Just after she turned 70, Leslie Botts became a lifeguard.
Botts, a longtime swimmer from Austin, Texas, was looking for a way to stay active while supplementing her income. After retiring in 2007 from her 30-year career as a special-education teacher, she taught yoga at a Caribbean resort for a year, then worked as a substitute high school teacher, making just over $10 an hour. But she was frustrated by the unpredictable hours and low pay.
So when a friend in his 60s started lifeguarding last summer, she considered yet another change.
“I thought, ‘What the heck, I love the water, so I’ll give it a try,’ ” said Botts, who now makes nearly $14 an hour working at Austin’s pools.
Across the country, older adults and retirees are stepping up to the lifeguard chair – a job that historically has been a rite of passage for high-schoolers and college students. But the teen summer job is drying up as extracurricular commitments and internships eat into summer breaks. Fewer teens are seeking jobs – 35 percent of 16- to 19-year-olds are currently working, down from 52 percent in 1998, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Parks departments, hotels and country clubs say the shortage in teen workers is especially pronounced this summer, as a tight labor market and changing immigration policies have made it difficult to fill the country’s 150,000 lifeguarding jobs. At the same time, retirees are looking for part-time work to make ends meet.
“There’s been an ‘age twist,’ ” said Paul Harrington, a professor of labor markets at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “There’s this idea out there among teens that work isn’t such a cool thing anymore – and so who’s replacing them in the workforce? Older Americans, 55 and up.”
Lifeguarding isn’t seen as being as sexy or as glamorous as it once was.
“Back when ‘Baywatch’ was on the air, we had so many applicants that we had to turn people away,” said B.J. Fisher, a spokesman for the American Lifeguard Association.
As a result, the organization is recruiting senior citizens – the oldest of whom is 86 – to make up for a lack of younger applicants. Pools and beach clubs across the country are also raising wages and lowering the physical requirements to attract more applicants.
“We’re starting to think outside the box: baby boomers, seniors, retired lawyers and accountants,” said Fisher, who, at 61, has been a certified lifeguard most of his life. “Employers are starting to look internally, too: Maybe that custodian who swims laps after work can get certified.”
At Lake Shore Country Club in Erie, Pennsylvania, swim coaches and teachers double as lifeguards. San Diego is looking to retired members of the military to watch over its pools. This year, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker began allowing 15-year-olds to sign up as lifeguards, a year younger than the previous age requirement.
And in Austin, where just 644 of 750 lifeguarding slots have been filled so far this summer, city officials are recruiting older workers by placing ads in newspapers, employee retirement guides and utility bills.
“People say nobody gets paper bills anymore, and I say, ‘My mom does’ – and that’s who we’re trying to reach,” said Jodi Jay, aquatics division manager for the city’s parks department.
Botts, who trained for months to pass the lifeguarding certification test, says managers have told her that they prefer older employees because they tend to be reliable. Plus they can drive themselves to work. These days, she says, they’re happy to have any worker they can get.
During Memorial Day weekend, the city was so short-staffed that instead of getting a break every 20 minutes, Botts worked for an hour at a time with five-minute breaks. Noticeably missing from the workforce, she says, are younger workers who return year after year.
“Practically every shift I work, we are short employees,” Botts said. “You look around and think, ‘Why isn’t anybody else working here?’ ”
In South Dakota, where the unemployment rate is 3.3 percent, Jean Pearson splits full-time lifeguarding jobs into part-time gigs that can more easily fit into workers’ schedules. But even when Pearson can recruit teenagers, she says, school schedules make it almost impossible for them to commit to a full season, from Memorial Day to Labor Day.
“It’s been extremely tough,” said Pearson, a program coordinator for Sioux Falls Parks and Recreation. “We used to be able to keep lifeguards for three or four years. Now we’re competing with every other employer in town.”
Pearson has expanded her search to local college students and retirees who frequent the city’s pools.
Meanwhile, Austin city officials now recruit from high schools, targeting students who may not even know how to swim. The city has pulled in 200 teens in two years for a semester of free swim classes and lifeguard training – along with guaranteed jobs that pay nearly double the minimum wage – in exchange for school credit. But Jay says it’s still a challenge to keep them coming back.
“High school students are thinking about two-a-day football practice or drill team,” she said. “Convincing them to stay committed has become almost impossible.”
When lifeguards said ice-cold drinking water would keep them coming back, the city began delivering coolers of it to its 51 pools each morning. “It’s the little things that can help make this job more appealing,” Jay said.
Happy Swimmers USA, a Los Angeles-based company that trains lifeguards for a number of pools, including the U.S. House of Representatives health club, pays $24 an hour. Even so, the number of young applicants is “shrinking substantially,” according to owner Jenn Tyler.
“Students in today’s world can’t afford to have a casual summer job and instead opt for corporate internships to pay for student debt,” she said.
For decades, pool management companies have relied heavily on foreign students who come to the country to work as lifeguards on summer visitor visas that allow them to work and travel in the United States. But this year, there has been a “dramatic decline” in visa approvals, said Jennifer Hatfield, director of government affairs for the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals.
The Galveston Island Beach Patrol in Texas, which relies on online video-chat interviews and swimming videos to recruit foreign students from countries such as Colombia, says it has hired only 100 of the 145 lifeguards it needs this summer.
“I hear the same story, or versions of it, all over the country,” said Peter Davis, who heads the city’s beach patrol. “It’s become impossible to fill these positions.”
Three decades after Gregg Jugla worked his way through college as a lifeguard, he’s returned to the profession.
During the summer, the 50-year-old pharmacist picks up shifts for the Wildwood Beach Patrol in New Jersey on his days off.
“I love it,” he said. “It brings me back to my youth.”
But it hasn’t been easy. The physical demands of the job – coupled with the 40-plus hours of training required before the first shift can begin – are among the reasons recruiters say younger workers just aren’t interested.
It took Jugla a few tries to pass the tests required for certification, which include swimming 500 meters in less than 10 minutes and running 1 mile on the beach in 7 minutes, 30 seconds.
The industry has tried for decades to make it easier to recruit lifeguards by lowering requirements. The shallow-water lifeguarding certificate, for example, requires being able to swim 100 yards at a time instead of 300.
Two years after retiring from his job as a math teacher, Bill Bower, 63, decided to become a lifeguard. He wanted to find a way to work with people – and the extra income didn’t hurt, either. But he was still nervous, he said, about having to show up to a training course alongside colleagues who were one-third his age.
“I was like, am I going to be that weird old guy in the room?” Bower said. It turned out he was the fastest swimmer there.
These days, Bower works about 50 hours a week for the Galveston Island Beach Patrol. Powerful rip currents hit the shore on a daily basis, requiring him to jump in and help guide swimmers to shore.
“It’s very tiring when I finally come home at night,” said Bower, who had both hips replaced seven years ago. “But I’m the best shape I’ve been in in decades.”
And he’s got the accolades to prove it: Last year, locals voted him the city’s best lifeguard.
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.