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During Pool Season, Even Lifeguard Numbers Are Taking A Dive

A shortage of lifeguards across U.S. cities could be a fallout of the recovering economy.
Christopher Corr
Ikon Images/Getty Images
A shortage of lifeguards across U.S. cities could be a fallout of the recovering economy.

A teenager locking down a summer job as a lifeguard used to be a big deal.

But this summer, several parks and recreation departments and YMCA's across the country are reporting a shortage of lifeguards. And an improving economy may be playing a big role.

The Ridge Road swimming pool in Raleigh, N.C. is packed. There are easily 200 people here competing in a swim meet, some of them as young as 5 years old.

The Raleigh-Cary area is one of the top competitive swimming regions in the country, according to USA Swimming and Speedo. But that fact hasn't seemed to help bring in the number of lifeguards needed to keep all the area's pools open full time.

Raleigh's Aquatics Director Terri Stroupe realized the problem in early spring.

"I was very stressed. I was like, well, what kind of alternatives can we come up with if we don't find enough lifeguards," she says. "It looks like we have about 60 days to work a miracle."

Stroupe took out online ads and boosted the starting pay by 25 cents an hour, and she still couldn't get everyone she needed.

She has 150 lifeguards, which is 20 less than she should. So as a result, all of Raleigh's public pools close an hour earlier this summer.

She has a long list of reasons why teenagers aren't signing up.

Half of her applicants actually fail the swimming test, which includes treading water for two minutes with your legs. And then there's the rebounding economy.

"That didn't help either," she says. "Basically, as the economy has turned back around, there are more lucrative jobs out there."

Raleigh isn't alone.

Aquatics officials in Cincinnati threatened to open pools later than scheduled this summer if they couldn't find enough lifeguards. And in Glendive, Mont., they raised pay by a dollar, up to $9.25 an hour, to bring in more lifeguards.

One way the Aquatics Department has kept Raleigh pools running smoothly is to rely on its tried and true lifeguards, like Reba Hodge. The 23-year-old has been a lifeguard for several years and recently graduated from college. Hodge says she tries to enlist anybody she can.

"I recruited my best friend and to the point where I annoyed her," Hodge says. "I called her and said, 'Hey, have you applied yet? Have you applied yet?' And she was like, 'Reba, I will apply, I promise.' "

Her friend got the job. Organizations like the YMCA say another way to address the shortage is to start having job fairs and getting applicants who are young.

Most pools require lifeguards to be at least 15 years old. Keith Guynn is standing along the fence at the Raleigh swim meet, waiting his turn at the 100-meter freestyle.

He's 15 and has two older brothers who swam competitively and were lifeguards. But he's not completely sold.

"I think people my age would want to be lifeguards because it's a good way to go ahead and make money over the summer, and they probably wouldn't because, like me, they're kinda lazy," he says.

And to fix that problem will likely take a parent's guidance. By the way, Keith's dad says his son will be a lifeguard next year.

Copyright 2015 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC

Leoneda Inge is WUNC’s race and southern culture reporter, the first public radio journalist in the South to hold such a position. She explores modern and historical constructs to tell stories of poverty and wealth, health and food culture, education and racial identity. Leoneda is also co-host of the podcast Tested, allowing for even more in-depth storytelling on those topics.