Many students, like me, have a part-time job to supplement their meagre loans and gain some work experience – the password into employment. Typical roles include those of the customer assistant, receptionist, waitress, barman… The list goes on. And while it often feels like us part-timers are the ones who get all the dirty work, every job teaches you something.
I’ve worked part-time as a pool lifeguard (TOTALLY different from a beach lifeguard) for the last four and a half years, and it certainly isn’t the exciting, Baywatch-esque job that many people seem to think. Nor does it mean that I get to sit around all day looking at barely-clad, good-looking people. Alongside tans and muscles, there are plenty of sock tan lines, croc tan lines, lads’ holiday tattoos, wrinkles, hairy backs, ‘optimistic‘ swim costumes and snotty children who come together to cause havoc in the pool.
June wants a gentle swim and a catch up with Margaret, but Freddie wants to make a tsunami and pretend to be a shark. Joe wants to beat his personal best, but Anthony (who thinks he’s quicker than he is) keeps getting in the way. Tina and Kieran can’t keep their hands off of each other, Lorna’s angry with the boy who tried a triple backflip over her and little Martha has thrown her Snickers into the deep end… I think you get the picture. Half an hour later there is one person in the pool, swimming about as fast as a sponge. Company policy states that two lifeguards must be present so they sit with gritted teeth and try not to watch the clock.
This illustrates how alert, adaptable and patient a lifeguard has to be; as with any customer-facing role, sometimes it is difficult to smile at the lady who is unhappy that her toddler can’t go in the deep end, or the man whose goggles disappeared after being left in the showers overnight.
Something else that torments lifeguards: swimming lessons. We hear the same instructions, phrases and rhymes being repeated over and over again and sometimes it is agony. Sessions for babies and toddlers are particularly painful because of endless, relentless songs about ducks and dolphins that we know will be stuck in our heads for at least a day…
As well as being responsible for the safety of everyone in the pool area (which is often over a hundred people) we are cleaners, first aiders, equipment setter uppers and dismantlers, cleaners, lost child finders, cleaners and the general problem solvers of the leisure centre. Did I mention that we clean? Because we do, a lot. And it’s not our fault that the changing rooms sometimes smell of wee – that’s because children wee in, on and around them.
There’s a lot of training involved, and as part of my contract I attend monthly training sessions. We are trained thoroughly in first aid, from splinters to cardiac arrests, company policies, legislation, numerous different procedures, fire evacuations, setup of equipment (trampolines, bouncy castle, volleyball nets, table tennis tables… you name it), pool rescue techniques, use of rescue equipment, dealing with customers and so on… So we do actually have to know a lot of stuff, because we will be liable if we don’t react to an incident how we have been trained to.
Long hours of alternating stress and boredom do, however, allow us to form strong friendships with our colleagues. It’s amazing how many messages can be communicated across the pool using a subtle mixture of gestures and expressions, and unlike many jobs, there are plenty of off-poolside opportunities for messing about, chatting and a sneaky game of football. Also, get friendly with the café staff and you could benefit from the occasional free drink or first dibs on today’s use-by date sandwiches. Staff perks can be good too – I enjoy free gym membership, swimming, classes, a café, shop and spa discount, and free use of the AstroTurf pitch and badminton, squash and tennis courts.
As I have illustrated, lifeguards often find themselves sitting, sometimes for hours on end, using one pair of eyes to see ten things going on at once. And at other times they’re gauging whether they’re more likely to die of boredom than the one person in the pool is to drown. I could have written about the frustration of being on minimum wage while responsible for the safety of tens of people, but that’s another article altogether. Of course every pool is different, but all in all, lifeguarding is a great job with loads of transferable skills that I would highly recommend to anyone who likes people and has patience, a sense of humour and the ability to force a smile!