Where have all the lifeguards gone?

Once again we are asking the question of where have all the lifeguards gone which has dominated conversations among aquatic safety leaders across the nation. Where did they vanish to? This is a question that has many parts to it and understanding the answers will lead many to the conclusion that the job of lifeguard is in its death throes. Understanding this question and its answers will also lead some to concede that the industry may never recover due to a shift in how the job is perceived as well as other factors.

Let’s take a look back in history, back to the 1990’s. In the 90’s, we had a television phenomenon that was the best single recruiting tool for ocean and pool lifeguards. This tool was the hit TV show Baywatch starring David Hasselhoff and yes as corny as that sounds, it is the absolute truth. Due to the show’s popularity there was never a shortage of candidates vying for jobs on the beach and tryouts for the few positions were quite robust and very competitive. Everybody wanted to be the Baywatch hottie, the Baywatch hero. This show was to lifeguards what Emergency was to the job of firefighting. To this day there was no better recruiting tool such as Baywatch to attract candidates to the job of lifeguard.

Sadly, after Baywatch called it quits the lack of interest for being a lifeguard coincided. In fact, since Baywatch went off the air, there have been other TV shows and movies made however they have portrayed the lifeguard as a young, sex crazed, party animal looking for the hottest guy/girl however that is furthest from the truth. We have never trusted the media and Hollywood to give the job of lifeguard any justice on screen. This was definitely the case with the new Baywatch movie starring Dwayne Johnson (The Rock) which presented a horrible portrayal of lifeguards. It was rather disgusting to say the least. When confronted by Lifeguard Chief Castillo about the horrible portrayal of lifeguards, Mr. Johnson stated, “I was just making a movie buddy” which is code for “I really don’t give a shit”.

In the years leading up to the pandemic the lifeguard shortage was beginning to take shape and many experts and aquatic safety leaders were sounding the alarm. Well, things were about to get worse!

In 2020, the pandemic and the lockdowns were the mandates of the land and as a result of this, was the final nail in the coffin sealing the fate of the lifeguard industry. The industry may never recover as a result of draconian lockdowns. During the pandemic and during the lockdowns, many pools as well as beaches were closed to the public which meant that lifeguards were unable to work. This also meant that many lifeguards were unable to recertify and new candidates could not get certified for the job. This had devastating consequences that we are seeing now. American Red Cross seeing the writing on the wall attempted to extend the certifications for those who had lapsed or were about to lapse but by this point it was already too late and pointless.

So, what happened to all of those lifeguards and candidates? Many decided to apply for unemployment benefits that were being freely given out by the government and many learned early on they could make much more per week then they would on the job. They basically walked away from the job to “milk” the system or they moved onto different job paths. Many of those lifeguards will never return. As for the lifeguard candidates who could not get training to certify also gave up on their quests and moved onto different job paths. This has left a huge hole in the industry resulting with pool closures and beach closures. The sad part is that many kids who look forward to spending time in the pool or at the beach may find one or both closed due to inadequate staffing.

Here we are heading into summer 2023 and everyone is scrambling to hire enough lifeguards however no one is stepping up to the call. This is very frustrating for pool managers and beach agencies across the United States. Even we are struggling to attract lifeguards despite aggressive recruiting but one thing is for sure, we need to get extremely creative if we are to survive. Many are attempting to offer better pay, sign on bonuses, etc. So far those attempts have been unanswered.

We were alarmed to find out that many are dumbing down their entry requirements which could have devastating consequences. For example, the City of Atlanta is offering jobs to anyone willing to take it including those who do not know how to swim and for those who do not know how to swim will be taught how to swim with the promise to receive their lifeguard training. Upon learning of this, we were only thinking what could go wrong.  There is a right way and a wrong way to recruit lifeguard candidates. Only time will tell how this all goes.

As for Golden State Lifeguards, we will continue to conduct aggressive recruiting on a year round basis but a decision will have to be made to either close the company or to continue.

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