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Why Fewer Teens Are Spending Their Summer Lifeguarding

Elle Moxley

Temperatures are rising, but a shortage of lifeguards in some communities is keeping pools closed. 

Once a stereotypical way to make some summer cash, fewer teens are willing to go through expensive training for a minimum wage job.

And while the problem here isn't as pronounced as in Austin, Texas, which had to delay opening half its pools, there are still cities scrambling to recruit the needed lifeguards to keep swimmers safe.

It takes a lot of lifeguards to keep one pool safe

It's a Monday afternoon at the Outdoor Aquatic Center in Lawrence, Kan., when Parks and Recreation Operations Manager steps out on the pool deck. The sun is high in the sky as sunscreen melts off kids’ backs. It smells faintly of chlorine.

“As you can see, it’s a very busy day," says Gibbs. "It’s warm outside. There’s lots of camps, lots of kids. One thing you’ll also see a lot of here is lifeguards to be able to keep this many kids safe.”

Fourteen, to be precise. And that’s just one shift. The pool relies on 100 lifeguards throughout the season.

On any given day, nearly 1,000 swimmers visit this pool. When it’s hot like this, the number can balloon to 1,500. It’s busiest in the late afternoon, when church camps and the Boys and Girls Club bring in kids by the busload.

“It’s a lot to be observing when you have hundreds of people in your zone," says head lifeguard Tracy Gay.

It's her tenth summer as a lifeguard. She started lifeguarding in high school. Now she works with lifeguards who have less experience than she does.

“So as a head guard, I take my job very seriously to help those especially in their first job ever to understand to take their role very seriously,” says Gay.

Gay says lifeguarding is hard work. It’s hot. It’s sweaty. The reflection of the water strains your eyes after hours in sun. People think you’re just being mean when you blow your whistle.

"It's not Baywatch, not here at the Lawrence Aquatic Center," she says. "But we certainly are doing more than sitting in chairs, catching some sun.” 

Recruiting lifeguards is a challenge when wages are low

Gay and Gibbs say it’s getting harder to get teens to sign up for that first job at the pool.

“We started our season where we normally are training our 100 new lifeguards almost 100 short,” he says.

In late May, Gibbs was making contingency plans – what to do if he didn't get the numbers he needed.

Maybe he wouldn’t open the slide. Maybe he wouldn’t open the diving boards.

“One slide takes two staff members, but if we were to close that facility, we can put those staff members somewhere else for greater coverage,” he says

But Gibbs got lucky. Rather than shutter pools, the city manager’s office offered lifeguards a pay raise – from $7.25 to $8.25 an hour. Gibbs hired his lifeguards, and the pools opened, including the slide.

Other municipalities haven’t been so lucky.

In St. Joseph, Mo., city officials have approved an even bigger pay increase for lifeguards. But even the promise of $9 an hour hasn’t encouraged teens to fork over the more than $200 in up-front-costs associated with lifeguard training.

Two neighborhood pools in St. Joseph still haven’t opened for the season – and if enough lifeguards haven’t signed up by July 1, they probably won’t.

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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