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Talking point: How can we tackle lifeguard and swimming teacher shortages?

An acute lack of swimming teachers means that half of 11-year-olds in the UK can’t swim 25 metres, and a lifeguard shortage is forcing swimming pools to limit opening hours. Tom Walker asks the experts what can be done

by Tom Walker, Leisure Media | Published in Sports Management Jul Aug 2017 issue 132
How can we tackle lifeguard and swimming teacher shortages?
How can we tackle lifeguard and swimming teacher shortages?

Swimmers at Elephant & Castle’s new Castle Centre pool were disappointed to find part of the pool out of bounds due to a shortage of lifeguards. Families in Tonbridge were told the town’s outdoor pool would have to close in the evenings, for the same reason.

Up and down the country, pool operators are struggling to provide adequate lifeguard cover and are forced into closing lanes and reducing opening hours.

It’s hard to determine the exact number of lifeguards needed, but in some areas the problem has become so bad that job adverts for lifeguards fail to attract a single applicant.

The lack of lifeguards is coupled with a desperate need for more swimming teachers. The 2015 Industry Swimming Teachers Recruitment Survey by the Swimming Teachers’ Association (STA) found that 72 per cent of swim schools in the UK have a waiting list for lesson spaces. Worryingly, more than 81 per cent of the 229 swim schools surveyed said they could not find appropriately qualified swimming teaching staff to meet the demand.

Seventy-one per cent said the difficulty in finding appropriate staff was affecting their business growth plans.

The shortages have been noted and measures are being put in place to tackle the problem, including by Olympic gold medallist Rebecca Adlington. A passionate campaigner for the right of every child to learn to swim, Adlington set up her own swim school, where over 6,000 children learn to swim each week.

“It’s well known in the aquatics industry and community that there’s a shortage of quality swimming teachers in this country,” Adlington says. “I see Becky Adlington Training as something more than simply getting people through their qualifications. A swimming teacher isn’t there just to pass on technical expertise, they should be a role model for pupils, demonstrating a passion and commitment to teaching people to swim.”

Action is also being taken by sector organisations. The Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS) has launched a national campaign to encourage young people to train to become pool lifeguards, while the STA has launched the industry’s first aquatic tutor grant scheme to help combat the shortage of swim teachers across the country.

But is enough being done? We asked the experts.

Martin Symcox,

Director, IQL UK and water safety management,

Royal Life Saving Society (RLSS)

Martin Symcox
Martin Symcox

We’ve launched a national social media campaign to encourage young people to become pool lifeguards in response to the shortage of lifeguards in some parts of the country.

Be a Lifeguard aims to encourage young people to take up lifeguarding and help operators promote their National Pool Lifeguard Qualification (NPLQ) courses.

RLSS UK’s NPLQ is the most awarded lifeguard qualification in the UK and Ireland. Seventy per cent of all RLSS UK lifeguards are aged 16 to 25. The number of people being trained and eligible to work as lifeguards has been consistently high for a number of years, but these trained lifeguards are not always entering the workplace as a lifeguard.

Lifeguards must be strong swimmers and pass a 36-hour training programme to become qualified in rescue techniques, CPR and first aid. They need to react quickly and think on their feet, often in stressful situations. Yet they’re paid a similar hourly rate to other entry level positions, which are arguably less demanding and certainly require less training.

At the same time, the role allows a flexible approach to work. It’s a great way for students to fund their studies or start a career in the leisure industry, which is why we’re targeting school leavers, students and university graduates with this year’s campaign.

"Lifeguards are paid a similar rate to positions that are arguably less demanding and require less training"

Seventy per cent of all lifeguards are aged 16 to 25
Seventy per cent of all lifeguards are aged 16 to 25

Ian Prosser

Technical lifesaving manager,

Swimming Teachers’ Association (STA)

Ian Prosser
Ian Prosser

Traditionally, the leisure industry has a very high turnover of staff, including lifeguards and swimming teachers, because they’re seen by many as temporary jobs and not a career.

We’re working with different organisations, such as the Chartered Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity (CIMSPA), other awarding organisations and swimming pool operators to change this.

The starting point was to develop a single set of professional standards for every occupation within the leisure industry, including swimming teaching and lifeguarding.

The aim is to develop a workforce that’s fit for purpose, bridges the skills gap, is attractive to individuals who want to work in leisure and also supports employers to increase staff retention. These standards are supported by Sport England and a number of government departments, including the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Department for Education and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills.

We aim to help anyone who wants to start or already works at a swimming pool or leisure centre to develop their skills and knowledge in many areas of the industry to find a role they enjoy.

A couple of years ago, we conducted research with our members, and one of the biggest areas of concern was the difficulty in gaining valuable teaching experience once they become qualified swimming teachers and hold a current lifesaving qualification. Conversely, for employers it was recruiting qualified teachers with experience. In response to this, we developed the swimming teacher mentor course to support teachers to gain the additional qualifications and experience they need to work at a busy swimming pool.

"We’re working to change the perception that life guarding and swimming teaching are temporary jobs"

Jane Nickerson,


Swim England (formerly the ASA)

Jane Nickerson
Jane Nickerson

Swimming teachers and lifeguards are an integral part of the swimming workforce. It may seem obvious, but without swimming teachers no one would learn how to swim, and without lifeguards our pools and outdoor swimming areas would not be as safe.

Despite this, too often they’re regarded as part-time or holiday jobs rather than careers – and rewarded as such. A Level 2 swimming teacher has the same qualification as any other Level 2 sports instructor and so the sector needs to come together to ensure that all roles are rewarded in the same manner.

Last year, over 10,000 swimming teachers were certified. Courses remain popular – last year 900 courses ran across the country - but retention once qualified can be an issue.

We have made celebrating the workforce and raising the profile of all careers within swimming a priority in our 2017-21 strategy, Towards a Nation Swimming. By offering more blended learning opportunities and supporting people to develop through a defined career path, we can encourage people to grow their skills and stay within the physical activity sector.

Programmes such as our Adult Social Swimming Project also aim to encourage diversity within the swimming workforce. Delivered in partnership with the Swimming Trust, the project supports people from a range of communities, who may not have thought of swimming teaching as a viable career, to gain their Level 1 and Level 2 qualifications. This in turn will hopefully encourage more people from diverse backgrounds to learn how to swim and be able to enjoy the sport.

"By offering more blended learning opportunities, we can encourage people to stay within the sector"

Gerry Kendrick,

Head of HR and operational services,,


Gerry Kendrick
Gerry Kendrick

Attracting lifeguards and swimming teachers is challenging. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, a decline in school swimming means there are less people with the necessary skills to take on these roles. Secondly, these are jobs that are often not considered long-term career options. Thirdly, with the closure of public swimming pools across the UK over recent decades, aquatics-related jobs have become less visible.

As an industry, we need to think creatively, not only about how we recruit, but also about how we design attractive career pathways and offer job security. For example, in 2016, we ran a successful summer recruitment campaign that offered sponsored training on NPLQ courses to those who weren’t qualified.

At GLL, there are numerous opportunities to develop leisure industry careers and we have many examples of individuals who joined the organisation as lifeguards or swimming teachers and progressed to middle and senior management roles. This is something we need to shout about more loudly.

Historically, we have focused on recruiting seasonal staff from the student population, as lifeguarding is an ideal summer job. This year, for the first time, we’ll also be looking to attract and recruit older individuals. GLL already employs a number of lifeguards who are in their 50s, 60s and 70s. They’re great role models, while the opportunity for flexible working can offer an ideal solution for someone who is semi-retired.

"We’ll be looking to attract older lifeguards in their 50s, 60s and 70s. Flexible working can be ideal for someone who’s semi-retired"

Swimming teaching and lifeguarding can pave the way to a successful management career in the leisure industry / © shutterstock/ By Monkey Business Images
Swimming teaching and lifeguarding can pave the way to a successful management career in the leisure industry/ © shutterstock/ By Monkey Business Images
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