The city is still in a lifeguard drought.
Raleigh needs to hire 50 more lifeguards to keep the city’s nine public pools operating at full capacity starting in May. If the spots aren’t filled, pool-goers might have to wait longer to dive in, said Terri Stroupe, Raleigh’s aquatics director.
“I’m a little worried,” Stroupe said. “People have been trickling in little by little, but we are still short.”
Working as a lifeguard used to be a popular summer job for teenagers, but interest as dwindled because some other jobs pay better, there are physical challenges, and getting certified can be pricy. Some might be deterred by Raleigh’s no-cellphone policy for lifeguards – they’re not allowed to use mobile devices while on duty.
Stroupe said she had hoped the city would get a recruitment boost from “Baywatch,” a film opening on May 26 starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Zac Efron. But trailers for the movie, a remake of the popular 1990s television series, aren’t making a difference so far.
“I had my fingers crossed, but it looks like it’s not going to help,” Stroupe said.
Raleigh’s lifeguard shortage isn’t new: Over the last few years, it has become harder for the city to recruit. This year, the city has about 110 lifeguards so far but 160 spots.
The application period is open for another two weeks. Lifeguards must be at least 15 years old and be certified by the American Red Cross.
Raleigh pays lifeguards $8.25 to $9.25 an hour, depending on certifications. That’s more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour.
Raleigh pays lifeguards $8.25 to $9.25 an hour, depending on certifications. That’s more than the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, but teens may be able to earn more through babysitting, tutoring, waiting tables or working in retail.
There’s a cap on the number of hours city lifeguards can work, which could be a deal-breaker for teens who want to work full time. They can’t work 1,000 hours or more in a year, or about 20 hours each week. The rule stems from a state law that requires employees who work 1,000 or more hours to be enrolled in retirement benefits that both the city and employee contribute to.
The job’s physical fitness test can also pose a challenge. Half of Raleigh’s lifeguard applicants fail the swimming test, which includes treading water for two minutes and retrieving a 10-pound object from the bottom of the pool in a timed drill.
Then there’s the cellphone ban.
“People are sitting in front of screens all day,” Stroupe said. “This job requires focus and giving attention to one thing at a time. Lifeguarding can be boring sometimes.”
The Red Cross charges $250 for its five-hour lifeguard training and certification program. In some cases, Raleigh helps pay the fee. The city offers free training classes to those who pass an initiation swim test tryout and agree to work at least 155 hours during the summer, Stroupe said.
Kyle Rathke, a senior at UNC-Wilmington, worked as a lifeguard for Raleigh for three years when he was home on school breaks. He quit last year and starting working at Sears because he wanted better pay and more stability.
Only about 30 percent of Raleigh’s lifeguards return the next year, partly because some graduate from high school and move away for college, where they do summer internships.
“I always hoped I might get a raise the longer I worked there,” Rathke, 21, said of his time as a lifeguard. “I think a lot of teenagers and college students think that they can get better pay somewhere else, especially for a first job.”
Working as a lifeguard is tiring, Rathke said.
“Sitting in the sun all day really drains you,” he said. “People may want a different environment, with air conditioning. In the movies, it makes lifeguarding seem like a quick summer job, but it felt never-ending to me.”
Raleigh isn’t alone in its struggle to convince people to become lifeguards.
There are some people who come thinking they know how to swim, and it turns out to be more difficult than they thought.
Linda Battaglia, aquatics director at the A.E. Finley YMCA in Raleigh
The A.E. Finley YMCA in Raleigh is still recruiting applicants for the summer.
“I don’t think we would turn away a certified lifeguard,” said aquatics director Linda Battaglia. “We’re always looking for new people.”
Applicants must dive head first and feet first into 10 feet of water and swim underwater for 15 feet as part of the swim test, which some find difficult, Battaglia said. Up to 30 percent of applicants typically don’t pass.
“There are some people who come thinking they know how to swim, and it turns out to be more difficult than they thought,” Battaglia said.
Lifeguard training classes at the Finley YMCA cost $215 for members and $258 for non-members. The fee is reduced for some people who agree to work 20 to 30 hours a week at the Y during the summer, and sometimes the fee is waived for applicants.
The Y has an extra incentive for lifeguards: They get a free gym membership and access to the facilities. Still, it can be tough to find people for the job.
“It’s a steep amount for job training, and that seems to be the biggest deterrent,” Battaglia said.
Jill Goodtree, 23, has worked as a lifeguard for the Taylor Family YMCA in Cary for eight years. She said annual raises, paid re-certifications and a promotion to pool manager four years ago have kept her coming back.
“If you don’t have a passion for sun, safety and water, this is not the job for you,” Goodtree said.
Madison Iszler: 919-836-4952; firstname.lastname@example.org