Flashback: Nothing new under the sun about this summer’s lifeguard shortage

If you’ve been to your local neighborhood swimming pool this summer, you may have felt the pain of a summer lifeguard shortage in the form of reduced hours or “swim at your own risk” signs.

Experts cite a combination of explanations for this shortage from the impact of COVID-19 to low unemployment to a shortage of young people in the job market who usually take lifeguarding jobs.

Looking back 20 years, we see a similar set of circumstances that led to a similar lifeguard shortage. Join us as we travel back in time to the summer of 2002 for this month’s flashback feature.

The Time: The summer of 2002 was the first summer after 9/11. The War on Terror was in full swing and terrorism was still fresh on everyone’s mind. George W. Bush was president of the United States, Roy Barnes was governor of Georgia, and gas prices in Georgia were $1.22 per gallon. Elon Musk founded SpaceX in 2002 and Avril Lavigne, Alicia Keys and Jennifer Lopez were at the top of the charts. In movies, it was the era of Star Wars prequels, and Harry Potter and Lord of The Rings sequels.

Lifeguard Shortage: The lifeguard shortage of 2002 was a national shortage and wasn’t just limited to Georgia. In Georgia, pools with “No Lifeguard on Duty” signs were common at neighborhood pools in the north Atlanta suburbs.

The shortage was referred to as the “Most challenging summer of the last 50 years,” at the time.

Local media reports at the time said lifeguards commonly complained about disparities between the amount of work and the amount of pay, as well as rules that came with working as a contract employee for a third party company at a neighborhood pool.

The Reasons: Economists and experts delving into the shortage at the time gave similar reasons to what we see in the 2022 lifeguard shortage. There was an increase in private pools in condominiums and neighborhoods, which paid better than public pools and older neighborhood pools.

The unemployment rate in 2002 was also low, just like it is today, and summer jobs like lifeguarding tend to suffer during times of low unemployment. Another factor related to low unemployment was an abundance of available jobs that were less strenuous than being a lifeguard. With an abundance of jobs, teens and college students will opt for indoor jobs with air conditioning if those jobs are available.

Another factor in common between 2022 and 2002 is an event of national significance that would drive younger workers to spend vacation time with their families instead of joining the workforce. This year, we are on the tail of COVID-19. In 2002, the U.S. was just coming back from the Sept. 11 attacks.

One other factor that played into the 2002 lifeguard shortage was a new recommendation by the Red Cross. Prior to the summer of 2002, the Red Cross made a recommendation that two life guards should be on duty at pools. While this was a recommendation and not a requirement, many HOAs and public pools increased the number of lifeguards necessary due to liability issues, drastically increasing demand on already short supply of labor.


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