The number of applicants for once-coveted lifeguard jobs at Chicago’s beaches and pools has dropped sharply in the past few years, according to public records obtained by WBEZ.
Chicago Park District officials say they need 587 lifeguards for the upcoming summer season, but they had received just 477 applications as of April 19.
Park district documents show officials had fielded more than 1,000 applications a year in 2018 and 2019, before the beaches were closed in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
There were a total of 683 lifeguarding applicants last year — when WBEZ revealed the park district had been secretly investigating dozens of accusations of sexual misconduct by Aquatics Department supervisors.
Officials in Chicago say they have enacted workplace safety reforms to protect lifeguards — many of whom are teenagers — since the abuse scandal that prompted the resignations of Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s parks CEO and board president last fall.
And the park district has launched a marketing campaign, titled “I am a Chicago lifeguard,” with billboards along expressways and posters advertising for the positions that officials hope to fill at the beaches and pools this summer.
In a statement Wednesday, a spokeswoman for the park district did not reply directly when asked whether a staffing shortage could cause the closures of beaches or pools this summer.
But officials said they believed the marketing campaign was having a positive impact on the number of applications.
“Since the campaign launched on April 5, a favorable number of candidates have shown interest in the position, exceeding our expectations in such a short period of time,” the park district said. “We are encouraged by this response and as we continue recruitment, we are optimistic that we will secure enough lifeguards to protect our beaches and pools this summer.”
The ad blitz also comes as many cities across the country have reported a shortage of lifeguards.
In Aurora on Wednesday, officials announced an aquatics center there will be closed this summer for lack of adequate staffing.
Dan Mihalopoulos is an investigative reporter on WBEZ’s Government & Politics Team. Follow him on Twitter @dmihalopoulos.