On a mid-June afternoon, with Austin temperatures nearing 100 degrees, a few children played under the canopy of cedar and live oak trees outside the pool gates at Walnut Creek Metropolitan Park. Inside the closed gates of the pool grounds, about two dozen fit, sun-baked teens and twenty-somethings listened attentively, red flotation devices wrapped around their midsections or wedged in the crooks of their arm. Periodically, succinct instructions were followed by the sound of splashing in the pool. Passersby occasionally wandered over to the fence, gazed in at the trainees and the clear blue water, and read the banner zip-tied to the chain-link: “Get Hired. Get Trained. Get Working! Now Hiring! Lifeguards & Swim Instructors.” The posting advertised fifteen-dollar-an-hour pay, and displayed the City of Austin seal in the bottom left corner.

In late May, the Austin Parks and Recreation Department announced that it had a dire need for lifeguards—staff had been able to fill only 150 of the 750 necessary lifeguard positions. As a result, the city has had to dramatically limit access to public pools. Currently, just 18 of 45 aquatic facilities are up and running, even though the city has since added another 100 lifeguards to its roster. (Two more facilities, Garrison and Walnut Creek, are set to open in the first week of July.) But the shortage isn’t unique to Austin. Lifeguard vacancies have plagued aquatics programs from El Paso to Dallas and down to the beaches in Galveston and South Padre. Consequently, Texans trying to escape the summer heat by plunging into cool waters have fewer options and, in some cases, less lifeguard coverage than they usually do.

For most programs, this lifeguard labor shortage has been a persistent issue over the last several years, but the COVID-19 pandemic has significantly exacerbated the problem. In Houston, where in a normal year all pools would be open at this point in the summer, only 10 of 37 city pools are fully operational. “The number-one reason, of course, is COVID,” says Kenneth Allen, director of the Houston Parks and Recreation Department. Allen says the city has had fewer applicants this year, but the main problem is that staff have had fewer opportunities to recruit and train potential lifeguards. In typical years, many cities send representatives to visit local high schools and colleges to encourage students to apply, but this year in-school recruiting was limited or canceled altogether. 

“We’re trying to stop the bleeding,” says Robin Steinshnider, senior park and recreation manager for the city of Dallas. There, aquatics program leaders thought they were in pretty good shape until mid-May, when potential lifeguards who had accepted offers—including some who had already been trained—started to back out. “In a three-week period, we lost like sixty people,” says Steinshnider. Some would-be lifeguards left for better-paying jobs, which are easier to find in a booming labor market; Texas is expected to add as many as 816,000 jobs this year, according to a Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas estimate. Other trainees unexpectedly had to take summer-school classes, and an additional group needed to take care of younger siblings now that their parents were returning to in-person work.

In an attempt to address the cascading effects of the pandemic, Dallas recently implemented a retention incentive to keep the lifeguards they do have. Employees can now earn up to a $500 bonus for staying on through the end of the season.

Things have changed considerably since the days of Baywatch and Saved by the Bell, when lifeguarding was regularly glamorized on TV—free marketing for lifeguard recruiters throughout the country. In 2000, more than half of all sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds in the U.S. had some kind of summer employment. That number has since fallen by more than 20 percentage points. In large part, that’s because teens have had fewer job options—until recently, there was a surplus of unskilled labor in the U.S., and companies didn’t want to spend the time to hire and train teens and then accommodate their limited work schedules. Lifeguarding is one of the few jobs that have remained staffed mostly by teens and twenty-somethings. In recent years, some have gone so far as to declare the summer job a relic of generations past, and last summer marked the lowest point for teen summer employment since the Great Recession. 

But in the strange economic conditions created by the pandemic, with businesses needing to re-staff as vaccinations roll out, teens are again in high demand this summer. “The free market works both ways,” says Joanna Lahey, an associate professor of economics and public administration at Texas A&M University. She notes that lifeguarding is skilled labor—it requires training, which can cost around $100 in some cases, and a certification. “Sometimes you have to pay more to get skilled labor,” she says. Several cities have raised wages, but they admit that it’s been hard to keep up with the pay offered by big companies. “We tried to be as competitive as we can,” San Antonio’s recreation manager told a local news outlet. “But this year it’s been a struggle.”  

Lahey suspects that the high demand for unskilled labor Texas is experiencing this summer—all those service-industry businesses that are competing with aquatics programs for younger employees—is likely to be short-lived. “I think by next summer, that’s not going to be true anymore,” she says.

Zachary Lee worked as a lifeguard for the city of Austin in 2019, when he was sixteen years old. He and a few friends signed up together for the training, and he was assigned to rotate through three Central Austin pools. He enjoyed being able to work outside and swim frequently. At around fifteen dollars an hour, the pay was pretty good, especially since it was Lee’s first real job. As with any kind of work, there were stressful aspects: in addition to the need to always be on guard for a life-threatening emergency, there were also the periodic audits conducted by higher-ups to test lifeguarding skills and knowledge. He understood those came with the job, though, and he liked the work.

Lee might have lifeguarded again in 2020 were it not for the pandemic—it was a chaotic and unpredictable time, especially for someone expected to potentially pull a drowning victim out of the water and perform lifesaving procedures. Austin only opened pools sporadically and with limited capacity (some other Texas cities, including Dallas and Houston, never opened any pools in 2020). Since he skipped a year of lifeguarding, Lee would have had to retake the full 32-hour training course again this year, rather than just a refresher. “That was definitely a big thing this year that kind of pushed me away from it,” he says. Lee is heading to UT-Dallas in the fall to study biomedical engineering, and he wound up landing a job this summer at a biotech company in Austin. “It’s a really good opportunity,” he says. “So, I ended up going with that.”

All of the cities that have had to limit access to their pools recognize that they’re also limiting access to the significant physical, social, and mental health benefits these facilities offer. Pools are places where parents bring their kids to teach them how to swim; where people exercise and meet friends. And perhaps most important of all in the brutal summer heat, as Houston’s Kenneth Allen puts it: Texans come to the pools to “soak, relax, and just cool off—just simply cool off.” As the state’s overloaded power grid struggles to keep our homes cool, that’s no small thing.

Beaches, too, are a crucial resource for many nearby communities, and their lifeguard crews are also struggling with understaffing. While South Padre Island tourists tend to flock to city beaches near the resorts and restaurants, the county beaches are more often frequented by residents of nearby towns, including Brownsville, Harlingen, and Los Fresnos. “It’s one of the few options people have for summer relief and access to the water,” says Art Hurtado, chief of the Cameron County Beach Patrol, which covers public beaches on South Padre Island. Hurtado’s crew is smaller this year, but the county doesn’t limit access to the beach, so they’ve had to modify coverage hours and reduce the number of lifeguard towers to ten, down from fifteen in previous years. “Unfortunately, the ocean comes with its risks,” Hurtado says.

“It’s sort of a crisis point,” the chief of the Galveston Island Beach Patrol told the Houston Chronicle in late May. With smaller crews this year, the beach patrol has less room for error. In Cameron County, Hurtado and his team have adjusted schedules so that beaches are patrolled as thoroughly as possible during peak hours. Still, they worry about the limited coverage.

One of Hurtado’s longtime guards, Zeke Jimenez, 22, says his lifesaving skills have repeatedly been put to the test in the six years he has patrolled the Cameron County beaches—his rescues and assists number well into the triple digits. One rescue in particular sticks out to him. “A couple of years ago, I had a little boy and his dad in a very near-drowning scenario,” Jimenez recalls. After swimming out to rescue them, he administered oxygen and both swimmers survived, but it was dicey. “I think it really opened my eyes to what the beach actually was,” he says. “A lot of people think it’s a real beautiful place where they can go and swim out and do whatever, but really they forget to respect the ocean.” 

Jimenez, a manufacturing engineering major at Texas State University, sees it as part of his job to teach that respect for the ocean to people who aren’t as familiar with its risks. A gifted swimmer who competed on the Los Fresnos High School swim team and frequently visited the county beaches with his friends and family growing up, Jimenez sees lifeguarding as a perfect summer job. 

When he inevitably moves on to an engineering job in the near future, Jimenez says he’ll miss his lifeguarding days. A vocal advocate for the profession, he urges other young people to consider it. Lifeguarding is good training for those aspiring to careers as first responders and medical professionals, he says, but it’s also something more. “For me in particular, it was always about having the ability to help people,” Jimenez explains. That, and “being at the beach every single day, every summer—I couldn’t ask for more.”