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Towns deal with shrinking lifeguard pool

A shortage of applicants has made it hard for municipalities and the state DCR to fill lifeguard chairs.

David L. Ryan/Globe Staff

A shortage of applicants has made it hard for municipalities and the state DCR to fill lifeguard chairs.

It seems unbelievable, given today’s poor job market and the shine long associated with the role of the waterfront lifesaver. But recreation officials in a number of communities south of Boston say they are having a difficult time finding qualified youths to be lifeguards, a once-coveted summertime beach job.

“There seems to be a deficit of good swimmers around here,” said Barry DeBlasio, the recreation director for Plymouth. “There is a huge need for lifeguards on the South Shore.”

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Local aquatic supervisors and recreation directors say they do not believe pay is the issue. The pay scale for a lifeguard typically starts between $9.85 and $12 an hour, which officials say is competitive. They say the shrinking applicant pool for lifeguarding is primarily due to the smaller number of young people with the necessary swimming credentials.

In recent weeks, the Scituate Recreation Department, which requires about 30 lifeguards to staff the town’s five public beaches, has had to push hard to find qualified applicants.

Scituate officials announced earlier this month that the town needed at least a dozen more lifeguard applicants in order to staff all five beaches from opening day this Friday until Labor Day. Scituate had 18 qualified lifeguard applicants two weeks ago. Since then, officials have drummed up more — the town now has about 25 or 26 potential lifeguards, said Chris Roberts, chairman of the Scituate Recreation Commission.

“We’re getting closer, which is great,” said Roberts. “I want to be clear that the beaches will all be open. This is about finding enough qualified applicants to place guards at all of them. If we can’t reach 30 lifeguards, we’ll have to start evaluating.”

He said officials will gauge the popularity of the town’s beaches at Humarock, Minot, Egypt, Peggotty, and Sand Hills based on usage logs from previous seasons. He said Sand Hills Beach is historically the least-used and most likely to be left without lifeguards if the situation demands it.

In Plymouth, DeBlasio, one of a handful of certified American Red Cross waterfront lifeguard instructors in the area, oversees a fully staffed beach crew of about 50, including 32 lifeguards.

He said the dwindling numbers of guard applicants inspired Plymouth to create a junior lifeguard program that acts as a feeder system to meet the town’s needs. Now Plymouth serves as a go-to resource, and regularly sends lifeguards for employment in Bourne and Scituate.

“The funding for guards in this area is steady,” DeBlasio said. “It is not a pay issue, which has consistently gone up. It is the training. There are just not a lot of kids going into it. You have to be in shape and fit to be an ocean guard, and a lot of people just barely make the cut.”

The lifeguard shortage in Scituate, said Roberts, is due to the loss of a number of senior guards opting to take internships or other summer work during their college years, forcing the town to look for a new generation.

He said the job pays nearly $10 an hour to start for an individual 16 years or older with American Red Cross waterfront certification and the ability to pass a swim test, a mock rescue, and a written and oral exam.

In Marion, recreation director Jody Dickerson said he is well aware of the lifeguard shortage in other areas but his town is fully staffed with 10 guards at its Silvershell Beach. Yet he recently launched a junior lifeguard program to prepare a next generation of guards for when his current crew, which includes eight returnees, moves on.

“I wouldn’t exactly say lifeguarding was seen as glamorous,” he said, “but it was always an attractive job. Now I’ve started to notice a change, and so we’re making an effort to hold onto strong swimmers — our future guards.”

In Marshfield, the town’s five public beaches are also fully staffed by, in large part, a returning group of lifeguards, said Cindy Castro, beach administrator for the town.

“We have a high return rate,” she said of the 16 full-time and two part-time guards earning an hourly wage that starts at $9.50.

She said the town hired six new full-time guards this season.

In Hingham, Joan Williams, chairwoman of the Bathing Beach board of trustees, said it was difficult to find qualified applicants to staff the town beach last season, but not this year. The harbor beach is now fully staffed with three lifeguards and a supervisor paid a starting wage of $10.83 an hour, she said.

In Quincy, recreation director Barry Welch, who oversees a staff of 27 lifeguards and swimming instructors at the city’s public pool, with wages ranging from about $10 to $15 an hour, said he is fully staffed for the season because the pool has recruited and groomed an ongoing staff. That said, Welch, who has worked in the field for more than 30 years, referred to the lifeguard shortage in Scituate as “the way things are nowadays.”

“I think the glamour of being out on the beach is gone,” he said. “People worry about being out in the sun. Or maybe parents don’t want their kids exposed to the situations that come with the job.”

Welch referred to a June 1 incident at Morses Pond in Wellesley, in which a 10-year-old, Alexander Glennon, died. Young lifeguards on duty phoned 911 when the boy went missing. Police and fire department officials scoured the pond and found him in the water about an hour later. He was pronounced dead at the hospital.

The state Department of Conservation and Recreation staffs Quincy’s 10 municipal beaches, and it, too, must hunt for qualified candidates — not just in Quincy but statewide.

John Dwinell, director of aquatics for the agency, said the state pays its lifeguards $12.75 an hour but must recruit to avoid shortfalls. As of June 17, the agency had 37 vacant lifeguard positions south of Boston, he said.

The agency needed about 700 lifeguards last summer and was short by about 100 to 150, said Dwinell. He said the agency has the same number of lifeguard stands and chairs to fill this season and, as of last week, was seeking 140 guards.

“It is becoming more difficult to find waterfront lifeguards,” he said. “When I started lifeguarding, you had too many guards, but now we have too few.”

He said the department has 24 pools and 120 guarded waterfronts statewide. South of Boston, it provides lifeguards at locations that include Myles Standish State Forest in Carver, Houghton’s Pond in Milton, and Watson Pond State Park in Taunton, as well as pools in Brockton, Freetown, and Weymouth.

“We’re always looking for lifeguards, he said. “Always. We’re in the process of filling positions now.”

In anticipation of the summer season, he said, the department ran a lifeguard recruitment drive directed at high schools, colleges, and swim teams. He said the Department of Conservation and Recreation also secures lifeguards though a diversity program.

In Plymouth, DeBlasio said that, as a lifeguard trainer, he is constantly hearing from recreation officials seeking guards, especially for area beaches. He said he has several e-mails waiting for him now requesting candidates. Finding 30 guards in Scituate is tough in this day and age — and it is even more difficult to secure more than 50 guards for the summer in Barnstable on Cape Cod, he said.

“The summer work is out there for guards,” he said. “There are a lot of positions to fill with qualified kids in this area, but there needs to be the motivation to get the certification and do the job.”

Meg Murphy can be reached at msmegmurphy@gmail.com.
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