Receding tide of labor pool leaves beaches understaffed or unguarded


The Laconia Daily Sun

Published: 06-29-2022 5:06 PM

For a second consecutive summer, there will be no lifeguards on duty at Weirs Beach.

Though there will be on-duty guards at Bond Beach, the city Parks and Recreation Department was unable to sufficiently staff Weirs Beach, which requires a larger team to be sufficiently guarded. Instead, like last summer, there will be a few beach caretakers enforcing beach rules, welcoming visitors and doing basic clean-up and maintenance.

“The number of applicants that reached out was far lower than normal,” said Matthew Mansur, assistant director of Laconia Parks and Rec.

Gilford Town Beach will have on-duty lifeguards this summer, but will have more limited hours, a smaller guarded area and fewer swimming lessons, according to Herb Greene, Gilford’s Parks and Recreation director. Gilford’s target is 14 guards and a beach manager: this year, Gilford has eight guards and a manager.

“Our beaches will be staffed, but we are nowhere near what we would consider full capacity,” Greene said.

Greene also said that the staff this year is younger, with more guards being under the age of 18 than usual. Laws limiting the number of hours minors can work further limits what the beach can offer in terms of hours and spaces with guards on duty.

With a full staff, Gilford could open the full area normally marked as guarded — there is always an unguarded swimming area on the west side of the beach — and have lifeguards on towers until 7 p.m. Now, the guarded area of the beach is smaller and guarding becomes beach patrol only at 5 p.m.

For Laconia, Mansur said the shift to a caretaker-only model should not meaningfully change the experience of beachgoers in the Weirs.

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Having lifeguards on duty isn’t a license to engage in unsafe behavior, Mansur said. People should use the beach safely regardless of whether there are active rescue lifeguards on the scene.

At Gilford Beach, patrons might notice the staffing shortage because there will be fewer swimming lessons offered and fewer guards available for rule enforcement and crowd control during the day, Greene said.

Difficulty finding staff is a trend that started about five years ago in Gilford, according to Greene, but the last two years heightened the issue. He said that it is hard to know what is causing the shortage, but noted that it seemed like young people are increasingly involved with non-work extracurricular activities in the summer, and therefore not looking for seasonal jobs.

Lifeguard jobs typically do not have highly competitive compensation, and require a lot of training and responsibility, Greene said, making them less desirable to many young workers in a labor market starved for seasonal employees.

Mansur similarly said that “even before the pandemic lifeguards were difficult to come by,” but now were especially hard to find.

This struggle is not unique to Lake Winnipesaukee or to New Hampshire: the American Lifeguard Association estimates that 1/3 of pools and beaches nationwide are affected by an ongoing lifeguard shortage.

A number of factors have contributed to the shortage nationally: limitations on work visas for seasonal workers, restrictions preventing access to swimming and lifeguard training during the pandemic, and a low unemployment rate driving workers to higher paying, lower risk jobs.

In New Hampshire, and Belknap County in particular, a combination of these factors along with demographic change could be driving the issue. Though the population in the state and the county grew between 2010 and 2020, according to census data, the population under 18, both as a raw number and as a percentage of the total population, declined. Between 2010 to 2020, in the county and the state, the percentage of the population under age 18 fell below 20%.

In short, state and local populations are growing, but the amount of teens, who are the typical pool of applicants for lifeguarding work, is not.

Additionally, because the pandemic made remote work more widespread, fewer young adults — the other demographic group typically filling lifeguard positions — may need local, seasonal work like lifeguarding. More college-age people living in relatively rural areas like New Hampshire can now access remote work and internships with companies based in large cities that they would not have had the financial or logistical opportunity to pursue in the past.

Local beaches are making moves to circumvent these challenges.

According to Greene, Gilford upped its pay rate significantly in the last few years, started reimbursing new employees for their certification costs, and began advertising earlier and “more aggressively” — the beach now starts advertising for lifeguard positions in December.

Mansur said he did not know why applications had dropped off in recent years, but that the beach had made unfruitful efforts to reach a wider pool of potential applicants. The department used online job sites, went to job fairs and put out electronic and paper publicity about their openings. Because Mansur is licensed to do so, Laconia even offers to train and certify applicants who do not have their lifeguard certifications if they accept a job offer.

But, with still low unemployment rates, increasing accessibility of remote work and continuing population trends, these issues may persist.

“I wish I could say I do” see respite on the horizon, Greene said. “But it’s a nationwide shortage.”

He added, “People should know we are still hiring, even late into the season.”

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