Winnipeg renews free program to train, certify lifeguards for 2nd year amid national shortage

The City of Winnipeg is hoping to certify 40 new lifeguards this year, as it once again offers free training in light of countrywide shortages following pandemic disruptions.

The 16-week certification program begins in August and allows applicants to take the six courses necessary to apply as an instructor guard, according to a Tuesday news release from the city.

The goal of the free program, which the city first offered last year, is to keep staffing levels up to par at Winnipeg pools and aquatic facilities, Mayor Scott Gillingham said at a Tuesday news conference.

“Through that program, we’ve recently added 58 new instructor guards and six aquatic instructors, and now we’re going to build on that success,” he said at the Cindy Klassen Recreation Complex, where the training will continue to be offered.

“We’re not only addressing the lifeguard shortage, but we’re also empowering individuals to play an active role in safeguarding our pools and waterways.”

The pandemic caused recreation facilities to close their aquatic programs and cancel swimming lessons in accordance with public health orders. It also impacted training cycles for lifeguards and swim instructors across the country, Gillingham said.

Several recent drownings of children in Manitoba highlight the critical role that aquatic facilities serve in the city, as they monitor and teach children about water safety and how to swim, he said.

“It’s important that we have the necessary staff to ensure that our pools are safe and all families can enjoy our facilities without concern,” Gillingham said, adding that a goal of the training program is to get more people off waiting lists for swimming lessons.

An older man wearing black rimmed glasses and a grey suit is pictured speaking.
Winnipeg Mayor Scott Gillingham says several recent drowning deaths of children in Manitoba highlight the critical role that aquatic facilities serve in the city. (Travis Golby/CBC)

The free program is intended to curb financial barriers for people wanting to find employment as lifeguards, and course materials will be provided at no cost for accepted applicants, according to the city’s release.

Those who have partially completed the six required courses may also apply for the training, which was one of the lessons learned from the program’s initial round, said Jennifer Sarna, manager of the city’s recreation services.

She says Winnipeg has approximately 315 lifeguards currently on staff, which is the level needed within their budget.

“That is the most that we’ve had in the long while,” she said at the Tuesday news conference. “With the 40 individuals we’re looking for this second round, we hope to maintain a level of 315 lifeguards going into next year.”

Some Winnipeg lifeguards worked overtime to fill in the “huge deficits” in staffing caused by the pandemic, she said. Turnover rates for lifeguards generally cycle every five to six years, and the city expects some to resign after next summer.

Sarnia said the city is looking for applicants with a minimum Grade 10 education and a swim skill level of six, which is an advanced swimmer, according to Lifesaving Society Manitoba.

The program is not intended for just young people, she said. “We really encourage anyone of any age to come forward if they’re interested.”

Program filled in ‘huge gap’

All of the city’s indoor and outdoor pools are expected to be open with regular hours this summer, Sarnia told CBC News. Wading pools will open shortly after those pools and will operate as scheduled on the city’s website. 

“We are staffed and ready to go in terms of the number of lifeguards required.”

Coun. John Orlikow, the chairperson for community services and parks, says typical training costs to become a lifeguard in Winnipeg can hover around $1,500.

While staffing levels are currently in good shape, he says the city is working ahead to ensure they are prepared for next year.

“The last cohort of 58 filled in a huge gap for us, but we also know that we have to keep refilling that tank, because there’s quite a bit of turnover that happens in this field,” Orlikow said at the news conference.

An older man wearing thin, black-rimmed glasses and a grey suit is pictured speaking.
John Orlikow, chairperson for the Winnipeg’s community services, says while staffing levels are currently in good shape, the city is working ahead to ensure they are prepared for next year. (Travis Golby/CBC)

Winnipeggers have let the city know loud and clear that more swimming lessons are needed, and the free training program will help ensure that the city’s aquatic facilities can meet the demand, he said.

“If we don’t have lifeguards, we can’t keep them open.”

The deadline to apply for the program is July 16. The application and additional information about the program can be found on the city’s website.