Fatima Tanarhte watches as her 10-year-old daughter Lina lowers her face beneath the water’s surface. Lina’s electric blue goggles shield her eyes from the chlorine as her feet buoy up to the top. 

Kick. Kick. Kick. 

Lina’s just learning to swim. Teaching herself, really. So her kicks don’t follow any well-choreographed rhythm as her arms stretch out in front of her and she swims deeper into the Houston city pool at Alief Neighborhood Center and Park. 

These are the summertime moments Fatima treasures. The ones that came, she says, from doctors orders. The ones she wishes she could live every day. 

If only the pool was adequately staffed. 

Houston, like many other major cities across the country, is navigating a years-long lifeguard shortage, spurred by the pandemic when pools were shuttered and lifeguard certification classes were canceled, cutting off the pipeline for future lifeguard candidates. Three years after the world ground to a halt, the city of Houston only opened 60 percent of its public pools this summer — and even those that are open are operating under significantly reduced hours. As a result, residents across the city lack access to a safe place to swim, and those who live close to pools that have opened tend to be wealthier and whiter than those who live near pools the city has kept closed.

Attracting talent

About 1,500 lifeguards applied for jobs with the city this year, Houston’s Parks & Recreation Department Director Kenneth Allen tells me. After a rigorous application process, which includes hearing, vision and in-water skills testing, the city hired about 130. That’s twice as many as last year, Allen says, allowing the city to nearly double the number of pools open last year, from 12 to 23, on a rotating schedule. Half the pools operate on Sundays, Wednesdays and Fridays, including the pool in Alief; the other half are open on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. 

“Our pay scale is really above a lot of other organizations, and we think that helped,” Allen says. Houston city lifeguards start at a base salary of $16 an hour, and those with more experience can earn up to $20 an hour as a pool supervisor. Then there’s the incentives.

“We offer a $500 bonus: $250 when you actually start, and if you work until the end of the summer, there’s another $250 we’ll award,” says Allen, who reiterates that the national shortage is hamstringing his department from opening every city pool.

“You know,” Allen says. “If you want to compare what we’re doing to other cities, large and small, Austin hired over 1,000 lifeguards for 30 pools.”

So I called Austin, where I learned the city’s parks department actually hired 1,121 lifeguards this year, said Aaron Levine, the department’s aquatics program manager.  That’s more than eight times as many lifeguards as Houston was able to hire — despite Austin having less than half as many residents as Houston. So how’d they do it?

Recruiting younger lifeguards

There are two key differences between Austin and Houston’s recruitment efforts. The first is pay: Austin’s starting salary for lifeguards is $20 — the rate that Houston’s top lifeguards make after assuming manager duties. Austin also offers incentive bonuses, which can add up to $750 by the end of the summer, and removes other financial hurdles for candidates by offering free uniforms and training classes. 

  • After removing bathers from the Alief Neighborhood Center and Park pool for a brief moment, lifeguards take a break from the sun.
  • Alief Neighborhood Center and Park pool lifeguard Tariq Hamid, 16, talks to a young bather while on duty.
  • An Alief Neighborhood Center and Park pool lifeguard briefly removes bathers from the pool so the lifeguards can take a break

But their success isn’t solely tied to money. Austin begins hiring lifeguards at age 15, the minimum age at which lifeguards can pass the American Red Cross lifeguard training, while Houston only hires guards who are at least 16 years old. And that, Levine says, has been huge in replenishing staffing levels over the past several years. 

“Somewhere around 30 or 40 percent of our staff are 15-year-olds,” Levine says. And in total, about half the staff is 17 or younger. 

“We’re one of the only organizations in Austin to hire 15-year-olds,” he says. “And so being able to hire 15-year-olds is huge. It’s a market that not a lot of other people are really tapped into. And also, it’s retention. It’s always much easier to keep people and to get lifeguards to come back, than finding and having to train new lifeguards.”

In short, recruiting lifeguards early in their careers, before they’ve found a job elsewhere, and then retain the staff year after year, has allowed Austin to grow its staff year over year, and open all its pools — even amid a national shortage. And that helps Austin ensure that people from across the city have more equal access to opportunities to swim — something that Houston could certainly learn a lesson from.

A lock keeps the gates of the Oak Forest swimming pool closed to the public, Friday, July 28, 2023, in Houston. (Marie D. De Jesús / Houston Landing)

Ensuring equity

Allen at Houston’s parks department says the city looked at previous demand for each pool when deciding which ones to open this year. Additionally, his department assessed the idea of equity by trying to open roughly the same number in each of Houston’s city council districts. 

But a Houston Landing analysis of the city pool’s locations run alongside data from the U.S. Census Bureau raises some concerns about the equity metrics used by the city. According to Census data, the median household income in ZIP codes where the city has opened a public pool this summer is $59,561 — 22 percent higher than the median income in ZIP codes where the public pools remain closed. In those neighborhoods, households earn, on average, $48,760.

Neighborhoods with shuttered pools are also home to more residents of color. In ZIP codes where the city’s pools remain shut, only 12.5 percent of residents are white; in ZIP codes with at least one city pool open, the share is about 21 percent. 

This, sadly, puts Houston in line with national trends. According to USA Swimming, 79 percent of children in families with household incomes below $50,000 have low or no swimming ability. And 76 percent of parents reported that their child would be more likely to want to swim if they saw talented swimmers that look like them. 

But when is a child in a neighborhood that has had its pool shuttered for four summers running ever going to see such a swimmer? How will the city ever build a pipeline of lifeguards large enough to staff all our pools if children don’t have a place to learn to swim?

  • Sincere Gray, 2, is playfully lifted to the air by his father Derius Gray while enjoying the Alief Neighborhood Center and Park pool facilities.
  • Children from the Platou Community Center Summer Enrichment Program enjoy the Alief Neighborhood Center and Park pool facility.

Kids need to swim

Fatima Tanarhte is effusive in her gratitude for Lina’s access to a public pool in their neighborhood. The massive pool in Alief, complete with a waterslide, is brand new this year. In all Fatima and Lina’s previous summers — save those they travel to Fatima’s native Morocco — they’ve been unable to find a place within their budget where Lina can learn to swim.

“Her pediatrician told me she needs to be able to swim,” says Fatima, as she lounges beneath an umbrella, eyes on Lina who dips and dives below the surface of the water a few yards away. “So we know she’s safe if she’s ever around water.”

Fatima gets a deep satisfaction from her mother-daughter trips to the pool, knowing they’re good for Lina’s health and safety, as well as an opportunity for leisurely bonding. 

Now that the neighborhood pool is open to residents, Fatima says she and Lina come as often as possible — about twice a week, especially in this current heat wave. She only wishes the city could find a way to keep it open seven days a week so her family could come more often. 

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Maggie Gordon is a columnist who has worked at newspapers across the country, including the Stamford Advocate and the Houston Chronicle. She has covered everything from the hedge fund industry and education...