You can’t make this stuff up. The city of Phoenix, concerned that “too many” of its lifeguards are white and that kids in non-white neighborhood pools can’t relate, is recruiting black and Hispanic kids who are not strong swimmers. A student featured in the article tells the NPR reporter, “Honestly, I have a little bit a fear of the water,” which, as someone who has shared that fear since someone threw me in a pool when I was four years old, seems like a good reason not to become a lifeguard. It would be one thing if the city was promising to get only hire kids who could be trained to be strong swimmers by the Summer. Instead, pool staff will work with underqualified kids on their swimming schools “all Summer.” And what if someone is drowning on Memorial Day? NPR seems to want to put a happy-face “City of Phoenix reaching out to minority kids for lifeguard jobs” spin on this story, but as a Facebook friend put it, “If I wrote a job ad, ‘Looking for weak swimmers to be life guards for minorities,’ you would think it was some sort of racist joke.”
UPDATE: Some commenters are claiming that one doesn’t need strong swimming skills to be a swimming pool lifeguard. That’s apparently true nowadays, if one is going to be a lifeguard only for shallow water pools. But let’s take a look at Phoenix’s own requirements, as posted on its website. If one is not a minority candidate, before applying to be a lifeguard one must be certified. To be certified, one must take a class. Before one can take a class, one must pass a pre-skills test. The preskills test requires 300 yards of continuous swimming using either freestyle or breaststroke, tread water for one minute without hands, and 10 pound brick retrieval in deep water. Not Olympic-level skills, but more than I could do after having daily groups lessons each Summer in day camp for six years, so not something everyone can just pick up really quickly. And then one must pass successfully complete the course. So not being an aquatics expert, I can’t speak to precisely what one “needs” to be a good lifeguard. But it’s obvious that Phoenix, at least, think it needs lifeguards who can pass a preskills test and then successfully complete a lifeguard course, and then one can apply for, but not be guaranteed a lifeguard job–assumedly stronger swimmers would have something of an edge. By contrast, the NPR piece says that candidates need only pass a swim test at the end–which may or may not make sense, but if it does make sense why require a preskills test for other candidates? [I assume there are at least three reasons why one might have a pre-course skills test: (a) the course requires some swimming skills; (b) you don't want the staff to feel pressure to pass someone on a swim test because they already invested in a course; and (c) you don't want someone who is never going to be able to pass the test to waste their time, money, and energy on the course] I think it’s fine that Phoenix wants to train and recruit kids from schools that have no swim programs (although I’m dubious they should do so if the primary motivation is that Hispanic kids don’ t like having white lifeguards [or more precisely, that a Kelly Martinez from the city aquatics program thinks they don't, she's the only one quoted as complaining, "the kids in the pool are all either Hispanic or black or whatever, and every lifeguard is white"]), but only if they uphold the same standards for these kids as for other lifeguard candidates.