Moulding amazing swim teachers at MAC’s swim school

August 17, 2021

The magic loop of formal on-job training is that when a business upskills its staff, the staff then upskill the business, says McMillan’s Aquatic Centre (MAC’s) swim school owner and experienced workplace trainer Karen McMillan.

Karen has been swimming all her life, and bought her first swim school after she came home from her OE.

She had always intended to use her bachelor’s degree and go into primary teaching. Instead, she put those educational skills to work in the world of aquatics, not only in teaching swimmers, but in supporting and mentoring a long line of swim teachers who have completed on-job qualifications through Skills Active.

Based in Christchurch, MAC’s currently has four staff enrolled in the New Zealand Apprenticeship in Aquatics: Specialist Swim Teacher (Level 4), all at varying stages of their learning. To complete this qualification, the apprentices need to attend a number of external swim teaching courses through AUSTSwim, and then they review and evaluate their work using Skills Active’s online learning platform.

Karen takes the job of supporting her apprentices very seriously.

“First I meet with staff one-on-one when they are signing up to the apprenticeship, and talk them through the entire process and what it looks like. Then we break down that whole big process, and start by focusing on the first course.”

Getting the post-course paperwork finished is a big hurdle for apprentices, Karen says. Often they will finish the course and even though it has all gone well, they don’t know what they need to do next.

“So we sit down and go through all of that, and then I check in with them regularly about where they are at with it – and it might take two or three meetings before they actually finish the paperwork for that course.”

After that, Karen lets staff know when the next courses are coming up, encourages them to get signed up, and again goes through the paperwork process with each of them afterwards.

Then, once it’s time to start submitting assessments via the Skills Activator learning platform, she organises workshops where the apprentices can work on the programme together.

Sticking it out through the struggles

There are certain people who are naturally highly-motivated, and get themselves through the system without any prodding, Karen says. But about 95% need some level of help.

“It’s quite a process. But I’ve found that if I don’t support them in that process it just gets put in the never-never and it doesn’t get completed. I do feel that my role involves a lot of hand-holding – but I quite enjoy that!”

Not only does Karen find it rewarding to walk alongside her apprentices on their journey, but the benefits are significant, she says.

“After staff members go on a course where they have learnt some new ideas, we get them to come back and present to our staff, and us as owners. We will listen and we may implement some of their ideas into our swim education programme.

“So our programme stays fresh and innovative, and we are always evolving and changing, because we are learning from our staff, who are learning as well. That is probably the biggest reward for us.”

Having access to qualifications also makes staff feel valued and builds loyalty within the business, she adds.

“And it feels fantastic,” Karen says. “We get to watch them succeed and see their confidence grow. We laminate their certificates and put them on our noticeboard and celebrate them in our newsletters. It’s a real benefit to everybody.”

Spreading life skills for Kiwi families

Asked what it takes to create a workplace where staff can succeed in on-job training, Karen says it needs to be a non-competitive environment, where staff support one another, and leaders support staff.

“You need a manager who is empathetic, and is prepared to give their time to people – because they will get there in the long run.

“Sometimes it’s frustrating. You might be thinking, ‘This is simple, why can’t they get this?’ But under no circumstances can you show that frustration to your staff.”

Karen is justifiably proud of the work her staff do, and the difference that MAC’s makes to its community.

“Our philosophy is that we create relationships with families – not just the kids who are learning to swim. Because we are giving children a life skill.

“They are not only there to learn to do something for fun – it’s something that they are learning so that their whole family can live a Kiwi way of life. They can be in, on and around the water knowing that their child is safe.”

Pictured: MAC's swim school staff.


Media contact for Skills Active

Esther McLaren

021 195 5127

About Skills Active

Skills Active Aotearoa is the transitional industry training organisation for recreation, exercise, sport and performing arts. We are a non-profit organisation, 50% owned by Māori shareholders, and funded by government to promote careers and workforce development in our industries, work with those industries to create world-class qualifications, and support workplaces to train staff.