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The pandemic caused a lifeguard shortage, whichs mean fewer swim lessons this summer


There's a dramatic shortage of lifeguards this summer. In fact, the National Recreation and Parks Association says 8 out of 10 parks and rec departments can't find enough staff. Kristian Foden-Vencil of Oregon Public Broadcasting reports.

KRISTIAN FODEN-VENCIL, BYLINE: She's usually a preschool teacher, but Azzi Bayou (ph) has taken this day off to teach her own 4-year-old how to swim. She's balancing him on a blow-up unicorn in the pool at East Portland Community Center.

AZZI BAYOU: There you go. You did a great job. Good job. Let's hold it. Let's kick our feet out. Woo-hoo.

FODEN-VENCIL: Bayou thought she'd easily be able to find someone to teach in the summer, but there's a long line for swim lessons.

BAYOU: We were trying to register. They don't have any. And it's like a waiting list. So I decided to come out with him and show him the experience how it feels being in the water.

FODEN-VENCIL: A few years ago, Portland had swim lessons every day, even on weekends, but not this summer, says Andy Amato, who runs the aquatics program.

ANDY AMATO: Compared to pre-pandemic, our indoor pools were probably running at about 25% for swim lesson, what they were beforehand.

FODEN-VENCIL: That means 75% fewer lessons. Lifeguards both teach swimming lessons and keep the pool safe. This year, the profession has been hit by a perfect storm. The pandemic closed public pools, and lifeguards had to find other work. In Portland, pool managers had to start from scratch to fill 750 summer positions. Amato says they don't have half the staff they need yet. The job can be intimidating.

AMATO: There's, I think, some people have that preconceived notion that if I'm not, like, a swim team swimmer, that I can't do this job, where that is not the case at all.

FODEN-VENCIL: The historically low unemployment rate is not helping. Most summer jobs don't require as much training - or scooping poop out of the pool in front of friends. Portland parks and rec spokesman Mark Ross worries the lifeguard shortage disproportionately impacts kids already at a disadvantage.

MARK ROSS: Ideally, swimming pools are democratic.

FODEN-VENCIL: Studies show children of color are more susceptible to drowning. And he says pools are a summer oasis for low-income kids.

ROSS: The splashing and the joyful cries and the wonderful feeling of drowsy fatigue and getting some snacks after splashing around, that's what we're here to provide.

FODEN-VENCIL: The American Lifeguard Association estimates one-third of the nation's beaches and pools are affected by the shortage. And that doesn't just mean fewer swim lessons. Tens of thousands of pools across the country are closed - but there are exceptions. Glenn Otto Park sits on the bend of Oregon's Sandy River. It's a beautiful and popular beach, but it's also dangerous with underwater snags, rapids and freezing snowmelt from Mt. Hood. Still, it's all staffed up this summer.

SEAN RAWSON: These environments are really different than the controlled environment of a pool.

FODEN-VENCIL: Sean Rawson runs the river rescue program here. It's supported through a partnership with an ambulance company. With more training and better pay, these lifeguarding jobs provide a path into fields like firefighting and law enforcement. Lifeguard Andrew Fox (ph) is already an EMT. He stands ready in his wetsuit with a paddleboard, life jacket and knife. He says the gig's fun.

ANDREW FOX: It piqued my interest because you're out of the ambulance for four months. You're out in the sun. You're swimming. You're doing a lot more active things.

FODEN-VENCIL: Lifeguards here helped close to 200 swimmers last year. Fox says that's what this job is all about. For NPR News, I'm Kristian Foden-Vencil in Portland. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Kristian Foden-Vencil is a veteran journalist/producer working for Oregon Public Broadcasting. He started as a cub reporter for newspapers in London, England in 1988. Then in 1991 he moved to Oregon and started freelancing. His work has appeared in publications as varied as The Oregonian, the BBC, the Salem Statesman Journal, Willamette Week, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, NPR and the Voice of America. Kristian has won awards from the Associated Press, Society of Professional Journalists and the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. He was embedded with the Oregon National Guard in Iraq in 2004 and now specializes in business, law, health and politics.