Pools need life­guards, so se­nior ci­ti­zens dive in

The Charlotte Observer (Sunday) - - News/obituaries - BY ABHA BHATTARAI Wash­ing­ton Post

ust 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.

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.

PHO­TOS BY AMANDA VOISARD For The Wash­ing­ton Post

Les­lie Botts and her fel­low life­guards close the Bal­cones neigh­bor­hood pool in Austin for the evening. The long­time swim­mer said she wanted a way to stay ac­tive while sup­ple­ment­ing her in­come.

Les­lie Botts, 70, re­cently got her life­guard cer­ti­fi­ca­tion and be­gan work­ing for Austin Parks and Re­cre­ation.

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