rescue in 4 feet of water.

Sid Frisco
2 months ago

This has future lawsuit written all over it

cynthia curran
2 months ago

Maybe, recruit some folks in the collar counties of Philly like Chester or Buicks.

2 months ago

uuuhm wtf
is this gonna end well?

About Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson originally hails from Clay Center, Kansas, where he began swimming at age six.  At age 14 he began swimming club year-round and later with his high school team, making state all four years.  He was fortunate enough to draw the attention of Kalamazoo College where he went on to …

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