SANDY HOOK, N.J. — Acting on pure migratory instinct, Rol Woolson has returned for 17 summers to this stretch of pristine beaches and rock jetties on the Jersey Shore, an hour south of New York City.
He does so to rejoin a flock of fellow lifeguards in an East Coast version of "Baywatch." Sitting atop elevated chairs, watching winter-white skin turn bronze, and sometimes saving lives, lifeguarding has always been one of the more sought-after summer jobs.
In any town, lifeguarding at a beach, pool, or swimming hole has traditionally reigned as the summer job with more allure than, say, mowing lawns or flipping burgers.
But over the past few summers, Mr. Woolson has noticed that the prime seasonal crop of lifeguards - college students - has declined. Here, as on distant shores, students are abandoning the perks of a beach job in favor of more career-oriented pursuits such as internships, a job on Wall Street, or a position in a congressional office in Washington. Some just stay on campus to take extra summer courses.
"I mean, it makes sense. There's, like, 500 people for every [job] opening out there. So, you've got to have something that makes you stand out. Good grades don't cut it anymore," said Woolson, who is a senior lifeguard and one of the old-timers at Sandy Hook beach, in Gateway National Recreation Area.
Sandy Hook was barely able to fill its staff of 70 this year. While past years provided enough applicants to fill a waiting list, this year beach officials found themselves scrambling to fill slots in time for Memorial Day.
Six lifeguards, just days before opening day, called to quit. "One of them got accepted for an internship, and two decided to go to summer school," said Thomas McLoughlin, Sandy Hook's chief lifeguard.
As tough competition for today's jobs forces college students to market themselves better, an internship or white-collar summer job has become a door-opener, a calling card to their future. But it may be an indicator of even tougher times - or a sign that today's twenty-somethings are more career-obsessed than leisure-obsessed - when one of the coolest summer jobs of all time loses some of its luster.
The National Red Cross is kicking off a promotional campaign in schools across the country to lure today's younger generation to the first aid and lifeguarding courses it offers, and to convince them that lifeguarding actually builds self-esteem and character. "We're running into that same problem. There is a shortage of lifeguards," says Red Cross spokeswoman Heather McMurtrie, a former guard for seven years. "But it can actually be a resume builder because there's a lot to be said for guarding people's lives."
Some cities, like Chicago, are compensating for the loss of college students by offering part-time schedules that allow students to work a half day as a guard and pursue other goals the rest of the day. And New York may make some of its beaches off limits to swimmers to cut down on the number of lifeguards needed.
At many of the nation's beaches, water parks, and city pools, a loss of college-age lifeguards has forced the recruitment of less-experienced teenagers. At Action Park, a water park of slides and pools in northwest New Jersey, Gerard Lynch started hiring guards as young as 16. "We had more older people a few years ago. We had more 20-year-olds. Now, they're pursuing things to help their career."
"It's different in different parts of the country. But it's harder to find the college-age kids to be lifeguards," says Mark Oostman of the Houston-based Ellis and Associates, which trains lifeguards to work at water parks across the country. "These days, you're dealing mostly with high school kids.''