Dwindling number of lifeguards prompts concerns at beaches, pools across US

By Amanda Schmidt, AccuWeather staff writer
July 31, 2018, 12:58:53 PM EDT

You may not be seeing as many iconic red suits at your favorite summer spots this season as an ongoing lifeguard shortage continues to be an issue for United States' beaches and pools.

In recent years, finding enough qualified lifeguards to fill the stands has become more challenging.

Beaches and pools report that they have struggled to find qualified lifeguards once again this year. The shortage will worsen late summer when high school and university students head back to classes, according to B.J. Fisher, health and safety director of the American Lifeguard Association (ALA).

lifeguard shortage

Lifeguards patrol a section of Mile Beach on Thursday, June 23, 2016, in Georgetown, Maine. Cities, states and private beach owners are scrambling to fill lifeguard positions around the country as summer kicks off, especially in states where lifeguarding is a seasonal enterprise. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty)

For example, beaches along the Jersey Shore have struggled to find lifeguards.

Coastal living expenses, demanding college athletic programs and a difficult job market post-graduation are contributing to the shortage, according to NJ.com.

The Jersey Shore is looking for new ways to recruit lifeguards. They are adding incentives like pay increases or flexible scheduling.

In June, Connecticut officials warned that some state beaches will be short on lifeguards this summer, according to FOX61.

Officials in Raleigh, North Carolina, are also reporting a lifeguard shortage this summer. The city had to occasionally close portions of pools or limit the number of people who could get in at one time if there weren't enough lifeguards to cover a shift, according to CBS16.

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There are a number of factors contributing to this shortage across the nation.

Pool companies that hire J1 visa candidates report that their scouts have struggled to fill the numbers that they were able to fill in the past, according to Fisher.

The J1 visa is a non-immigrant visa issued by the U.S. government to research scholars, professors and exchange visitors participating in programs that promote cultural exchange.

While the State Department reports that the same amount of J1 visas were issued as the previous year, recruiters say that there weren’t as many J1 applicants interested in the lifeguard position.

Fisher said that the conditions needed to obtain a J1 visa are costly and challenging. Therefore, Europeans interested in the lifeguard position may be deterred to apply.

J1 candidates are a percentage of what pool companies have been relying on for almost two decades to help supply the shortage.

lifeguard shortage

Lifeguard watches over an almost deserted Orchard Beach in the Bronx borough of New York on Thursday, June 4, 1998. New York City took to the Internet and magazine advertising to reach lifeguard applicants due to a shortage of lifeguards in 1998. (AP Photo/Ed Betz)

The position is historically for high schoolers and college students, but students are not as likely to become a lifeguard as they were in the past. Extracurricular commitments and internships now consume summer breaks.

Fewer teens are seeking jobs, and 35 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds are currently working, down from 52 percent in 1998, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Fisher said that when Baywatch was created, there was an influx of candidates wanting to be lifeguards. However, the interest has faded since the show.

Recruiters say the shortage in teen workers is especially pronounced this summer, making it difficult to fill the country’s approximately 150,000 lifeguarding jobs.

“The youth is not following the baby boomers. The numbers just aren't there and we're developing more and more swimming pools, and we're developing more beach areas that are being guarded by lifeguards,” Fisher said.

The demand for lifeguards continues to increase, but the supply of lifeguards is shrinking over the decades.

At the same time, retirees are looking for part-time work to make ends meet.

“We saw there was an age group that we needed to target, what we call the Silver Group,” Fisher said. “The retirees, the ones that were either a lifeguard before or the ones that always wanted to be a lifeguard, but they took another job instead.”

Now that they are retired, they are available to lifeguard.

“We don't see the numbers from that age group coming back into the profession yet, but we hope to see them because we think that's going to be the solution,” Fisher said.

Other solutions to the lifeguard shortage include pools opening later and closing earlier in the season.

The pool industry hopes to draw interest back to the position through higher wages and flexible hours. Regulations for lifeguard work conditions have also been suggested, including that lifeguards are required to have breaks during their shifts.

Dropping the minimum age for lifeguards is another possible means of increasing the supply.

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker signed into law a provision reducing the minimum age for lifeguards from 16 to 15 to help ease Wisconsin's lifeguard shortage on March 28, 2018, according to a press release.

lifeguard conditions

A lifeguard keeps watch at Revere Beach in Revere, Mass., Friday, July 21, 2017, in Revere, Mass. The temperature reached 90 degrees in the Boston area during the day. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

Some cities, counties and states have dropped lifeguard requirements for pools and beaches. For example, Florida does not require lifeguards at all pools.

Counties, such as Loudoun County in Virginia, have dropped a requirement of lifeguards at small pools, according to Fisher.

The ordinance came after hotels complained they couldn’t afford to staff their pools with lifeguards during all hours of operation.

Loudoun requires pools with capacities of 40 or fewer people to have a “reliable and competent person” on the premises who can act as a lifeguard. However, those individuals do not need to meet specific certification requirements.

The pool industry worries that others may follow in this trend away from lifeguards, according to Fisher.

The ALA advocates for increasing the number of guards at pools and beaches.

Due to the shortage, some lifeguards are picking up extra shifts or are working long hours without a break in the heat.

If a lifeguard is not available at the pool you're swimming at, it is important that parents and guardians follow pool safety precautions and stay vigilant in order to prevent pool-related injuries, according to Fisher.

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