Milwaukee — In the first week of June in Wisconsin, beachgoers feasted on a carefully groomed Lake Michigan shore in front of volleyball nets on rainbow-striped poles and a waterfront café menu serving sausages, quesadillas, and mojitos.
Only one thing was missing. In place of the traditional wooden lifeguard rigs, there was a cherry red lifesaving rig and a sign: “No lifeguard is on duty. Swim at your own risk.”
Lifeguards are frustratingly scarce this year, leaving tens of thousands of the country’s swimming pools closed and beaches unguarded, and alienating the public from the American summer stalwart.
In Milwaukee County, where temperatures are already in the 80s and schoolchildren are ending the school year, a network of public pools has been closed rather than open. Officials said at least five facilities have been closed, and four swimming pools will be open to the public. On the famous beaches on Lake Michigan, swimmers must navigate choppy waves and dangerous avalanches.
Employment problems stretch across the country: Officials in Austin, Texas, said they have not yet found willing rescuers for half of the 750 jobs they hope to fill. In Cincinnati, hiring has been so short that only eight of the city’s 23 swimming pools have opened.
“It seems like an unsolvable problem,” Jim Tarantino, deputy director of Milwaukee County Parks, which operates the city’s pools, said of the closures. “We are divided like society.”
City officials and industry experts point to a combination of factors leading to a shortage of lifeguards. The low unemployment rate provided young people with abundant work options. Because of Covid-related restrictions during the pandemic, swimming lessons and lifeguard courses have often been suspended for parts of the past two years, poking holes in an already weak training pipeline. And employers choose from a smaller pool of applicants: In states like Wisconsin, there are fewer teens than in decades past, as residents chose to have smaller families.
Bernard J. said: Fisher II, director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association, “It’s the worst we’ve ever seen,” adding that a third of the country’s beaches and pools are affected by the shortage.
Even for pools that remain open, many are canceling swimming lessons and assigning their coaches to serve as lifeguards, complicating the training problem for the future. “If we don’t keep training our new lifeguards all summer, it will be a long time before we get out of this,” Fisher said.
In dire need of help, cities and private sector employers have suspended perks and raised hourly wages. Six Flags Street Louis offered lifeguards up to $18 an hour and promised a reward of $500. In Grand Rapids, Michigan, the parks department covered the cost of training lifeguards this year, helping to attract enough applicants to place staff at its parks.
In New Orleans, known for its hot and humid summer, lifeguards charge $15.91 an hour, a jump from less than $12 an hour last year, said Larry Barabino Jr., chief executive of the New Orleans Recreational Development Commission. He manages parks and pools in the city.
“We were in the news, we were on social media, we were on the radio,” Mr. Barabino said.
But it didn’t work. Only five of the city’s 13 seasonal pools will open this summer. and mr. Barabino worries that teens will have fewer options for entertainment, especially when their families can’t afford expensive private camps and vacations.
“The challenge for some young people is, will the ability to walk to the pool in their area be there?” He said. “And the answer is no. They will not be able to swim every day.”
Austin’s network of public pools is slowly returning to life as hiring increases, and Aaron Levine, a watersports supervisor, says he hopes the department will do better than last year in meeting its goals. But he worries that the shortage of national lifeguards will have repercussions on the safety of swimmers, especially for children who are not good at water.
“It’s hard to watch,” he said. “It’s 100 degrees in Texas. If they don’t come to their neighborhood lifeguard pool, they’ll find a body of water somewhere.”
Many unused pools across the country are showing signs of deterioration, with weeds burrowing into cracks in the concrete. Washington Park Pool in Milwaukee is one of them, mint green diving boards hover over an empty pool, and an adjacent low-hanging building is closed and locked.
Mike Ether, who lives a few blocks away, sat on his front porch one recent afternoon and lamented that the local pool–chain-fenced, drained–was not available to children in the neighborhood.
He’s lived in the city for decades, and remembers his days as a teenager in the 1970s: When he was 14, he got a job as a lifeguard at that very pool.
“It was beautiful,” he said. “I got on your bike there, checked your bike — they watched it for you — and paid 25 cents to go swimming.”
A short drive from Bradford Beach on Lake Michigan, where a sign warned visitors that there would be no lifeguards on duty, some Milwaukee said the absence was a loss to a beloved ritual.
Tisha Sharif, 29, was at the beach during a break from her real estate job, enjoying a quiet moment as she watched the water from her car. She said she has fond memories of being a child on the beach, when lifeguards were plentiful and the crowds were even bigger.
“I remember it was cool at the time,” she said, adding that although her two-year-old daughter could swim, she didn’t want to be brought into the water without a lifeguard, and she knows how fast the baby can escape even more often than not the parent vigilance.
“I just don’t think it’s safe,” Ms. Sharif said. “It’s not the same thing.”