People-watching with a purpose at the Rotorua Aquatic Centre

September 22, 2021

You spend so many hours at work, it helps if you enjoy it. That’s how Rotorua Aquatic Centre facility manager Leah Burgess sees it, and that philosophy is what drives the award-winning training and mentoring that her staff receive.

Leah describes how she “fell into” working in the aquatics industry nearly 20 years ago, as she had just moved, and was looking for any sort of work between Tauranga and Rotorua, when a lifeguard role came up at the Aquatic Centre.

“When I started the job, I was put on the side of a pool, was told: ‘You watch people,’ and was given limited training. I thought, ‘Oh my goodness how boring! I’m not even going to last two months in this job.’”

But before long, Leah got given more training opportunities, and she started to see that the role of a lifeguard was much bigger and more interesting than she had first realised. Within three years she moved up to a supervisor role, and she also started adding responsibilities in health and safety, and training and assessing new lifeguards.

These days, Leah is the facility manager, having taken on that role a few years back. And In 2019, she and her team were recognised in the national CLM awards for the fantastic training and learning culture at their facility. They are pictured above receiving their award.

Leah is more passionate than ever about what the centre offers to both community and staff.

“I like that we have a diverse range of people who come in. Swimming is not just for high income people or lower income people – it’s a skill that everyone needs,” Leah says.

“And people with disabilities too, or those using the pool for rehab. The freedom those people feel in the water that they don’t get on land is really cool.

“Not to mention the enjoyment all people get from the water – and I understand that, because when I’m in the water it’s my happy place too, it’s my time away. This is a place where people want to be, they are here to have fun or learn, so it’s a positive environment to work in.”

The Aquatic Centre uses the Skills Active lifeguarding and swim teaching qualifications, and all new customer service and aquatics staff are asked to complete the Sport, Exercise and Leisure Operations (SELO) certificate, Leah says.

This helps to develop baseline knowledge for their roles and gives them context and perspective around the important work that they are doing, she adds.

“When I first started I thought, ‘What am I doing here?’ With SELO, it shows you how it is all related to a purpose. For instance, it prompts you to ask: How much do swimming pools cost to run? Why do councils invest so much money into swimming pools? Learning to swim is so important, these are life skills.

“And it also relates it back to the learner, it asks them: What recreation activities do you enjoy? Why do you do them? What kind of facilities do you need to be able to do them? Then it brings it back to our facility – this is what the community wants, this is why we’re here, and here’s how it relates to you. So, it’s helping staff to understand their purpose.”

The Aquatic Centre provides a supportive environment where staff get the time and support they need to complete formal on-job training, Leah says. This is a win-win, because competent, knowledgeable staff can deliver safe, fun experiences for customers.

And she loves to see her team members growing and developing as people, she adds.

“It’s very rewarding to see them growing professionally, having an understanding and getting passionate about the role. To see them smile and enjoy being at work – that’s definitely a positive to me. You spend so many hours at work, you want to enjoy being there!”


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.