Glinting with sweat and suntan lotion under a summer sun, lifeguards once reigned as gods of the beach, perched high above the swimsuited masses. But as more and more millennials trade ocean views for white-collar cubicles, lifeguard chairs stand empty, white, and skeletal on the sand.
The result: 275 of 675 lifeguard positions remain vacant statewide as summer approaches, according to the Department of Conservation and Recreation.
“It’s a problem that’s been building for the last five to eight years,” said John Dwinell, director of the DCR’s Office of Aquatic Resources.
The department was 75 lifeguards short in summer 2012, a number that rose to 100 in 2013 and 125 in 2014, Dwinell said. This year, Houghton’s Pond in Milton still stays unguarded, while beaches in Revere and Nantasket and pools in Malden, Lawrence, and Lowell remain roughly half-staffed.
The lifeguard shortage limits how many people can enter pool and beach areas.
“Lifeguards can only watch so many people,” Dwinell said. “The numbers are staggering. There could be 24 lifeguards and three to five thousand people on the beach for that day.”
The shortage continues despite yearlong recruiting attempts. Flashing orange highway signs advertise lifeguard positions. DCR officials fill high school guidance departments with fliers and visit schools in October, promoting lifeguard classes offered throughout the winter. The department’s Lifeguard Diversity Program offers free training for underprivileged youths, providing CPR and lifeguard certification at no cost to trainees.
The wages aren’t bad, either, at $13.26 an hour. But these benefits may not be enough to sway the high school and college-aged crowd.
Elizabeth Walker, 21, an MIT student and former lifeguard, said better-paying jobs could easily be found elsewhere, with some university jobs paying $20 to $30 an hour. Several college students said they pursued internships relevant to their field and used their summers to network and begin lifelong careers.
Other former lifeguards said the job was too physically strenuous.
“I burned myself out,” said Luke Schlueter, 20, who worked for three years as a lifeguard in a St. Louis pool. “The temperature reached the mid-90s, with 75 percent humidity. Doing that five hours a day, every day, was miserable.”
While Dwinell concedes lifeguard jobs aren’t for everybody, he said they can be a great learning tool for students entering health care or public safety fields. Anna Gill, 21, a returning lifeguard candidate who worked past summers in Melrose, is simultaneously taking emergency medical technician classes in preparation for a career as a physician assistant.
“I’m building up the skills to recognize emergencies,” she said.
Gill and 15 fellow lifeguard hopefuls lunged into a Lawrence YMCA pool this month, dragging red rescue tubes behind them. The heads of their peers bobbed above the pool’s clear surface. The candidates took turns playing roles, some pretending to be lifeguards, others submerged victims.
Bret Daly, 20, remembers the first time he saved a life. On a steamy August day in Hopkinton State Park, a boy followed his friends into water 9 feet deep.
“He didn’t know how to swim, and swam past where he could stand,” said Daly, who dove 15 yards out to the boy, guiding him back to shore.
Blake Ferry, 20, who plans to enter law enforcement, said he wanted to be a lifeguard after his sister saved a woman during her lifeguard days at Revere Beach.
“Helping people is awesome. It’s not like retail,” Ferry said.
But Ferry predicts next year will be his last year as a lifeguard.
“I’m not going to be a lifeguard for the rest of my life,” he said. “It’s good money until you can actually build your career.”
The lack of lifeguards comes amid existing safety concerns.
A 2014 American Red Cross survey found 10 Americans die every day from unintentional drowning — two of them are children younger than 14.
“Drownings are a real problem,” said Jeff Hall, American Red Cross of Massachusetts spokesman. “The percentages of people who can’t swim are really troubling.”
Four summers ago, 36-year-old Marie Joseph’s body lingered for two days in a Fall River pool. Since then, no one has drowned at DCR beaches and pools with lifeguards on duty, said North Region Aquatics Coordinator Christina Doctoroff. Most drownings happened when swimmers visited a beach off-season, diving into choppy waves without a trained guard’s supervision.
“On a hot day in April, there are no guards on duty and people think they can swim [in the beaches],” Doctoroff said.
On a weekend in June, 4-year-old Elijah Correa splashed waist-deep in sea foam at Revere Beach. While his grandmother, Lucy Jimenez, watched vigilantly, a row of lifeguard chairs — half unstaffed — towered behind her. Jimenez, who, like Elijah, does not know how to swim, said the lack of lifeguards made her feel “very unsafe.”
“If this place was crowded today, they cannot check on everything at the same time,” she said.
Other parents said they weren’t especially concerned about the lifeguard shortage.
“I’m not relying on lifeguards; I’m relying on myself to watch my kids,” said Anna Martsinkiv as she lounged on the sand.
Her friend, Iurii Kryvanych, said he regards lifeguards as “just a supplement.”
“The only person responsible for the child’s life is a parent,” he said. “But when we get to the busy season, it would be good if they had all hands on board.”
The DCR will accept lifeguard applications until Aug. 1. For more information, visit www.mass.gov.
Rosa Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.