'More difficult than any other year we can remember': Park districts struggle to find seasonal workers

When a job application lands on a desk at the St. Charles Park District, it doesn't sit for long.

Whether it's a high school student seeking a first job, a college kid coming home for the summer or a retired baby boomer looking for a handful of hours to stay busy, getting them in the door has become a priority in a tightened job market.

"Once we have an interested person, we make sure we get them in right away," said Mike Kies, the park district's superintendent of recreation. "Quicker than we used to."

Just as the easing of pandemic restrictions has allowed a packed schedule of summer activities, park districts throughout the suburbs are struggling to fill critical seasonal positions at pools, golf courses, concession stands and elsewhere.

To combat the hiring crunch, park district officials have taken the unusual step of offering incentives - including cash bonuses - in an attempt to bolster their ranks. Faced with the possibility of closing facilities or scaling back offerings, they see no other choice.

"This has been more difficult than any other year we can remember," said Naperville Park District Executive Director Brad Wilson. "It's a situation nationwide, but we're definitely seeing it locally with our operations."

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  Paul Schnittker washes range balls at Naperbrook Golf Course in Plainfield. Park district golf courses, pools and other facilities are struggling to find seasonal employees. Brian Hill/

Clo/a> for summer

Last week, the Fox Valley Park District announced that Phillips Park Family Aquatic Center in Aurora will be closed this summer due to a lifeguard shortage. About 160 lifeguards are needed for the three facilities, and only half that number signed up to take the training course.

"Our staff has never worked harder to recruit new team members," said Jaime Ijams, the FVPD's director of recreation. "We held our own job fair, attended others throughout the Fox Valley and visited area high schools to outline all the benefits of being a lifeguard."

It still wasn't enough.

To avoid a similar scenario, Wilson and the Naperville Park District took the unprecedented step of offering $100 cash incentives to new hires and $100 park district gift cards to people referring new employees.

Park district officials said the effort led to 27 hires in April. It was so successful, they extended the offer through mid-May.

"We're starting to see an uptick in activity as younger people start to line up their summer jobs," Wilson said. "But we're encouraging people not to wait because there's training involved."

The competition for summer employees has become fierce. Young adults are able to weigh opportunities in many different sectors of the job market.

Academic pressures have increased, causing teens to forgo work in favor of taking extra classes in the summer. The schedule for athletes has become busier than ever with commitments to school and clubs.

  Sarah Ganansia prepares popcorn at Naperbrook Golf Course in Plainfield. Suburban park districts are offering bonus payments and other incentives to new seasonal employees to spur hiring. Brian Hill/

And the return rate of seasonal employees has suffered since the peak of the pandemic when park district facilities were closed for months. Employees who left never came back.

Kies said the St. Charles Park District, while still relying on younger hires, has turned to the retired population for help.

"Because of the pandemic, it's like you're starting from zero in a lot of cases," he said. "We're seeing retired baby boomers come back to work, and they're in great shape. It's not just the teenagers we're hiring as lifeguards."

<h3 class="leadin">Summer goals

Thanks to an increased social media presence, aggressive marketing and strong relationships with the St. Charles schools, Kies said the park district is in good shape with staffing heading into the summer.

Elsewhere, the struggle continues.

Last year, Mundelein's Diamond Lake Beach was closed four days a week because of a lifeguard shortage. This year, the Mundelein Park District is offering a $250 bonus for people referring lifeguards and a $100 signing bonus for Barefoot Bay lifeguards who stay the entire season.

The Des Plaines Park District has the lure of a $50 Amazon gift card for referring lifeguards. New lifeguards will pay only $25 for training and receive free or discounted memberships. The Glenview Park District offers similar incentives.

In the end, though, Kies said hiring mostly boils down to competitive wages and schedules that don't overwork a short-handed staff.

"When I was starting out in this industry, I remember turning away tons of people," he said. "Everyone wanted to be a lifeguard or work camps. That just isn't the case now."

Wilson can relate. As someone whose first job was as a teenager on a maintenance crew with the Rock Island Park District, he hopes the attraction returns for summer jobs in the great outdoors.

"It was such a great job, and I went back for several summers," Wilson said. "It started me on the track for what I'm doing now.

"Hopefully we start seeing it come back again."

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