Turning the tides on child drowning
Rebecca Wear Robinson
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What Is The Difference Between A Lifeguard And An Investment Banker?

by Rebecca Wear Robinson on April 17, 2013

First, what are the similarities between lifeguards and investment bankers? Both need training in their profession. Both professions have members that are passionate about their work. And…..well, I can’t think of any other similarities.

Now let’s look at the differences. Lifeguards save lives, investment bankers save themselves.  Lifeguards have to train for a physically demanding job (and frequently their water-based sports passions), investment bankers train for client golf outings, being flexible enough to get into and out of their Ferrari, and looking good in Armani suits. Lifeguards will do anything to be near water, investment bankers will do anything to get their second house with a view of the water, or better yet, a mooring for their yacht at their second house on the water.

All joking aside, the biggest difference is that lifeguards don’t make a lot of money and investment bankers make a ton of money. Why is this? A couple of weeks ago I talked about what a great investment lifeguards are in terms of saved lives – basically a great return on investment, passes all the cost-benefit tests, even contribute to the good of society by improving safety in water.

The average lifeguard salaries for job postings nationwide are 66% lower than average salaries for all job postings nationwide (in the U.S.), with top salaries in the low-mid $20,000’s.  Not feeling depressed yet? A first year investment banking analyst will make $70k-$150k. Managing partners? Between $500k and $20MM+.  Ouch. Why is this? Can it be changed? Does it need to be changed?

Let’s start with ‘why is this?’. I think it’s primarily a function of personality. I’ve spent a fair amount of time with both lifeguards and investment bankers. People go into ‘helping’ professions, like lifeguarding (and nursing, teaching, safety/rescue, not-for-profit professions) because….they like to help. They get an enormous intrinsic (internally generated) reward out of knowing the public is safer, healthier, better educated and generally better off because they are on the job.

When people are alive, healthy and happy, those in helping professions have ‘won’. People who go into professions like investment banking frequently enjoy the challenge of the deal, putting together the pieces of complex financial puzzles, often enjoy the gambling element, and are highly competitive – they need to ‘win’, to have extrinsic rewards (externally acknowledged). Talk to any really talented banker and they think in ‘ticks’ (minute market movement) rather than dollars and cents, money is just the measure of winning.

Regardless of your feelings about investment bankers, I think we all can agree we’d rather have someone who wants to help save lives in the ‘helping’ professions, rather than someone who has a mental abacus influencing their action (if I save that person, what’s in it for me? Will I get press coverage for that rescue or should I wait for a more newsworthy rescue?) The cliché is true, it does take all types, there is value in all personality types, but all types need to be monetarily valued. Besides, the beach would be too crowded if all those bankers decided to become lifeguards.

Can it be changed? I don’t ever see a reversal, where lifeguards are pulling down seven figures, but I do think the gap will narrow, somewhat, over time. First, there is a general societal shift in thinking about wealth disparity that is starting to question whether the value produced by certain professions justifies the salary. The bigger issue, is whether lifeguards, and everyone working in water safety/drowning prevention, WANT the trend to change? I talked about the ‘aw shucks, we just work for free’ syndrome recently.  Until the field takes a hard look at what we do and agree it needs to be valued appropriately, nothing will change. Only a very few organizations will function at a high and effective level, and even fewer will have the resources to hire the top performers – in management, public relations, fund raising, education, training, and lifeguarding to compete against the better funded and organized causes, like breast cancer, AIDS, and wildlife conservation.

Does it need to be changed? I think it needs to be changed – drastically. People are responsible for how they are perceived, and if those perceptions are incorrect, they need to take responsibility for changing the perceptions. Lifeguards are on the front lines of drowning prevention, and yet the average salary is half that of comparable professions. Firefighters – $45,000.  Police – $40,000.  Teacher – $54,000.  Paramedic – $54,000.  These are reasonable, living wages. To put it in perspective, the federal poverty level for a family of four is $23,050, which is about the level of many lifeguard salaries.  I find it unacceptable that someone in a lifesaving/public safety profession is living at the poverty level.

So, how do we change it? Back to the biggest difference – investment bankers think they walk on water and DEMAND to be recognized and compensated. Lifeguards, well, money just isn’t the focus and no one else thinks of the profession as being on par with other public safety professionals. So, to change, first and foremost, we need to believe that drowning prevention, including lifeguards, provide value to society. We need to ditch the ‘aw shucks’ attitude, now. We need to change how lifeguards define themselves.

When I’m asked what I do, I answer, ‘I am a global activist working to end child drowning. One child drowns every minute.’ My message is clear and unequivocal, I am going to change the world, and that change is desperately needed. Instead of ‘I’m a lifeguard’, maybe the answer needs to be, ‘I am a lifeguard – I prevent drowning deaths. Did you know that drowning was just recognized as a global epidemic by UNICEF?’, otherwise, ‘I’m a lifeguard’ brings visions of Baywatch and lounging by the pool catching some rays, because we haven’t changed the public’s perception, yet. Next, all of us need to continue to work together to change the public’s perception – about drowning and about the people who are preventing drowning. It’s time to demand respect, recognition, and compensation. If you agree, click here to send out this tweet:

Lifeguards vs. Investment Bankers http://bit.ly/14vPdmc #stopdrowning

Watch out Wall Street sharks, the lifeguards are on the move.

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