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Minnesota parks departments struggling to fill summer jobs

Apr 19, 2021 06:21AM ● By Editor
A lifeguard, center in red, supervises a raft as people beat the heat and humidity in July 2016 at Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.  Photo: Jim Mone | AP 2016

By Andrew Krueger of Minnesota Public Radio News - April 18, 2021

As city and county parks departments in the Twin Cities prepare to reopen pools and resume activities that were canceled by the pandemic last year, they're facing a new problem: a lack of summer workers.

Parks officials from MinneapolisRamsey CountyBloomington and Apple Valley all said they're not seeing the usual level of interest in openings for summer jobs. 

It's causing growing concern that staffing may not be able to keep up with plans and demand for the return of summer activities — especially at aquatics facilities. A lack of applicants for lifeguard positions, which require special training and certification, is a particular worry.

"Usually about 50 percent of our lifeguard positions are filled up with people who are returning from the previous year. So some kind of energy kind of spills over from year to year. Well, because we didn't hire any lifeguards last year, some of that momentum basically went away," said Kristopher Lencowski, director of park operations for Ramsey County. The county parks system includes several staffed beaches and the Battle Creek Waterworks water park.

"Whereas (in a normal year) we'd have 50 percent of our staff filled by now just with returners, now we have maybe two, three people who have confirmed," he said.

It's a similar story in Bloomington. David Benson, recreation supervisor of aquatics for the city's parks and recreation department, said he's looking to fill 45 positions for the summer, with about 23 offers extended so far.

Jenna Smith is recreation supervisor for youth and adaptive programming for Bloomington parks. Smith said even with limited programming this summer, she's still looking to hire 70 to 80 staff members — but at this point has only about 15 in place.

When reaching out to past years' workers, Smith said, "many of them informed us that they ended up being satisfied with the jobs that they got last year" when pools and park programs were closed. 

Minneapolis Park and Recreation Board spokesperson Robin Smothers said filling lifeguard positions is a particular concern for their aquatic facilities and beaches, too. And it's the same in Apple Valley including the city’s Family Aquatic Center, Parks and Recreation Director Eric Carlson said.

All of the parks officials said efforts are underway to publicize the openings and reach potential workers — social media campaigns, or reaching out to school swim teams. Open positions are listed on city and county parks department websites.

But the pandemic adds to the challenge. A tumultuous school year may have delayed students' planning for summer work, Lencowski said. And "whereas we used to just go to a job fair ... in-person recruitment is not really possible, or is really limited," he said. "Some of those tools that we would normally have, have gone away."

Ongoing COVID-19 safety concerns may also be causing some prospective workers to opt out.

The lack of job applicants comes as visitation to parks and demand for recreation opportunities have soared amid the pandemic.

In Bloomington, Smith said it's particularly difficult to be "struggling so much to get staff (when) there is a such a strong community demand for these types of programs and services and facilities. ... If we do not see a turnaround in our staffing applications, then it makes it difficult for us to be able to still provide the quality programs and services."

For now, parks departments are staying flexible in plans to open pools and offer summer programming — updating those plans as needed to comply with pandemic safety guidelines, and potential staffing challenges. But having something to plan for this year is a welcome change from 2020.

"When you get into the field of parks and recreation, you're all about doing things for the community and bringing people together. And COVID kind of prevented us from doing that," Apple Valley's Carlson said. "A lot of us found ways to pivot and to offer programs that didn't bring people together, but really the essence of parks and recreation is bringing people together. ... We're hoping that this summer, we'll be able to get back to what most people would consider normal."

To see the original report and read related articles, follow this link to the MPR News website.

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