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Sinking economy lifts turnout at lifeguard tryouts

In Huntington Beach, 156 applicants compete for 25 summer jobs paying $16 an hour. The test: a roughly 1,000-yard swim and a 500-yard ocean sprint, followed by a nearly mile-long run-swim-run.

March 02, 2009|Susannah Rosenblatt

Steve Bentley's last stint in the lifeguard chair was more than two decades ago. But on Sunday, the out-of-work purchasing agent pounded sand alongside the usual gaggle of bronzed teenagers, taking the chilly seawater plunge for the annual Huntington Beach city lifeguard tryout.

In this down economy, 43-year-old Bentley could use the $16-an-hour job. And he's not alone.

As the recession drags on and white-collar jobs vanish, adult professionals and retirees with depleted savings are applying for jobs typically reserved for the adolescent set -- parking cars, serving food or keeping an eye on swimmers from a lifeguard tower.

But if the run on teen-friendly jobs by people in mid-life is a reflection of the nation's grim financial state, it's also an opportunity for some to recapture a bit of youth.

"Working as a lifeguard, the idea is to have a job that doesn't feel like one," said Bentley, a record-setting internationally competitive swimmer from USC.

His advantage in the 56-degree water? "Because I'm not 155 pounds anymore and skinny . . . the extra weight will help."

Out of work since August, he interviewed for more than a dozen positions; many recruiters labeled him too experienced. Living on unemployment with a bit of family help, Bentley, who is not married and has no kids, took in two roommates at his Huntington Beach house to make the rent.

"Basically, I'm just shooting to finish," Bentley said. "If I finish, great. If I make the cut, that's a bonus for me."

So there he was Sunday, thundering into a relatively calm sea against muscle-bound teens who weren't yet born when Bentley first worked as a city lifeguard.

Huntington Beach's grueling physical test -- a roughly 1,000-yard swim around the pier and a 500-yard ocean sprint, followed by a nearly mile-long run-swim-run -- is one of the earlier lifeguard tryouts across the region. "Traditionally, we used to get a lot of the high school kids and college kids," said Claude Panis, a marine safety officer for the city, where lifeguards star in their own reality show. "We may be getting some people that are older, out of work."

"Employment opportunities are not what they were," said Huntington Beach Marine Safety Lt. Mike Baumgartner. As a result, the city will pay lifeguards during training, now scheduled on weekends for convenience.

Out of the water, there's been a surge in interest in valet parking jobs, often the domain of college students. Applications at Quality Parking Service in Encino have risen fourfold in the last few months even as the company has scaled back advertising, said Ben Akbary, chief executive. "I've never seen the market this good," he said. "We have a flood of applicants every day."

Restaurants across the state, too, are inundated with professional or even retired job seekers, according to an industry group spokesman.

On Sunday, lifeguards in wetsuits and neon yellow shirts cruised the surf on wave runners to rescue stragglers. A record 156 applicants -- more than twice last year's number -- signed up to compete for 25 summer lifeguard slots, said Lt. Mike Beuerlein, with the city's Marine Safety Division. Eighty-seven people finished all three events.

Among those panting and shivering on the beach as onlookers watched from the pier above were a former Air Force underwater search specialist, a struggling photographer, an out-of-work mechanic, surfers, All-American swimmers and a retired Olympic water polo player, all several years older than the legions of high school and college swim team members.

"They might have youth, but I have experience," said Ericka Lorenz, 28, who played water polo for eight years, medaled in the 2000 and 2004 Olympics, and is in search of her next line of work.

For Bentley, the day was mostly a success: The former breaststroke record-holder swam faster than he expected, although the running wasn't his strong suit, and ended up third on the alternate list.

"I'm just really, really thirsty for an adult beverage right now," he said, out of breath.

He should find out in the coming weeks if there are enough dropouts to give him a spot; in the meantime, he'll keep on scanning job sites every day.

And Bentley hedged his bets: He also applied for a position as a Huntington Beach parking attendant.

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susannah.rosenblatt@latimes.com

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