CAPE MAY — The lifeguard stand on the beach at Reading Avenue is empty, as are several others along the city’s two-mile stretch of shoreline.
For the first time in at least several decades, the Cape May Beach Patrol has a manpower shortage.
“We’re eight people short,” Lt. Terry Randolph said. “I’m in my 39th year on the Beach Patrol, and this is the first year it’s happened. Usually, we have to turn people away.”
Similar situations are occurring elsewhere in Atlantic and Cape May counties. Some beach patrols are at the bare minimum, had a much smaller contingent of candidates to choose from than in past years or are struggling to fill out rosters.
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Longtime Avalon Beach Patrol Capt. Murray Wolf likes to have 110 lifeguards but will settle for 90 to 100. As of Monday afternoon, he had 86.
“We’ve definitely had some problems,” Wolf said. “We’re advertising now, and we’re constantly testing people who are interested. We seem to go up and down in terms of our numbers, but it’s no question it’s been harder this year.”
Lifeguard tests typically consist of a swim and run that must be completed in certain times. During a test, candidates must be able to complete a half-mile swim in under 15 minutes and a mile run in under 7:30 minutes, though the lengths and times vary among patrols.
“This is the first time ever we haven’t had enough lifeguards,” Brigantine Beach Patrol Lt. James Wilkinson said. “We had 20, 21 people try out, but only 12 could pass the test.”
The number of men and women showing up for tryouts is much smaller than in previous years, when patrols would be forced to turn down qualified lifeguards.
Tryouts, which are typically conducted the first week of June, would be so crowded, they would be all-day affairs. Lifeguards who were turned away by one patrol would head up or down the coast to try out for another patrol.
“In the 1970s and ‘80s, we’d have 70 people trying out for seven spots,” Wolf said.
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The rising housing costs and the lure of higher-paying summer jobs contributed to Cape May’s shortage, Randolph said.
Mansions have replaced modest homes throughout the town, and owners rent out their properties to vacationers for enormous sums that can range from $2,500 to more than $5,000 per week, which prices out lifeguards.
First-year guards make $97 per day in Cape May and $94 in Wildwood Crest, which would seem like a reasonable wage for a 16-year-old except that other jobs pay better.
“They can just go across the street (to a bar or restaurant) and make $150 or more a day as a busboy,” Randolph said. “It’s tough to compete with that.”
Those jobs also require less commitment.
Throughout the summer, lifeguards are expected to train in the early morning hours before manning their stands.
“You don’t have to pass a running and swimming test or learn how to row if you’re working on the Wildwood Boardwalk,” Wildwood Crest Beach Patrol Chief Bud Johnson said.
High school and college athletes sometimes just don’t have the time.
Sports are fast becoming year-round endeavors. Athletes are required to attend summer camps and training sessions that pull them off the beach.
“There are also college students who are required to do internships over the summer,” North Wildwood Beach Patrol Lt. Blase Fiorino said.
Avalon has sought to entice lifeguards with incentives.
Wolf said first-year guards make $12.50 an hour to start, but the pay is increased to $13.50 after the first 50 days. Those who are still on the beach on Aug. 15 are given an extra $15 per day.
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Wildwood Crest’s Johnson may have come up with a way to bolster his talent pool.
Every beach patrol has a Junior Lifeguard program that typically ends at age 13. Johnson and his staff created a “Futures Program” this summer for ages 14 and 15. They gather twice a week for training two hours a day, and when they turn 16, they will be offered full-time jobs.
“We have 12 kids in it this year, and we’re hoping to grow it in the coming years,” Johnson said. “It’s worth a try.”