Children ‘bearing brunt’ of lifeguard staff crisis in Cork

Roisin Burke speaks with Leisureworld’s head of business development, Mark McManus, about the current difficulties in recruiting staff and his fears that this will impact on future generations of children.
Children ‘bearing brunt’ of lifeguard staff crisis in Cork

Leisureworld head of business development Mark McManus says a lot of children missed out on learning to swim while leisure centres were closed during the pandemic.

‘WHERE have all the workers gone?’ is a common modern-day mantra. However, for leisure staff it is a critical question that is affecting the provision of services here in Cork and impacting the future generation in terms of their ability to swim and an understanding of water safety.

Leisureworld, which has three centres in Cork — Douglas, Churchfield, and Bishopstown — has 12 vacant lifeguard jobs and a number of managerial positions available that they cannot seem to fill. This is affecting opening hours, as well as Leisureworld’s capacity to hold children’s swimming lessons.

Speaking to The Echo, Leisureworld head of business development Mark McManus said he didn’t know the answer to the burning question, but he could see the impact it was having.

“It is impacting our ability to deliver our services. We have reduced hours, reduced days, and it is purely down to a lack of skilled staff in lifeguards, swim teachers, and managers.”

The Leisureworld executive outlined the extent of the issue.

“We started off with 110 staff and we had to reopen with 45. From August through to January, we could only hire a handful of people and that was across all things — reception, pool, gym, managers.”

Mr McManus said it was the children that were bearing the brunt of the problem.

“We are very limited for swim lessons. At the moment, we can only accommodate half the kids that were enrolled in swim lessons prior to Covid, and that is purely down to lack of staff. We have four swim teachers at the moment, normally we have eight.”

Mr McManus said it was extremely frustrating as a community service.

“The heartbreaking thing for me is there are two years of kids — that would have been turning four, five, six, seven, eight — that are missing out on getting used to the water and starting lessons,” he said.

“We have never had more demand. For two years those kids didn’t even have access to the pool. The problem is now there is no capacity for these kids to get lessons.”

Mr McManus said many other centres haven’t started back their swim lessons due to a lack of staff.

Leisureworld, which has three centres in Cork — Douglas, Churchfield (pictured), and Bishopstown — has 12 vacant lifeguard jobs and a number of managerial positions available that they cannot seem to fill. Picture Denis Minihane.
Leisureworld, which has three centres in Cork — Douglas, Churchfield (pictured), and Bishopstown — has 12 vacant lifeguard jobs and a number of managerial positions available that they cannot seem to fill. Picture Denis Minihane.

“Every day we are fielding calls from parents asking about swim lessons and the thing is it will be another year before those kids can get into lessons and they will be another year older.

From a water-safety point of view, I think that is going to be an issue. In the summer these kids will be going on holidays or to the beach with no experience of the water.”

He said the company was looking at working on water safety with schools in September instead of jumping ahead to swimming lessons.

“Schools normally come to us in September for swim lessons and we are going to turn them into water safety classes, not to teach kids to swim but to be confident and safe in the water.

Tackling the big issue, Mr McManus said there was no clear-cut reason why people had left the industry and new people had not joined.

“From our reading of it, there were other employment opportunities and upskilling, and people took the opportunity to take training courses and trained and changed jobs. Maybe the work hours are better for them. Either way they are gone from the industry and they haven’t been back since. And also the uncertainty for people relying on the income, they are not going to come back to the industry if there is a fear that we could be shut down again.”

In terms of skilled staff such as swim teachers and lifeguards, Mr McManus said a number had left the industry and, along with the natural turnover, they were waiting for a large number of people to qualify to fill the gap.

While there appears to be a mass exodus, the next generation is showing little interest in filling the vacant positions.

“We have a double whammy; we have the natural loss of people moving on and we have a lack of new recruits coming through.

“There are courses up and running. There are people going on the courses and not seeking employment afterwards.”

Mr McManus said there appeared to be several factors to consider.

“We are getting 20-30 applications and a lot of no shows. It’s a strange one but we are hearing it is the same across a lot of sectors.

“We have been looking into that and what we see is that it’s a combination of things. Some people just have an interest in water safety and are doing it as a hobby or that kind of thing. There are parents encouraging their kids to get the qualification to travel with and they don’t want them working during their exams.”

LeisureWorld in Bishopstown.
LeisureWorld in Bishopstown.

Eager to adapt and innovate, Leisureworld has tried a number of recruitment drives as well as advertising a paid training course to be run in conjunction with the Education Training Board (ETB) but unfortunately there was no take-up.

“We have been looking at ways of trying to get people and offer apprenticeship-style jobs with the ETB. We advertised a training course running up to Christmas, fully funded, for people looking to change career and we advertised it over the new year when there is normally a good response and, unfortunately, we got three or four candidates out of it so we didn’t go ahead with it.”

Undeterred, Leisureworld has outlined a number of groups on which to focus their search for staff.

“We have been trying to identify who would be interested in lifeguarding and we are going to approach Sanctuary Runners to see if there are any candidates interested in training and getting employment in this manner and we are going to approach older adults, 55 upwards, who are still active. They would be great you know. It’s all about prevention; you don’t need to be an Olympic swimmer, you just need common sense and good communication.”

As well as encouraging older adults to join the team, Leisureworld is thinking of encouraging young swimmers in swim clubs who have an interest in the water and might be interested in being a lifeguard.

Mr McManus said the jobs on offer are good opportunities with some great perks.

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