Post-Pandemic Hiring and Retention Strategies for Campus Recreation Departments

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Students working at Western Kentucky University’s Raymond B. Preston Health & Activities Center earn more per hour than they would at any other campus job, and they all received a $2-per-hour raise beginning last summer. Yet Candice Douglas, assistant director of facilities for WKU Campus Recreation & Wellness, says student employees are asking for fewer hours than ever these days. While they legally can work up to 20 hours per week, most of them don’t even want more than 10.

“It’s confusing as to why,” Douglas says. “The pay rate has gone up, the time commitment is not large and student staff are not asked to do as much as I was asked to do when I was an undergraduate student in campus rec 22 years ago.”

Campus recreation professionals are starting to realize that, post-pandemic, students are handling stress differently. Balancing classwork and student employment is now more difficult for some, while other students simply spread themselves too thin.

Some are calling in sick, too, according to Silvia Chan, senior associate director of human resources for UCONN Recreation at the University of Connecticut and a member of NIRSA’s Career Development Committee. “For a lot of students, it’s very easy to wake up and decide that ‘I don’t feel 100 percent today, so I’m not coming in.’ Those are their exact words,” Chan says. “Whereas before, when you woke up with a runny nose, you still came to work. I think students post-COVID have been conditioned to believe that if there’s any possibility of an ache, they don’t come to work. How are we, as professionals, supposed to run a 200,000-square-foot building with our student staff calling out when they don’t feel 100 percent? Who ever feels 100 percent?”

At Western Washington University’s Wade King Student Recreation Center, meanwhile, two students stopped showing up for work in spring 2022 without warning. “I tried to approach them and was like, ‘Hi, are you okay? Are you well? Did something happen?’ ” recalls Richelle Williams, WWU’s aquatics and youth programs coordinator. “And I got no response from either of them.” She eventually learned that academic-related stress caused both student employees to walk away from their jobs.

If Williams, Douglas and Chan sound frustrated, they are. The challenges facing campus recreation professionals — from the student-employee recruitment process to hiring and retaining them — have never been greater.

“We hire a semester in advance,” says Chan, speaking for UCONN Recreation. “And we will get over 400 applications. We interview everybody who applies, but during that process, 50 or 60 will not come to the interview. I think that is because we are hiring when other departments are hiring, too. They get a different job and just ghost us. And when we do interview people and ask them back for a second interview, we lose another 30. They just withdraw from consideration, and rarely bother to notify us.”

‘Hardest positions to fill’

Campus recreation’s student-employee recruiting, hiring and retention woes are particularly prevalent in aquatics. With a national lifeguard shortage, pool operators already are treading water. And with fewer student lifeguard applicants, Douglas, Williams and their campus recreation peers have taken unprecedented steps.

“Over half of the people I hired for fall 2021 had never lifeguarded — ever,” Williams says.

“That made me extremely nervous. I was very intentional in pairing somebody with experience with somebody without experience on the schedule, and I never had two people who had never lifeguarded before working together at the same time.”

At WKU, in an effort to encourage more students to apply for lifeguarding positions, the university began offering to pay for certifications, a strategy that Douglas says backfired when students leveraged that free certification to land a higher-paying lifeguarding job somewhere off campus.

“With student staffing, lifeguard is still one of the hardest positions to fill, and that’s because it requires certification,” Douglas says, adding that the university no longer offers to cover lifeguard certification costs. “Even some of the guards that we paid to be certified still couldn’t pass the skills test necessary to get the job.”

For a presentation titled “Unpacking and Addressing Privilege in Aquatics” for the 2022 NIRSA Annual Conference, Williams and George Mason University coordinator of aquatics Anike Oladeji mapped pool locations in major U.S. cities and compared them to 2020 U.S. Census data.

“There’s a direct correlation between GDP [gross domestic product], race and where pools are built,” Williams says. Therefore, she and Oladeji concluded, a lack of lifeguards in campus rec can be attributed, at least partially, to a lack of resources for a large swath of the U.S. population. According to their research, 80 percent of people who took swim lessons as a child claim their parents also knew how to swim, while 66 percent of people who did not take swim lessons said their parents never learned to swim.

WWU recently began offering free swim lessons to the university’s BIPOC and LGBTQ communities, with sessions taught by members from each community to ensure a welcoming environment and help new swimmers feel comfortable in the water. Eventually, WWU staff members ask participants if they would be interested in becoming lifeguards, Williams says, and a handful of them have either begun the certification process or already are certified.

By focusing on diversity and inclusion at all levels of campus recreation — from facility design to staffing decisions — Williams believes the profession will attract and retain more student employees. “The physical structure reflects the intended audience,” she offers as one example. “Our building was built in 2004, and we have one gender-neutral changing space, which was initially built as a family changing room. That is not adequate. Plus, if you are a nonbinary person or anything other than a traditional student, and you don’t see anybody at the front desk who looks like you, that’s a barrier.”

Williams and her colleagues have strengthened their connections to other campus organizations to better understand why people don’t enter their building — let alone want to work there. “We listen to them, and then we’re like, ‘Apply for our jobs. We want you in our space. We want you to work for us to help us be better and better serve you.”

‘We are in a very critical time’

In an effort to retain more student staff throughout her facility, Douglas says she and her professional staff at WKU host offsite special events for student employees, reinforcing their importance to — and crucial role within — the entire campus recreation operation.

“I think them seeing that we do care beyond just what they do for us in the building is helping,” Douglas says. “I’ve been doing hiring for the summer, and at least three people I’ve hired are friends with somebody who works here, somebody who told them they should apply. If we’re making the work environment better for the ones who are here, that in turn will have them suggest to their friends that they should come work here, too.”

“Higher education is changing. Students’ demands are changing. So, I do think we are in a very critical time right now, coming out of COVID,” Chan concludes. “One of the challenges is for us to rethink the old ways of doing things and see if we can accommodate the new pressures while still providing the services students expect.”

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