Council calls on city to fix swim instructor shortage as parents decry cancelled classes

Bright and early one morning last fall, Adriana Cavell logged onto the city's website to join the frantic rush to sign up for parks and recreation programs, in hopes of securing a swimming lesson spot for her five-year-old son.

At first, it looked like a success — she snagged a place for Malcolm, her eldest of two and a nervous swimmer, in a Monday night class at Joseph J. Piccininni Community Centre on St. Clair Ave. West. Then, later, came some bad news: The class was cancelled because the city couldn't find an instructor.

When December rolled around, she decided to sign him up for the winter term instead.

Again, she landed her son a spot.

And again, she was later told the class was cancelled for the same reason.

"I was so frustrated," the mom who lives on the Corso Italia recalled.

"I just kept saying, 'How could you do this again? You knew you didn't have an instructor for the fall term, how could you not have an instructor for the winter term — and still have it online?'"

It turns out, parents across the city share her frustrations, and city council is taking note.

On Wednesday, councillors unanimously backed a motion from Coun. Frances Nunziata calling for city staff to address a shortage of instructors before summer, citing multiple calls her office has received from concerned parents.

"They're told, at the last minute — or even the moment they get into the centre — that the program is cancelled," she said.

Nunziata added it's unfair to families, and she called city staff's handling of the ongoing shortage, including reports of day-of cancellations, "inappropriate."

Process 'extremely frustrating' for parents

In Cavell's case, she wound up shelling out nearly $500 for a round of private lessons for her son after the first cancellation last fall, equalling nearly five times the price she would've paid to the city.

Not everyone can afford that kind of fee, she added. "It's a vital skill, and it only seems right that everyone should be able to have access to it," Cavell said.

According to multiple parents who spoke to CBC Toronto, it's a similar scene in spots across the city.

In Hillcrest Village, mother of two Elisa Rouleau had swimming classes cancelled for both her kids, and wound up hedging her bets by registering her son in classes at two different community centres at the exact same day and time. In the end, only one class wound up actually being held.

"It's obviously not just my neighbourhood," she said. "The whole process is extremely frustrating."

One local instructor, who spoke to CBC Toronto on condition of anonymity because he is employed by the city, said the shortage likely stems, in part, from stagnant wages for Toronto Parks and Recreation workers.

While minimum wage in Ontario has increased $2.40 an hour, from $11.60 in 2017 to the current $14, the instructor said the city's hourly wages haven't kept pace. 

"You can get paid the same to sit at a desk," he added. "And private companies can offer more."

Lauren Pelley/CBC News

Why is there an instructor shortage?

City numbers provided to CBC Toronto back that up, showing that over the last five years, hourly city wages for swimming instructors have gone up by less than a dollar, from $16.45 in 2015 to $17.19 this year.

The instructor, who spoke on background, said there's little incentive for young people in particular to become a city swimming instructor as a part-time job, particularly when the roles are more demanding and require specialized training.

Perry Smith, program director for the Lifesaving Society, echoed that concern.

"You can see there's more parity between working at McDonald's — where you can probably get your shift covered easily if you have to study for an exam — whereas with instructing, it's difficult," he explained. "You have to do lesson plans, candidate evaluations, and report cards."

And while students are still signing up to become lifeguards and swimming instructors across the province, Smith said most high schoolers have cut back on their hours in recent years to spend more time hitting the books — meaning swimming programs need more workers to provide the same number of classes.

In Toronto, city staff for Parks, Forestry and Recreation say in total, more than 3,000 part-time staff are currently employed in aquatics, mostly as lifeguards and swimming instructors, with staffing levels "adjusted throughout the year."

At times, classes are cancelled due to a variety of factors, a spokesperson told CBC Toronto in a statement, including not only staffing, but also low registration or facility issues.

Based on Nunziata's successful motion at council, staff will be reporting back to council's economic and community development committee at the end of May with an update on the division's recruitment efforts.

For Cavell, that's welcome news. 

"I just want to know they're looking into it," she said.

"It sounds like the system is flawed."