The story behind the lifeguard shortage — and what Massachusetts is doing about it

Lifeguards watch over Revere Beach. (Michael Dwyer/AP)
Lifeguards watch over Revere Beach. (Michael Dwyer/AP)

Editor's Note: This is an excerpt from WBUR's Saturday morning newsletter, The Weekender. If you like what you read and want it in your inbox, sign up here.

Spending a summer's day at the beach isn't much fun when you don't know how to swim.

This was my predicament for years. I figured I'd missed the chance to properly learn to swim as a child, so while others splashed around, I would either sit on the sand or cautiously wade into the water — making sure not to head in too deep — in fear of drowning.

Living with such a risk became burdensome as time passed. So when a friend mentioned that my local YMCA might offer adult swim lessons, I jumped at the opportunity to learn.

That was February. Next week, I'm finishing up my last lesson at the intermediate level. Not only am I thrilled that I can now swim the length of a pool, but just knowing I can keep myself and others safe around water has afforded me invaluable peace of mind — especially now.

That's because lifeguards are in short supply across the country. And with the official start of summer right around the corner (though it may not feel like it this weekend), Massachusetts has been ramping up its recruitment efforts.

The Department of Conservation and Recreation opened its 81 beaches and waterfronts last weekend, and plans to open its pools later this month. However, officials say they're still trying to fill 800 lifeguard, swim instructor and supervisor positions for this summer.

They're not just looking to hire teenagers, either.

"If you're an older adult looking for a way that you can give back to your community and help us keep these amazing waterfront places open, being a lifeguard is a great way to pitch in," Lt. Gov. Kim Driscoll, a former lifeguard herself, told WBUR's Amy Sokolow.

How did we get here?

The last time the U.S. was low on lifeguards — about 20 years ago — the country filled the empty positions by awarding thousands of J-1 work visas to immigrants qualified to work as lifeguards.

But in June 2020, then-President Donald Trump put a pause on such visas. And amidst the pandemic, lifeguard training declined. Throw in today's competitive labor market, and it all adds up to the dangerous shortage we’re seeing today.

Although President Joe Biden let the Trump-era ban on temporary work visas expire, experts say recovering from the shortage will take time.

What now?

Since there won’t be an influx of lifeguards entering the country this year, the best the DCR can do is sweeten the deal for those currently qualified in-state.

Earlier this year, DCR increased their hourly wage to $22-27 an hour. For those willing to work through September, there's an additional $1,000 in bonuses. Driscoll says the state will also pay for qualified applicants to receive their lifeguard certification (i.e. if you're over 16 and think you're a good swimmer and leader).

"We're paying up to $27 an hour for lifeguard positions," she stressed. "That is way more than I was making when I was a lifeguard."

If you (or someone you know) would make a good lifeguard, click here to see where there are openings and start the application process.

Not trying to be a lifeguard?

In the meantime, swimmers should brush up on their water safety skills before taking that first dive at the pool or beach. (Take it from me, it's never too late to learn!)

Just this week, Gov. Maura Healey's administration announced it will fund free beginner swimming lessons for residents of all ages.  The money goes to groups like the YMCA to offer lessons across the state.

Can't make it to a lesson? Listen to this 2021 segment from Radio Boston about the importance of regular swimming lessons, how to stay safe near water and what you can do to help others in distress.

P.S— The state's swimming lessons aren't the only things that are free. One great thing about WBUR newsletters is they will always be free to all readers. But that's because Members make it possible. Please consider joining them! We need 700 new monthly givers by next Thursday. Click here to start your monthly donation today.

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Hanna Ali Associate Producer
Hanna Ali is an associate producer for newsletters at WBUR.



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