Help wanted: Severe shortage of lifeguards forces Mitchell pools to reduce hours, alter swim lessons

“We’re very short. We’re not the only one’s dealing with this problem. Every town is dealing with it,” Recreation Center Director Kevin DeVries said of the city's pool staffing woes.

Lifeguard Claire Lepke watches over the swimmers practicing with their kickboards in the lap pool at the Mitchell Indoor Aquatic Center on Thursday afternoon. (Matt Gade / Republic)
Lifeguard Claire Lepke watches over the swimmers practicing with their kickboards in the lap pool at the Mitchell Indoor Aquatic Center.
Republic file photo

MITCHELL — Mitchell’s aquatic facilities are ready, but a significant lack of lifeguards is putting a damper on summer swimming schedules.

The city’s outdoor and indoor pools are desperately seeking to add lifeguards to allow youth swimming lessons and open swim sessions to be held on schedule throughout the summer. With just 15 lifeguards on staff now, Recreation Center Director Kevin DeVries said it’s forced changes of operation.

“We’re very short. We’re not the only ones dealing with this problem. Every town is dealing with it,” DeVries said of the staffing woes. “We’ve got 10 who are currently trying to take the lifeguard training course and pass that.”

A fully staffed team to handle the outdoor and indoor pools requires a minimum of 35 lifeguards between the facilities. Having at least 35 lifeguards on staff allows the Parks and Recreation Department to hold regularly scheduled swimming lessons and open swims throughout the week and weekends.

Jamie Henkel, the city’s aquatics coordinator who oversees both pool facilities, has yet to see the type of lifeguard shortage that the pools are grappling with in her years of managing the pools. She, too, said Mitchell’s pool staffing woes aren’t unique, as other like-sized cities are struggling to find lifeguards.


“This is the first time Mitchell has seen a shortage like this. I talked to Sioux Falls and Yankton departments a little bit ago, and they are short on lifeguards as well,” Henkel said.

Kids wait their turn to go down the slides at the Mitchell Outdoor Aquatic Center on Wednesday, July 28, 2021 in Mitchell.
Republic file photo

Lifeguards are seasonal jobs that the city’s Parks and Recreation Department hires each summer to help oversee the indoor and outdoor pools. A brief certification process that takes roughly three days is required for lifeguards to complete prior to beginning the job.

Attempts to attract lifeguards have included increasing the starting wage to $12.80 per hour. Starting wages for water safety instructors — a position that entails providing swimming instructions — increased to $13.30 per hour.

“If we’re able to get more lifeguards and instructors, we’ll add those. We’re trying to make sure we have enough lifeguards for the weekends on Saturdays and Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m.,” DeVries said during the early April Parks and Recreation Board meeting.

DeVries acknowledges that gaining 20 lifeguards over the next few weeks is a tall task. If the pools can get 20 lifeguards on staff, DeVries said the plan is to nix open swim times at the indoor pool and solely hold them at the outdoor aquatic facility next to Hitchcock Park.

“It’s a combination of things. Wages from other places are getting higher. You can still come in and swim at the indoor pool with a parent or you are 18 or older, and the play features won’t be on,” he said.

Henkel said the outdoor pool will operate from 1 to 6 p.m. Monday through Sunday this summer due to the lack of staff. Typically, the outdoor pool’s hours of operation are from 1 to 8 p.m. A few swimming lessons that are less popular have also been eliminated, DeVries said.

“It takes 13 to be fully staffed and another four for swimming lessons,” DeVries said.


To receive updates on schedules for open swim and swimming lessons, the Parks and Recreation Department encourages residents to inquire with Henkel who can be reached by phone at 605-995-8450 or email

Sam Fosness joined the Mitchell Republic in May 2018. He was raised in Mitchell, S.D., and graduated from Mitchell High School. He continued his education at the University of South Dakota in Vermillion, where he graduated in 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in English. During his time in college, Fosness worked as a news and sports reporter for The Volante newspaper.
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