NEW YORK – 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, California-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.