At the height of Baywatch’s cult-level TV popularity, real-life lifeguards complained that thirtysomething - and sometimes fortysomething - adults (David Hasselfoff, Alexandra Paul, Pamela Anderson and others) were playing full-time lifeguards, since most guards were no more than high school and college age. The movie that came out years later starred Dwayne Johnson and Zac Efron and was subject to the same criticism.
But in a bizarre twist of life imitating art, a nationwide shortage of guards, combined with a higher-than-average number of people waiting to go back to work has seen many former guards getting recertified. And that means, yes, adults back on the stand.
Call it the Baywatch Effect, the Old Guard phenomenon or call it what it is – an aftershock of 2020. But the facts are the same: Last summer, a lot of guards (who had undergone the rigorous certification processes to get hired) were left unemployed because pools at health clubs, community associations and parks & rec departments, remained closed.
By the time the 2021 summer rolled around, most of those would-be guards had obtained different jobs (and were hesitant to commit to pool jobs, worrying that those would be pulled out from under them again). A lack of in-person classes in first aid, CPR, lifesaving, water safety, swim instruction, pool operation and other requirements (which vary by jurisdiction) meant that no new guards had come up through the ranks, either.
The result was a nationwide lifeguard shortage that threatened youth swim meets (a staple of summer life) and led to shortened hours, if not closures, at many pools nationwide. From coast to coast and border to border, cities are scrambling. Good Morning America cited the example of Austin, Texas, where the city is has just 250 lifeguards registered this summer compared to 750 in a typical year.
"We just don't have the time to get the lifeguards trained and on payroll for this summer," said Jodi Jay of Austin Parks and Recreation.
Recreation departments, private pools and others are coping with the shortage by paying former guards to get recertified and climb back into vacant chairs.
In Dormont, Pennsylvania, Joshua Vish, at age 36, is the oldest guard in the history of the Dormont Pool. He told The Wall Street Journal the job was (ahem) a lifesaver for him since he was out of work with no prospects for a job.
Vish heard about the job opening through some friends. Among his previous experience was being a personal trainer, something that enabled him to pass the two-day test required to be a guard. (Ironically, the Dormont Pool, one of the biggest in Pennsylvania, has been declared a landmark by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation).
Bloomberg City Lab spent time analyzing the lifeguard shortage and found that while in many cases, older individuals who previously guarded (or who had backgrounds in water safety instruction, physical fitness or personal training) were eligible for the jobs, employers have had to make it worth their while to apply. In some cases, though, it’s not possible.
Chris Scheuer, executive director of the YMCA of Greater Cleveland, told Bloomberg reporters that he had been hoping to lure more applicants with a $500 sign-on bonus, but he said it really was not sufficient to compete with higher hourly wages from for-profit businesses like Cedar Point, about an hour away from Cleveland.
In the past, the article noted, parks like Cedar Point have sourced many of their seasonal workers from the J-1 visa program that brings foreign students to the U.S. Although President Biden lifted the previous administration’s ban on those visas, the combination of a major backlog and ongoing travel restrictions means those workers aren’t as easy to bring into the U.S.
“It’s just the trickle-down effect,” Scheuer said. “We can’t compete against the for-profit.”
Bloomberg studied several cities, including Baltimore, where, in the words of the article:
“Tight staffing has meant city recreation manager Daryl Sutton has been keeping his schedule open to fill in as a lifeguard whenever the need arises. The department is not shortening hours, but it’s only opening the same 11 facilities out of 23 that opened last summer during the pandemic. The pay hovers around $11.70 an hour, perhaps not enough to keep teenagers from service industry jobs that offer lower stakes and more lucrative pay.
“If we had the option we would pay more, but Baltimore City Parks and Rec doesn’t set its own wages,” he said.”
Campus Rec Magazine gave pool operators tips on how to market lifeguarding positions; however, there is not much that has not already been tried, including offering benefits.
Despite the way it is portrayed on TV and in the movies, lifeguarding is known for, unfortunately, low wages, long hours and no health benefits. Many parents abdicate responsibility for their children when bringing them to the pool or beach, assuming lifeguards will act as unpaid sitters and keep kids safe from harm. Others complain when guards enforce rules (particularly at municipal or community pools) that are unpopular with children, such as adult swim hours, rules against boisterous play and splashing, as well as other measures.
The fact that it is often seasonal work is something that attracts students on summer vacation from high school and college; however, because it is not a job with strong career potential, most students leave after reaching a certain age.
And despite its seeming popularity (The tan! The whistle! The ability to save lives and be a hero!), the real-life appeal of lifeguarding jobs has been in decline for years, according to those who train and employ lifeguards.
“Lifeguarding is no longer the glamorized job it once was many years ago,” noted Jerica Cyr, vice president of operations for Jeff Ellis Management, which operates the Dormont Pool as well as 30 to 40 other aquatic facilities.
The fact that lifeguard training often costs money and can be somewhat time-intensive to obtain is also a factor – although many private pools as well as parks and recreation departments, in an attempt to get applicants, have streamlined the training process and loosened restrictions. Former lifeguards, those who have been personal trainers or others with similar backgrounds may find it easier to understand and complete the requirements – but that is no longer required by most organizations that are desperate to fill guard positions.
Becoming a swim instructor takes even more specific training, and many organizations have had to bypass offering swim lessons this summer, something that concerns professionals in the swim industry.
Chris Scheuer told Bloomberg that in Cleveland, there is a demand for swim lessons but not enough instructors to give lessons.
“We have nine pools, and right now we have upwards of 70 people on a wait list that are trying to learn how to swim,” he said. “Our sessions fill up so quick. It’s just challenging because you have people seeking to learn a lifelong skill.”
When drowning incidents make the news this year, they are often accompanied by the information that beaches, pools and other areas were unguarded, or not sufficiently staffed with guards at the time.
The National League of Cities has noted that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has committed has already awarded more than $860,000 to local governments to assist state and local governments in drowning prevention efforts and pledges to award up to a total of $2 million in two-year grants.
CPSC extended the deadline for the Pool Safely Grant Program (PSGP) applications to August 16, 2021.
“These grants can help educate consumers about drowning and entrapment dangers and provide assistance to states and municipalities for their enforcement of pool safety laws,” CPSC Acting Chairman Robert Adler explained. The drowning rate is highest among minorities, he added.