With only seven lifeguards working at Albuquerque’s Heights YMCA, Tommy Tune has a few theories on where all the pool protectors have gone.
“Some of it has to be due to the fact that the Beach water park closed,” says Tune, senior program director at the one-pool facility at 4901 Indian School Road N.E.
“Maybe it’s due to the fact that other companies are paying better and just not being able to lure the kids like we used to.”
Although Tune has never employed so few lifeguards during a summer and once employed as many as 17, he says the ones he has are enough to keep the pool open.
“I would just like to have some more so I wouldn’t have to worry if somebody is sick or somebody needed to take a day off,” he says.
“This is probably the first year I saw a major shortage of lifeguards.”
It’s a struggle that can end in the closing of a pool and the silencing of splashes and laughs. It’s a struggle that Tune won this summer, but one other pool overseer lost, albeit briefly.
Being five lifeguards short of the 50 it needed, the Bernalillo County Parks and Recreation Department closed one of its smaller pools for two weeks at the summer’s start, says Ed Chismar, department director.
“We had some kids we thought we had on board. Then at the last minute they left us because they went to a higher-paying job,” he said, noting the five positions were later filled.
“I find that lifeguarding is probably not as glamorous as it once was.”
There’s also the concern about the health-damaging effects of too much sun, he says, and teens today have other job options that are better paying and offer more interesting work.
“We’re in the technology age, and lifeguarding’s not technology,” he says. “You sit in the hot sun all day. It’s not very comfortable. You’ve got to look for a unique type of person that wants to be near water all day and be focused.
“It’s not just handing somebody a whistle and sitting up on the guard stand. There are responsibilities of scanning and not taking your eye off your area, and paying attention and watching people as they’re in the water.”
They are responsibilities that don’t deter 17-year-old Heather Ordonez. The Albuquerque resident just completed a lifeguard training course with the city of Albuquerque.
“My parents were lifeguards,” she says. “They said when they were lifeguards . . . you didn’t have as much responsibility, and it was just a cool job to do. Now you have a bigger responsibility. I think it’s cool.”
Her mom, Jeriann Ordonez, says her days of lifeguarding involved “a lot more partying.”
“It was a lot of being cool up on the guard stand,” she says. “We just kind of hung out.”
She notes things have changed.
“They (lifeguards) are all business when I’ve been at the pool,” she says. “I think they’re required to act more professional and look more professional when they’re out on the stands.”
To get more people like Heather Ordonez into the field, Chismar would like to see a lifeguard’s starting hourly wage go from $5.75 to $7.
But he says finding the money in the budget could be tough, especially as increased expenses hit the county with its recent takeover of the Metropolitan Detention Center’s operation.
“We have to compete in the job market, too,” he says. “We have to be more creative. We have to work for better pay.”
In a prepared statement, County Manager Thaddeus Lucero said there was an issue regarding lifeguards’ pay and it would be examined in the next few months to see if an adjustment would attract more to the field.
Some steps have already been taken.
The first week of June, the county held a lifeguard training course to make sure it had enough the 50 lifeguards it needed. Chismar says the five needed guards were found, but it was unusually late in the season for such a session.
Also in June, the county launched a new Junior Lifeguard Program for children not yet old enough to be lifeguards. He describes it as a two-week period of mentoring sessions that prepare kids for easy entry to the field once they come of age at 15 for lifeguarding.
“Train them early, so they’re kind of already in your pipeline,” he says.
Albuquerque Parks and Recreation Department’s own Junior Lifeguard Program, new this year, began July 10 and ends July 21.
Roben Henry, director with the department’s aquatics section, says it’s one of many ways to bring people into the field. There are also visits to high schools, advertisements and a public access TV show.
Although the city has been able to find enough lifeguards, he says it can be challenging to fill all the positions. That’s because the city begins its search in February, but many potential lifeguards don’t think about getting a job until late May.
To get away from people perceiving the job as seasonal only, the city began this year giving monthly lifeguard training courses.
Henry says the additional training sessions will also produce more lifeguards to meet the demand of the West Mesa Aquatic Center, a sprawling complex on the West Side where an Olympic-sized indoor pool recently opened.
Henry, who got his first lifeguarding job with the city in 1976, acknowledges that fewer people are looking for the poolside work.
“We used to have lines of people walking in,” he says. “We don’t have those big lines, but there sure are enough kids out there.”