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‘Critical need’: From lifeguards to restaurants, teens have their pick of summer jobs

UPDATED: Mon., May 10, 2021

Working near her home in Athol appealed to 15-year-old Ashlynn Sullivan, so she recently applied for a job at Candle in the Woods, a fine-dining restaurant. Sullivan started on May 5 and is looking forward to a summer there working as a dishwasher because of what she described as a fun energy at the workplace.

“This is not my first job,” Sullivan said. “But kind of the motivation behind why I wanted to work at Candle in the Woods is it’s really close to my house, so it saves a lot of money on gas, as well as I’ve been to Candle in the Woods before … I really liked how positive the environment is.”

Sullivan is part of a cohort of workers in high demand. Many operators who hire seasonal workers, restaurant staff and recreation-industry employees have voiced concerns about fewer applicants this spring.

In response, Silverwood Theme Park recently hiked its starting hourly wage, while Spokane city and county employers are encouraging youth to snap up scholarship dollars to defray the cost of lifeguard certification classes. With “help wanted” signs in abundance these days, can high school students take their pick of summer jobs?

Apparently, more high schoolers are tapping jobs now, based on Spokane Public Schools’ counselors seeing a rise in parent-school authorization forms required in the state for minor employees. Parents and typically a school counselor sign off that the teens’ employment schedule won’t conflict with school hours and academic work.

“We’re hearing from high school counselors in particular that there is a big influx of parent-school authorization forms,” said Scott Kerwien, SPS director of college and career readiness.

A few students might be targeting a common youth job: lifeguarding. But so far, not enough of them have. Municipal employers cite a “critical need” to find enough pool staff by June.

Fianna Dickson, a Spokane city parks spokeswoman, said recent job posts use that “critical need” wording because if they can’t hire enough people, they might not be able to offer all the services, operating hours and overall season length they plan. The city is looking for 80 lifeguards and 30 swim instructors among applicants ages “15-plus” with some swim experience. About 30 people applied this past week.

“The reason we used the word critical is if we don’t have enough lifeguards, we won’t be able to have the full pool season that we’re really planning,” said Dickson, describing that the facilities will open, whether at Phase 2 or Phase 3 that determine capacity for COVID-19 guidelines.

“This is the first year we’ve experienced the shortage in applications for pool staff. Usually, we see a significant return of applicants from years past, but with that COVID break, I think it sent a lot of people potentially in a different direction,” she said. “The certification piece is unique in our industry for lifeguards. That certification lasts two years.

“During that one year off of not opening pools, it looks like a lot of folks’ certification lapsed. We think that may be one of the barriers that we’re seeing for re-applicants and one barrier we’re hoping to reduce with some scholarship opportunities.”

Sarah Fitzgerald, Spokane County’s recreation program manager, echoed that urgency to hire lifeguards for its Northside and Southside aquatic centers. In recent years, it’s been a struggle to find applicants, but it’s worse now with an estimated need for the county to hire at least 20 and as many as 30 additional pool employees, she said.

“This year is a more critical situation where we absolutely will have to find more employees between now and June, or we will not be able to operate at the level that we hope, and at the level that the COVID guidelines currently allow us to,” Fitzgerald said. “If we maintain the current staffing level that we’re at, we probably will only be able to offer open swims on the weekends just because of short staff.”

Fitzgerald agreed the challenges might include the costs and class time. There’s also competition for teen jobs. “What I can say, though, is for those who consider being a lifeguard, it’s a fantastic summer job,” she said.

The focus is on safety and quality programs such as swim lessons. “But we have a fantastic culture there working as a team. (You’re) spending the summer outside in the sun,” she said. “We do have a lot of returnees, which I think speaks volumes that people do enjoy working at the pool.”

She said to ease challenges finding a certification class, the county posted a website, spokanecounty.org/lifeguard, with regional options. On a first-come, first-serve basis, people who register this month can receive a $100 discount toward certification fees, or a $50 discount toward recertification fees, through a grant from the Spokane Parks Foundation.

It’s also a reality that some teens already have jobs. Earlier this school year, SPS staff had heard from students applying for employment to offset the pandemic’s financial blow to families, Kerwien said.

“I would say anecdotally during the school year, too, when we were distance learning and not hybrid, there was a lot of communications from parents and students to counselors and teachers that the pandemic hit families significantly hard financially, so a lot of high school students who could work were actually working a lot to help families with financial needs,” he said.

SPS students wanting to make up school credits or improve grades with summer school must commit to mornings but still can work afterward, Kerwien said. Sessions start after the school year ends in June and go into mid-July, from 8 or 9 a.m. to noon.

Aside from income, students can benefit in summer jobs learning skills applied to future careers. It can meld with what’s taught in career-technical education, he said. Two semesters of a CTE course are required for graduation.

On-the-job reinforcement helps, he said. “No. 1, I have to show up on time, or I get fired, and No. 2, most jobs are team-oriented, so I have to be a good communicator.”

Sullivan, a Lake City High School student, said she hasn’t heard much from friends about summer jobs mainly because they’re already employed or don’t yet have transportation. Sullivan said working summers benefits her on different levels.

“I like the responsibility behind it, and it keeps me on a schedule,” she said. “During the summer, I know it’s hard for me and a lot of teens my age to keep track of days, so when you have that schedule of when you’re working, it helps you keep track and sort of have a better agenda as to what you’re doing rather than just going with the flow.”

She agrees about that job learning. “The most universal skills that you get from any job are teamwork and communication. Those certainly increase with a job because you’re more than likely going to have co-workers, and you have to cooperate with them.”

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