As a former lifeguard and aquatics instructor, Chilliwack mom Kelsey Mackie knows how important swimming is as a life skill.
So when the mother of three tried to get her kids in swimming lessons at the Cheam Leisure Centre, she was shocked at how difficult it was. When registration opened on a February day at 9 a.m., Mackie said all lessons were booked by 9:02 a.m.
“Full. Full. Full. Full,” was the message on the website.
“I got one kid in and one kid on the waiting list,” she said.
“Swimming is an essential life skill and it is so hard to access lessons out here.”
The “out here” refers to Chilliwack as compared to Langley where Mackie moved from in 2017. Mackie said that she along with some other people she knows who have recently moved to Chilliwack are “baffled” why they can’t get into swimming lessons.
Melissa Kendzierski is also a mother of three kids aged eight, five and three. She works in the recreation industry in another community and has been a lifeguard and/or instructor for more than 10 years.
“I’m concerned because swimming is a life skill that is lifesaving,” Kendzierski told The Progress. “I believe every child in Chilliwack should be able to learn how to swim. We are surrounded by a lot of water – lakes and rivers – and if we don’t invest in these skills when they’re young, it is harder to learn.”
One of Kendzierski’s children is developmentally delayed and he thrives in the water. Swimming is his favourite thing to do and it’s more than fun or recreation, it’s essential.
“My time lifeguarding I’d encounter many individuals who relied on the pool as a therapy space – not just for rehab, but for daily living.”
So why the lack of availability of swimming lessons? As in many areas and industries, a shortage of staff is the main problem, one that has been exacerbated by the pandemic.
“While there may have been some concerns regarding swimming lesson availability pre-pandemic, the pandemic has certainly amplified that issue in most municipalities,” Mayor Ken Popove said in an email when asked about the issue.
“(Director of Recreation and Culture) Ryan Mulligan and I have discussed this concern previously, as it has been on our radar for a while.”
Popove said that when recreation centres shut down in 2020 early on in the pandemic, some staff found alternative employment and didn’t come back.
“We aren’t the only community experiencing this shortage of lifeguards and swim instructors.”
While Kendzierski agrees that COVID-19 has impacted the industry, Mackie points out that this was a problem prior to 2020 and the pandemic. Her issue with all lessons being filled two minutes after registration opened wasn’t this year or last year, it was prior to the pandemic.
“This is definitely not a COVID issue,” Mackie said.
A shortage of certified lifeguards and swim instructors is clearly a problem a cross B.C., but both Mackie and Kendzierski suggest it’s worse in Chilliwack because of how the leisure centres are run. Unlike in most municipalities that manage their own facilities, Chilliwack pays a private contractor, Recreation Excellence to run the Cheam Leisure Centre and the Landing Leisure Centre.
Based on a Google search for aquatics instructor job openings, an obvious problem for Chilliwack emerges. The Progress looked at a job board where jobs were offered in West Vancouver, Mission, Agassiz, Quesnel, Kamloops and Cranbrook, all offered starting wages between $23.20 and $30 an hour.
The Chilliwack leisure centre jobs start at something closer to minimum wage, which is currently $15.65 an hour. One recent job posting for the Chilliwack YMCA the pay starts at $15.75 for the first 500 hours with a bump up to $16.30 after that.
As a former swim instructor, Mackie knows the serious responsibility that comes with the job but also the practical considerations that they need to upgrade certification every two years.
“It’s not a cheap job to keep because you have to do all those course,” she said. “They should be starting at $19 to $20 per hour.”
While the two moms have expressed frustration with the shortage of swimming lessons in Chilliwack, dozens more have complained about the problem on a Facebook “moms” page.
Popove said city staff are working with Recreation Excellence to look at all options to increase staffing levels in order to meet the current demand for swimming lessons.
“These options may include wage increases, incentives for training, or other creative solutions,” he said. “We know that Chilliwack is growing rapidly and we will continue to review and assess our recreation service delivery.”
For its part, Recreation Excellence recently listed spring 2022 certification courses for bronze medallion, bronze cross and national lifeguard at rates well below regular prices.
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