OLD ORCHARD BEACH — When Old Orchard Beach assistant lifeguard captain Lance Timberlake first applied for a lifeguard job 17 years ago, he was competing with many applicants for the position. That has changed.

Lifeguard Matthew York stretches out as he watches over the beach from the pier tower in Old Orchard Beach on Friday. The town has just 13 lifeguards this summer, fewer than half of the 30 it aimed to have. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

This summer, Old Orchard Beach is among the towns in southern Maine struggling to hire enough lifeguards to staff some of the busiest beaches in the state. The town has hired 13 lifeguards for the summer, fewer than half of the 30 it aims to have. Because of the limited staff, the town put up six lifeguard towers instead of the 12 that normally dot the busy beach.

“I’m not sure why people aren’t applying,” Timberlake, a high school teacher in Sanford, said Friday while working the beach. “It’s a great job. It’s fun. You get to be on the beach all day.”

With the summer beach season now in full swing, town and state officials are cutting the number of hours with lifeguards on duty – or going without guards entirely – because there aren’t enough people to fill those positions.

In Biddeford, lifeguards will be on duty at the Rotary Park beach fewer hours each day than in the past, and there won’t be one on Middle Beach at all if there aren’t enough guards available.

And state park officials say they will post “no lifeguard on duty” signs at times throughout the summer unless they are able to hire more lifeguards at nine beaches, including busy locations such as Popham Beach and Range Pond.

“We’re falling victim to the same market forces that are affecting a lot of seasonal positions,” said Larry Mead, the town manager in Old Orchard Beach. “There aren’t enough people in the labor market to fill these positions.”

In the midst of a labor crunch that is impacting many seasonal businesses, municipal and state officials are raising starting wages, paying for training and looking for ways to more effectively recruit high school and college students to become lifeguards.

Lifeguards Katherine Brady, left, and Julia Partridge watch over the beach at Rotary Park in Biddeford on Friday. The city’s recreation director says he recently lost five lifeguards who “grew up and got full-time jobs.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Carl Walsh, director of Biddeford Recreation, said most years the city has been able to retain its lifeguards year to year, but recently lost five regular guards who “grew up and got full-time jobs.” Ideally, Walsh would hire 18 to 20 lifeguards to staff the Rotary Park, Biddeford Pool, Fortunes Rocks and Middle beaches, but he is short two lifeguards at the ocean beaches and four at the beach on the Saco River.

Walsh said he has cut back the lifeguard coverage at Rotary Park – a popular spot with families and camp groups – to 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. instead of 9 a.m. to 8 p.m. The beach won’t always be able to accommodate big groups as it has in the past, he said.

The demand for lifeguards is especially high in York County, where public beaches compete with water parks and other private businesses for lifeguards.

“You have quite a demand for guards in just one little area,” Walsh said.

Ogunquit lifeguard captain JP Argenti rarely has trouble hiring a full crew of 30 to guard one of the busiest beaches in southern Maine, but he can understand why other communities are having trouble filling their open positions. Starting pay varies, but often starts at less than $15 an hour, a tough sell for college students who need to make as much money as possible during the short summer season, he said.

“It’s a buyer’s market,” Argenti said. “All of these towns, including Ogunquit, have to keep upping their game to keep drawing people in and get them interested in being lifeguards.”

Parents keep watch as their children play in the water Monday morning at Range Pond State Park in Poland. It’s one of nine parks for which the state was trying to hire lifeguards earlier this month. Hoping to attract more applicants, the state has raised the starting pay 25 percent, to $14.71 an hour. Russ Dillingham/Sun Journal

Even in Ogunquit, where lifeguards start at $15.75 an hour and make up to $18.25 an hour, most lifeguards work second jobs, Argenti said.

“Having a respectable wage for the position is important for all of these places,” he said.

Municipal and state officials in areas with lifeguard shortages are raising pay rates to attract more applicants and stay competitive. The state raised the starting hourly rate at state parks by 25 percent to $14.71 for lifeguards and $15.44 for lifeguard supervisors to address the shortage. It also offers certification reimbursement.

During the next budget cycle, Walsh will ask the city to consider raising lifeguard wages from the current $12 an hour starting pay to make sure Biddeford is competitive with surrounding communities.

In York, the parks and recreation department was able to hire a full staff of 13 lifeguards after voters approved a $2-an-hour pay raise for lifeguards, who will make $14 to $15 an hour this summer depending on experience.

“We are fully staffed, but I’m not going to say it was easy,” said Robin Cogger, director of York Parks and Recreation. “Seasonal employment across the board has been a bit of a challenge for us.”

Old Orchard Beach lifeguard Matthew York watches over the beach Friday from the pier tower. With less than half the number of lifeguards it hoped to have this summer, the town put up six towers instead of the usual 12. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Cogger said her department has changed how it advertises its open lifeguard positions. Newspaper advertisements used to work, but now the town focuses on social media and online job postings.

“We find with social media that everyone knows someone looking for that type of employment,” she said.

Mead, the Old Orchard Beach town manager, said the town raised starting pay to $15 an hour, but is also looking at ways to recruit more lifeguards, including reaching out to high school students and talking to them about the job opportunity.

“The long-term fix for all of us who have this need is to do a better job in the offseason building a workforce,” Mead said.

Biddeford lifeguard Bill Harriman paddles out into the Saco River at Rotary Park on Friday. Lifeguards will be on duty at the Rotary Park beach for fewer hours each day than in the past. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Walsh said Biddeford also is working on developing ways to recruit and train lifeguards. This year, his department partnered with the University of New England to offer a course for new lifeguards who need to be trained and certified. The city picked up the tab, which was about $250 per person, a price Walsh said can be prohibitive for high school and college students.

Katherine Brady, 25, a lifeguard in Biddeford, thinks better pay and help with certification costs would go a long way toward attracting more lifeguards to the profession.

“Lifeguarding is a great job,” she said. “It’s a good thing for a young adult to do to gain responsibility.”