‘On the lookout:’ Lack of summer lifeguard applicants has some communities worried

  • Lifeguard Bob Shea supervises swimmers at the Concord YMCA on Thursday. A lack of lifeguard applicants ahead of the summer season has some communities considering change. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Lifeguard Bob Shea supervises swimmers at the Concord Family YMCA in Concord on Thursday, May. 10, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

  • Lifeguard Bob Shea supervises swimmers at the Concord YMCA on Thursday. Elizabeth Frantz / Monitor staff

  • Lifeguard Bob Shea supervises swimmers at the Concord Family YMCA in Concord on Thursday, May. 10, 2018. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff) Elizabeth Frantz—Monitor staff

Monitor staff
Published: 5/12/2018 9:50:45 PM

From the moment his silver whistle lands around his neck, Bob Shea’s eyes never leave the pool.

Even when he’s talking to someone, his gaze scans back and forth across the four swimming lanes of the Concord YMCA’s pool, looking for struggling swimmers or impending collisions. You can’t slack, he said, as the difference between preventing a problem in the water or responding to one can be a matter of seconds.

“I have moments to decide if I’m going to get in the water, what the appropriate action is,” Shea said.

Don’t get the wrong idea – Shea said being a lifeguard, one of the first jobs he had in his working career, is a rewarding gig, and is usually fun. Otherwise, he wouldn’t have come back to it after 30 years working in the financial sector. He certainly wouldn’t be getting up at 5 a.m. to put in his two days a week at the Y.

As far as lifeguards go, Shea stands out as a bit of an anomaly; the job is traditionally one for young people, particularly older high school students and college kids looking to make some cash during the short summer season, not retirees.

But in a tight labor market and an increasing downward trend of teenaged workers, some communities are struggling to fill lifeguard roles for the summer season.

The problem is serious for communities that integrate public swimming into their summer culture.

The parks and recreation departments from Belmont, Gilford, Laconia and Meredith sent out a joint press release saying they will have to change how they operate their beaches if lifeguard applications don’t pick up.

These changes can result in “beaches being guarded for fewer hours per day, fewer days per week, smaller swim areas covered by lifeguards and potentially some beaches may even stay closed for the season,” the release read. “The results of these changes will likely cause strain on area residents and camp programs.”

The Capital City is no different. Operations director Stephanie Feist said the Y is always “on the lookout” for good lifeguards to watch its year-round pools.

And Parks & Rec Director David Gill said the city has filled about 15 lifeguard positions for the summer. They need 30 to 35 to staff the city’s seven pools, he said.

Concord’s trying to entice people to suit up: Parks & Rec has been tabling at Concord High School during lunchtime, and the department is offering to reimburse half of the Red Cross certification program’s cost upfront, and the other half if the employee finishes out the season.

It’s a good deal, Gill said, because certification costs about $385 and is good for two years. But things haven’t picked up.

“The thing is, it’s an ideal job for summertime,” Gill said. “It’s not a huge commitment, and it’s a marketable job – you can take it with you to somewhere else after the season is over.”

Employment opportunities

Lifeguard positions aren’t the only summertime gig market feeling the crunch, said New Hampshire Employment Security economist Annette Nielsen.

New Hampshire’s unemployment rate has been around 3 percent for about 3 three years, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. That makes the job market extremely competitive.

“Seasonal jobs, tourist-created job employers have been complaining for a while,” Nielsen said. “When the economy was down, people might have taken those jobs even if it wasn’t their first choice, especially college kids out of school. Now they can get better-paying jobs.”

And the amount of younger employees has been declining for some time; according to an Employment Security May report, jobholders aged 14 to 24 dropped 10 percent from 2004 to 2017, while the number of jobholders age 65 and over more than doubled in the same time frame.

There were 86,000 workers aged 14-to-24 in 2017, with slightly more female than male workers, according to the report. More than 25,000 of those workers were in retail trade; just under 20,000 were in accommodation and food services, and around 8,000 were in health care and social assistance. Young employees in the arts, entertainment and recreation fields were around 2,500.

On one level, that’s not
surprising for New Hampshire, which with a median age of 43 is the second oldest in the state, Nielsen said. But there’s more to it than age alone.

“Kids have a busy schedule,” she said. “And for certain people, there are high expectations to be involved in after-school recreation, sports, music and to take additional classes in the summer or summer school.”

It’s not like young workers don’t need money, Neilsen said. But they may be eschewing traditional short-term, low-paying jobs in the short term to focus on education, which may – but not always, she was quick to point out – result in being able to get a higher-paying job.

Municipal lifeguard wages come in a range. Franklin Parks & Rec is offering $9 to $14 per hour; Laconia offers $11 an hour and up to $12 if employees can teach swimming lessons. Concord offers $10.89 to $12.76, depending on experience.

Older employees might be filling the ranks, but Neilsen said there are disadvantages there, too. “They might not like the hours or have the physical strength to do some of the work,” she said. “Or the balance of the hours expected versus wages expected might not be enough.”

Summer days

Shea certainly doesn’t mind the lifeguarding hours or physical demands – he swims 2-to-3 miles a week, he said.

But the job does have challenges and steep entry point: lifeguards at the Y and in Concord are required to undergo Red Cross certification, which entails 40 hours of written and practical work.

And there are moments you can’t really prepare for, such as when a man panics and pulls you underwater during a swimming lesson, Shea said. “I had to take him all the way down and release him,” he said.

But lifeguarding can also be rewarding if you stick with it, said Sarah Sartorelli, a Concord native who started as a lifeguard in the Concord pools and will be working as a part-time pool supervisor this summer. She’s baffled as to why more young adults aren’t taking the job.

“If you work at a pool all summer you make connections and meet families,” she said. “Even now that I’m 34, a lot of my friends in my life I met while working at the pool.”

Even if more lifeguard applicants show up, Gill said the training window is shrinking – lifeguards need to be training by early June to prepare for the pools’ opening day.

And even if they have enough staff to watch the indoor pool, Feist said the Y needs additional lifeguards to staff off-site camps or teach private swim lessons.

But both seemed confident the help would come in time for the summer season.

“We will,” Gill said when asked if staffing shortages would affect pool operations. “We will have enough.”

(Caitlin Andrews can be reached at 369-3309, candrews@cmonitor.com or on Twitter at @ActualCAndrews.)

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