For many in Maine, and the tourists who flock here this time of year, summer in the Pine Tree State means one thing: beach time.
Beaches across the state are packed with sunbathers. Boat owners practically live on the lakes. Summer camp counselors channel their inner “Top Gun” dreams on beach volleyball courts. No one thinks twice about taking a dip in a lake or pool to cool down.
But perhaps this summer, they should.
Colleen Lepage, aquatics director for the city of Portland, said she would normally have 40 to 50 people on staff as lifeguards for the city’s three public pools. This year, she has no more than a couple dozen.
“Teenagers are doing other things,” Lepage said.
On top of everything else, she said that COVID-19 has had a major impact on her ability to retain and recruit lifeguards. They couldn’t train for an entire year because of the early guidelines in the pandemic. Eventually, if she was able to do any training at all, it wasn’t open to the public.
“There was a year that we didn’t run lifeguarding classes,” Lepage said. “That made it hard to get a new generation.”
Now, even if she does have teenagers on staff as lifeguards – historically a summer job populated by teenagers and young adults – they aren’t working 30 or 40 hours per week; they’re working 15-20 because they are doing other things.
Lepage also said city lifeguards used to be one of the best-paid jobs around, but it’s not the case anymore. A lifeguard in Portland might make between $15 and $17 per hour, and some state parks and surrounding towns may be able to pay more.
“As people are coming out of COVID, you can do a service job and not have to have certification,” she said. “Even trying to incentivize it, to pay people to take the certification is not enough.”
She said the challenge of trying to offer higher pay to new employees is how that would sit with more senior seasonal employees, not to mention the permanent employees who are unionized.
“We’re all a little burned out,” Lepage said. “It’s the third summer of this. It’s hard for us to take a day off. There are times when I’m close to closing a pool because I can’t keep it up. We’ve had to limit capacity on busier days because we don’t have the staff.”
While her title is aquatics director, Lepage said she spends at least half her week serving as a lifeguard because the city is down an aquatics leader, who would serve as her assistant and run one of the pools.
The city has three pools: the Riverton Community Center, Reiche Elementary School, and the Kiwanis outdoor community pool on Douglass Street. She said Reiche has been closed to the general public all summer because of the staffing shortage.
There have been some efforts to address these problems.
Lepage said the Red Cross has changed over the years to let potential lifeguards do their classroom work – which can take up to a week – ahead of time, so that trainers can spend more time with them on the water. She has also been trying to reestablish partnerships with the Portland Public Schools, where in the past she would try to recruit lifeguards through the swim teams.
Lepage said her dream is to have a semester-long class where students become lifeguards, and receive high school credit for their effort.
‘We’re not going to fill those positions’
The problem isn’t felt in just Portland’s community pools.
Sean Vaillancourt, manager of Popham Beach State Park in Phippsburg and its lifeguard supervisor, said this year it’s been hard to hire lifeguards.
During the pandemic, Vaillancourt said, not as many new lifeguards have been certified. He said there are probably only “one or two” instructors left for the Red Cross, and there are fewer places that offer courses to the general public.
“It’s been increasingly more difficult because of the shortage of lifeguards and instructors, and the inability to get pool time because of COVID,” he said. “And we’re still really feeling the effects of that.”
In the southern region of state parks, he said, there are just 15 active lifeguarding positions. In the north, there are just five – or 20 out of 42 positions filled. He said that has left some lakes and two oceanside parks unguarded, which means beachgoers are warned to swim at their own risk.
“There are a lot of kids who do competitive swimming,” he added, “but they are less interested in lifeguarding.”
And with the season half over, “We’re not going to fill those positions. That’s still a lot of time for things to happen. Especially at places that are very dangerous, like Reid State Park. It’s a body of water anyone can have an issue in.”
Vaillancourt also said lifeguarding requires a lot of responsibility, including potentially having to try to save someone’s life, and often doesn’t pay as well as other summer jobs. “Most fast-food places and department stores will pay $16 to $20 per hour,” he said.
Pay for Maine state park lifeguards starts at just above $16 per hour. That, coupled with the lengthy training process for maintaining certification, makes the job less appealing to new generations.
Vaillancourt said he started lifeguarding when he was 16, and at the time it was a competitive job to secure. It took a weeklong certification program, but there was also the expectation you had experience lifeguarding at a pool.
“I know there is a national shortage across the board for municipal pools, and other smaller venues have a hard time staffing,” he said. “We have the challenge of time and weather, we can’t just put anybody in a lake year-round, we have to wait for the right timing.”
Vaillancourt, who said Popham Beach is one of the busiest state parks in Maine, said when there are fewer lifeguards available, it means those he does have will have to work overtime, which means more long hours in the heat and sun. And more pressure on them if an emergency rises.
“I wish we could motivate people to want these jobs more,” he said. “I wish we could pay more. I wish we could make certification more obtainable. If it was more accessible, we would get more people who want to work. We need to start a program to get kids interested in this so they are motivated.”
Like Lepage, Vaillancourt said early recruitment and education may help address the shortage.
“Being a lifeguard is a really rewarding job,” he said. “It comes with a lot of benefits that aren’t financially motivated. It’s a really rewarding thing to help somebody.”