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    Lifeguard agencies shift to early tryouts for next summer’s seasonal guards
    • October 13, 2023

    Looking for a job –  next summer?

    Even as this summer season seems to be lingering, lifeguard agencies up and down the Southern California coast are already holding tryouts to fill lifeguard towers for seasonal positions for next summer, a shift in how recruitment has typically happened at most departments for decades.

    “Everyone is going early.  A lot of departments have been down on staffing levels, so they are trying to get them in early,” said San Clemente Marine Safety Lt. Sean Staudenbaur, whose department is holding a tryout on Sunday, Oct. 15.

    State Parks held a tryout at Crystal Cove in September, while Huntington City Beach has a tryout on Saturday, Oct. 14. The trend follows what Los Angeles County Fire Department Lifeguards have done for years, recruiting early fall for the next year’s summer staffing. LA County held tryouts Oct. 7 with about 200 applicants showing up.

    Rather than having one big tryout day in winter or spring, most agencies are also shifting to having several smaller tryouts throughout the year – all of which include a series of swims and runs – allowing agencies to do early planning and offering flexibility for potential applicants.

    Huntington Marine Safety Division Chief Eric Dieterman said instead of one “big show,” where hundreds of applicants try out, doing “continuous recruitment” is a more practical way to net the next wave of guards.

    Following this Saturday’s tryouts, there will be two during the Thanksgiving holiday Nov. 24 and 25, planned intentionally for students who may be home for the holidays. Another will be held Jan. 6, and the final round Feb. 3 before the academy starts in March.

    Spreading out the tryouts into multiple dates not only allows for more applicants to show up, but is also a way for someone to train for another date if they don’t pass right away, Dieterman said of determined applicants.

    “That’s the value in this tryout method. We’re not just netting the fastest, we’re looking for character as well,” he said. “Character over talent is our big thing. That’s hugely important.”

    Huntington Beach hasn’t experienced a staffing shortage, he said, but it is a challenging job market where lifeguards are competing with other career opportunities. The agency, in response, is trying to better market lifeguarding not just as a summer gig, but a career that can lead to other first-responder jobs.

    “The nature of what people want to do has changed,” Dieterman said.

    By the time summer comes along, the department will have hired and trained 20-to-30 positions for a busy season that extends into November and beyond. And with all the new surfers hitting the water, the beaches are busy year round.

    “This is a 365-day-a-year community,” he said. “If there’s good weather, it’s summertime for us. And that’s almost every day.”

    Laguna Beach is also holding a series of group tryouts with the first expected before the end of the year. Dates have not yet been set, but are expected to be posted on the city’s website, said Marine Safety Captain Kai Bond.

    The coastal city is also doing something different than other agencies – on-demand tryouts. Basically, call and pick a time and day, then show up to do the test.

    “In the past, we’ve had historically only two or three opportunities for candidates to try out for that position, whereas now, candidates can pick a time and date that fits their schedule and enter into the academy, essentially providing more flexibility for potential candidates,” Bond said.

    Laguna Beach is also holding several academies, rather than one big one, so trainees can chose from a variety of dates.

    “We are going to be very welcoming in our recruitment,” Bond said. “We’re doing business a little differently to get recruits.”

    State Parks Superintendent Kevin Pearsall said there was a great turn out at their first tryouts a few weeks ago at Crystal Cove State Park, a mid-point location picked to net guards from Los Angeles down to San Diego.

    “We started this last year, the motivation is recruitment and being able to get adequately staff to protect the beaches,” Pearsall said. “It has turned out really well.”

    And it appears word is spreading about the earlier-than-usual tryouts. Last year, the agency got 18 applicants, this time 69 turned up.

    “This year there was a dramatic increase in attendance,” Pearsall said.

    Pearsall said hiring challenges could still be connected to the pandemic, with people more accustomed to teleworking instead of having to show up on site each day, as is required of lifeguards.

    Cost of living also plays a part, he said. Because State Parks employs across California at lakes, beaches and forest areas, people might not be able to afford to work in a higher-cost counties like Orange, Los Angeles or San Diego for a summer.

    The next step? Figuring out how to keep those who passed the test interested until next summer, or until they get an offer from another agency.

    “It reminds me of college admissions and getting accepted to 10 colleges and deciding which one you want to go to,” Pearsall said. “It’s all about communication and letting them know we are excited to have them.”

    At the first tryout, 60 out of 69 applicants qualified and passed to go to the next step.

    State Parks’ next tryout is March 2 at Huntington State Beach, followed by another at Crystal Cove and then San Clemente State Beach.

    Some agencies are sticking with one big tryout in winter. Newport Beach, for example, is holding its tryout on Jan. 27.

    At San Clemente City Beach, tryouts have historically been in spring. But last year, the city held a tryout in November and it went so well the department opted to hold the tryout even earlier this year.

    San Clemente won’t get a final headcount of how many guards it will need until the beginning of the year, when a returning seasonal staff list is compiled, Staudenbaur said. If not enough show up or qualify at the upcoming tryouts, another will be held next year.

    “The more the better, anyone would tell you at any department,” he said.

    For Staudenbaur, working at the beach has been a dream job. He first started as a teen in 2002 with State Parks and has been with the city of San Clemente for the past decade.

    “You’re working outside. Having a positive impact on the community and making a good rescue feels rewarding,” he said. “It’s definitely a rewarding career.”

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    Staudenbaur attributes staffing challenges in recent years to several factors, including conflicting schedules at colleges or high schools or potential employees not wanting to do the rigorous training, which can be upward of 100 hours.

    “For some people, it might be easier for them to get a job at Starbucks making a similar amount of money,” he said.

    As a career, lifeguarding has allowed Staudenbaur to live a mile away from his office, the beach, he said, and have a job where he can bond with other guards with similar ocean interests.

    “I’m happy every day I chose this path,” he said.

    ​ Orange County Register