Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Where Have You Gone, David Hasselhoff?

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Where Have You Gone, David Hasselhoff?

Article excerpt

Len Hughes, a California lifeguard recruiter, decided this season would be different. For months, he and San Clemente Beach officials saturated local radio waves, newspaper ads, and supermarket fliers with an urgent plea: "Lifeguards Wanted."

But only 42 applicants ended up turning out - a historic low. Of those, fewer than half passed the first interview. Worst of all, five had to be rescued in their first swim trial.

"I've never seen anything like it," Mr. Hughes says. "The worse news is that everyone I've talked to nationwide is having the same problem."

From Maine to Florida, San Diego to Washington State, lifeguard chairs at pools, lakes, and ocean beaches are missing the Fabio- physiqued water hunks of yesteryear more than any time in decades. With a water-tight job market, the high-school-to-30 age group that usually fills the bill is making more money at other things. And as the dog days of August approach, even the few lifeguards that remain are beginning to dwindle as some steal away for vacations or return to college early.

"There are so many more activities competing for the attention of young people, that spending a summer working for a low wage as a lifeguard has dropped way down the list," says Chris Brewster, lifeguard chief for the San Diego Lifeguard Service. "They can make so much more money elsewhere without the hundreds of hours of formal training it takes to be a lifeguard that they are skipping the option, to the detriment of the rest of us."

Besides the soaring economy and tight job market, observers say, several longer-term factors contribute to the shortage.

Smaller applicant pool

After years of cutbacks and shifts in leisure-and-sport pursuits at the community level, the once-large pool of trained teenagers rising through the ranks of local swim clubs has evaporated. And because of a soaring economy, the superathletes who used lifeguarding to keep in shape in the off season now have more money and backing to keep them in training for the events they excel at, like football or gymnastics.

At the same time, standards for certification have been lowered, as private companies have rushed to fill the need for lifeguards, but with qualifying requirements that have driven down the national norm.

At swimming venues around the country, the resulting shortage is characterized as anywhere from a minor inconvenience to a crisis. Recreation officials are having to increase pay, hire less-than- desirable talent, close sections of beach, or just do without.

In Connecticut, miles of public beach along Long Island Sound are not currently protected by lifeguards. Huntington Beach, Calif., made famous in songs such as "Surf City," is 10 short.

"I'd call it a national crisis," says Rich Connell, beach supervisor at Del Ray Beach, Fla. Last year, eight applicants applied for more than a dozen openings there. …

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