As with other club departments and for businesses in general, hiring personnel for course-and-grounds staffs has become more difficult—but superintendents have special tools at their disposal to recruit and retain employees for the profession they love.
Ask employers in nearly any business these days, and they will say that bringing aboard new hires has become more and more challenging. At the end of August 2021, according to Department of Labor data, the U.S. workforce had more than 10.4 million unfilled jobs.
But the pandemic-induced upheaval notwithstanding, golf course superintendents have felt the hiring pinch for years. The longer they have been in the business, it seems, the harder it has become to find grounds-crew workers.
Right Place, Any TimeWhile turf management is a rewarding career, superintendents attribute the challenges of golf course maintenance staff recruitment and retention to a number of issues. However, the tried-and-true real-estate axiom, “location, location, location,” may be at the top of the list.
Ross Miller, CGCS, a 24-year industry veteran and Superintendent at the Country Club of Detroit in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich., for eight years, believes that finding employees is “locale driven.”
While the Grosse Pointe area is affluent, Miller notes, it is surrounded by three blue-collar communities that can provide workers. Conversely, when he spent eight years at a club in the transient, white-collar, metro Washington, D.C., area, it was a challenge to find grounds-crew members. In some parts of the country, Miller quips, “If someone walks in with a pulse, you hire them.”
Ben Pacific, who is in his first year as Golf Course Superintendent at The Haven Country Club in Boylston, Mass., has found himself in similar situations during his 13-year career. Hiring hasn’t been as difficult in the Boylston area, he says, because it more of a middle-class demographic than the previous golf course where he worked, which was in a more affluent location.
But at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill., about 50 miles west of downtown Chicago, Golf Course Superintendent Jeff VerCautren says the property’s rural location contributes to hiring struggles. VerCautren, who has been at Rich Harvest Farms for 20 of his 25 years in the business, says Aurora, the closest town with a large Hispanic population from which to draw crew members, is 20 to 30 minutes away.
And Josh Lewis, Golf Course Superintendent at Sharon Heights Golf & Country Club in Menlo Park, Calif., believes that hiring woes are regional as well.
“I think we’re seeing a lot of what we’ve been experiencing in Northern California start to impact the rest of the country,” says Lewis, who has been in the golf course maintenance business for 23 years and superintendent at Sharon Heights for three years.
Other deterrents to filling golf course maintenance positions include labor laws and age restrictions, early-morning and weekend hours, and lack of desire to perform manual labor. Superintendents also say they can’t match the hourly wages that people earn in other blue-collar jobs.
“In our region, a lot of the employees that we’re trying to hire are being looked at by the construction industry and the general landscaping industry,” Lewis says.
Construction has skyrocketed in the By Area, he notes, and those companies can pay $40 per hour versus the $17-$20 an hour a grounds-crew member can make.
“We need to start evaluating the pay scale on a bigger level,” Lewis says. “It takes three good seasons to get somebody trained and developed.”
In addition, VerCautren believes finding grounds-crew members has gotten more difficult since Rich Harvest Farms started conducting extensive background checks on potential employees in 2009.
The Country Club of Detroit also performs background checks. While infractions such as larceny or assault are “dealbreakers,” Miller says, he has some leeway to hire employees. “I made some mistakes earlier in my life,” he says. “I was fortunate that someone gave me a chance.”
By the Numbers
In the peak season from April 1 – Oct. 31, the Country Club of Detroit golf course maintenance staff has 34 crew members. Of those employees, 10 of them, including Miller, are full-time; eight are part-time; and the rest are seasonal.
The Haven golf course maintenance staff has a total of 14 members, including Pacific. Six of them, including the mechanic, are full-time. The Haven staff includes two assistant superintendents, who also serve as spray technicians, and four retirees. In the height of the summer, the grounds crew at The Haven is made up of 20 – 22 people.
Currently, Rich Harvest Farms has 30 employees in its golf course maintenance department. VerCautren says the property keeps nine full-time employees, including himself, on staff, and the maintenance department has three part-time employees as well. The rest of the staff is made up of seasonal employees. VerCautren starts laying off people in October, and he tries to have a full staff by April 1.
The maintenance department is budgeted for 45 employees for the entire property, with 30 for the golf course and 15 for the remainder of the grounds, which includes homes, a horse-barn-turned lodge, and a large halfway house.
The Sharon Heights staff has 17 full-time employees, including Lewis, and two part-timers. Managerial positions include two assistant superintendents, a horticulturist, and an equipment manager.
Quality vs. Quantity
While putting together a golf course maintenance staff is more than a numbers game, finding the right combination is part of the puzzle as well. Since coming to the Country Club of Detroit, Miller notes, “I’ll get 200 applicants a year, but the challenge is getting the right fit.”
While the number of employees at The Haven hasn’t been an issue, Pacific agrees, work quality can suffer when people have no interest in performing manual labor.
Although he almost had a full staff before COVID struck, VerCautren says he is short 10 staff members for the golf course and five for the grounds. He put out an ad for employment and got one applicant. He has yet to get a response to an ad for an assistant superintendent.
“Everybody knows that everywhere is hiring,” says VerCautren. “Every department is short-staffed.”
For course-maintenance departments, management positions such as head mechanics, followed by assistant superintendents, typically are the most difficult to fill. Nevertheless, Miller and VerCautren have had success finding their equipment technicians in-house. Miller’s equipment technicians started out on the maintenance staff and transitioned into their positions after they showed an interest in working on equipment. The two mechanics at Rich Harvest Farms also learned on the job and moved up through the ranks.
For assistant superintendents, Miller has found them through internship programs at Michigan State University or the University of Guelph in Ontario; the Country Club of Detroit usually hires two interns each year to “help train the next generation.”
All in the Approach
Superintendents also look for certain qualities in potential employees.
After facing “a large amount of turnover and absenteeism,” Miller started looking for people with a positive attitude and team mentality who put “we before me.”
Three years ago, he started using the CliftonStrengths assessment to measure the talents, thoughts and behavioral patterns of potential employees. During interviews, he asks applicants integrated psychological and sociological questions, to find out if they tend to put themselves or others first.
Pacific, who played hockey in college, also looks for reliable employees and team players. Six of his crew members also have hockey backgrounds.
VerCautren seeks employees who have a strong work ethic, and Lewis tries to build a team of “good, strong, hard-working people that look at this as a full-time position.” He supplements his staff with college students that need part-time jobs.
“We’re trying to hire tradespeople who want to learn and grow,” Lewis says. “We ask a lot of these people. They have to work early and late hours, operate equipment, and meet high standards.”
On the Recruitment Trail
To find the best people for their teams, superintendents use a number of recruitment tools, such as posting on job boards like Indeed. “We budget to do premium postings per month,” Miller says. “It keeps the job at the forefront. We have a lot of filters set up to make sure we get good applicants, versus someone who’s just filling out an application to meet unemployment requirements.”
He contacts area technical schools and community colleges, often hiring people who are going to school to earn a master plumbing certificate or an electrical license.
The Country Club of Detroit also has a monetary incentive program for employees who recommend new hires. They can earn as much as $400 per person by bringing in a new staff member who stays through the end of the year and comes back the following year. While Miller and the facility do not use social media to recruit employees, individuals on staff sometimes use it to put the word out and try to get the bonus.
To recruit employees, Pacific sends e-mails to schools and posts openings on job boards such as Indeed and on Instagram. Earlier this year, he filled the second assistant superintendent position with someone who had worked for him in the past. His previous employer had a work-release program with a correctional facility.
While Lewis also uses job boards such as Indeed, he’s found that postings can “get lost in the sea of open positions.” Consequently, he’s started looking at alternatives and has even had some success with the old-school method of posting printed fliers on community peg boards and at locations such as laundromats, cafes, and tacorias. “Not everybody is online a lot,” he notes.
Spreading the Word
In addition, superintendents have found that word-of-mouth is one of their most effective recruitment tools. For instance, Miller has hired retirees who know each other from working on automotive assembly lines together or who have met at American Legion or VFW posts.
“Word-of-mouth is where I get most of my guys that stick around the longest,” notes VerCautren. “They have talked to people who work here. People don’t know that this field is an option.”
Pacific agrees. “When friends of crew members work here, they have a connection and accountability to their friends,” he says. “When I worked summers as a college student, my boss always asked if I knew people. I don’t know how many younger kids know that this is a career choice.”
Lewis uses his connections and reputation to reach out across the country to other properties that have viable intern programs. “I’ve worked really hard to do it within my network,” he says.
Although Sharon Heights does not offer internships, Lewis would like to develop an intern program at some point. The cost of short-term housing in the area is too prohibitive, Lewis says, but dormitory-style housing could be constructed onsite under a property-wide master plan.
Once superintendents hire the right people, it is just as vital to keep them on staff. Perks such as flexible hours, free golfing privileges, employer-provided meals and uniforms, tenure-based holiday bonuses, and efforts to keep the job interesting are a few of the ways that properties retain employees. Going the extra mile helps the staff feel valued as well.
Miller believes “sincere engagement” with his crew members keeps them motivated to come back. In the offseason, for instance, he checks in with his seasonal employees once a month, and The Country Club of Detroit holds a holiday party for the entire staff at the property. The maintenance department has a separate holiday party for its staff, as well as employee bowling parties at the club’s on-site bowling alley two or three times a year.
The seasonal staff reports back to work in March, but the golf course doesn’t open until April. “I let them know by March 1, we’re bringing everyone back,” says Miller. “I tell them what we’re working on and what we’re excited about.”
The Country Club of Detroit maintenance staff also does a lot of construction projects in-house, and Miller gives top-performing staff members opportunities to be leaders and to train other employees.
He also changed the crew members’ work schedules two years ago, giving half of the crew Friday and Saturday off and the other half Sunday and Monday off. As a result, he reports, “Absenteeism is down dramatically. It’s basically a non-issue.”
At Rich Harvest Farms, VerCautren says, “I let my core guys pick what they’re going to do and give them more responsibility. I let them do projects on their own. Guys also get unlimited overtime to make ends meet and get the job done. I have a core group of guys that want overtime. If they work time-and-a-half, it’s well under my budget.”
At The Haven, some crew members work Monday, Wednesday, and Friday and every other weekend. Others work Tuesday and Thursday and every other weekend. In addition, Pacific says, “I try to get an idea from them what they want to try.”
Lewis believes retention is as challenging as recruitment, and that mentorship and staff development are key to retaining employees. “You have to recognize employees’ value before they have another offer,” he says. “You need to move them forward before they have to ask. I like to treat employees as if they’re in the next position. I try to give my senior assistant a lot of responsibility, and I want him to do the same with the second assistant.”
Miller encourages promising staff members to get their pesticide licenses and informs them about educational opportunities in turf management. “We have one or two individuals a year that we try to push into the field, for their future and their well-being,” he says.
Currently, two staff members are entering turf programs.
“We work diligently to show our staff the ‘why’ of what we do,” adds Miller. “We sit down for weekly meetings with people who show interest in the job and break down the past and upcoming week.”
The Haven, where the second assistant is pursuing his pesticide license, assists with further education for some employees as well. This winter the assistant is pursuing a turf management certificate in a 10-week, online program, and The Haven is picking up part of the costs.
“This is a great industry,” says Pacific. “Anybody that wants to be in it, I’m more than happy to help them along the way.”
Lewis shares with promising employees every aspect of the business from budgeting and purchasing to human resources issues and employee, staff, and member expectations.
“We spend a lot of time one-on-one in conversation,” says Lewis. “I’m open and honest about the challenges of my job. I like to treat employees as if they’re in the next position. I give my senior assistant a lot of responsibility, and I want him to do the same with the second assistant. I sit down and explain why we do things a certain way.”
In addition, for employees in management positions, Lewis tries to look out for their best interests – even if that means encouraging them to take another job elsewhere to advance their careers.
A Matter of Course
Superintendents have also found a direct correlation between employee satisfaction, equipment quality, and golf course conditions. And a little friendly competition among crew members can go a long way as well. For instance, Miller reports, his crew takes notice of who has the “straightest line” each morning when they ready the course for play.
“Our staff is everything. We purchase equipment, but we invest in people,” Miller says. “We’re building core values in people for their future in life to help them develop discipline and accountability.
“A lot of it goes to their mentality,” he says. “They think of the rest of the team, and they hold themselves and others accountable.”
“The more things that people know how to do, the better,” Pacific says. “When you’re short-handed, you’re not limited to what a guy is able to do.”
Fully staffed or not, superintendents also find ways to maximize productivity and efficiency with the people they have on hand.
At Rich Harvest Farms, for instance, crew members sometimes have to cut back on inputs such as raking bunkers, or they use more growth regulators to reduce mowing time. The maintenance staff might do more ride mowing so they can finish the task faster, and natural areas on the property minimize the need for mowing as well. If necessary, the grounds crew also does less handwork.
“We have to have the right equipment to be able to adapt,” notes VerCautren.
When The Haven staff doesn’t have the time or manpower to do everything that needs to be done, bunker maintenance might get skipped, or crew members use triplexes instead of walk mowers. “We chip away at priorities and do other things as we can,” says Pacific.
While he has been short-staffed for many consecutive seasons, Lewis says, attention to detail and labor hours go hand-in-hand. “Staff levels are incredibly important to conditioning of the golf course and presentation of the golf course,” he says.
To maximize productivity and efficiency, Lewis believes superintendents need to understand the priorities and goals of the members to match their expectations with maintenance resources.
“Some people want fast greens, and some people just want peace and quiet,” he states. “We have to manipulate the schedule to prioritize areas of the golf course depending on who’s playing. I call it ‘labor triage.’ It’s almost like a battlefield scenario.”
Superintendents don’t expect hiring to get any easier in the coming years, and the challenge could affect equipment purchases as well as personnel decisions.
“I think it’s going to be a grind every year,” notes Pacific. “The way we do our cultural practices may have to change a little bit.”
Since walk mowers require more laborers, he says, the property may get more triplexes than walk mowers. He also believes golf courses might use more robotic mowers in the future.
With declining turf school enrollment, Pacific adds, openings for assistant superintendents will outnumber applicants.
“When I first started, it was how many hours can you work to prove yourself,” he recalls. “Now, you need to offer more work-life balance to make employees happy.”
Lewis reiterates that properties need to recognize and understand the value and professionalism of their greenskeepers. Oftentimes, he states, these employees can be overlooked because their jobs are not front and center.
However, Lewis says Sharon Heights took good care of the staff during the height of the pandemic, which fostered trust and a family environment. The membership even held a fundraising tournament to benefit the Sharon Heights employees.
“The members were extremely supportive and generous. Nobody missed a paycheck,” says Lewis. “That investment is paying off in the long-run.”
Yet, it seems to be teamwork that really makes a workforce grow and thrive.
“For staffing, everything needs to revolve around creating a culture of accountability,” Miller says. “The most important person is the person standing next to you.”
Summing It Up
> The ease of hiring personnel for a golf course maintenance staff is often related to the region of the country where a property is located.
> Recruitment tools include job boards, social media, personal and educational contacts, internships, and cash incentives to existing crew members—but superintendents still find that word-of-mouth is one of the most effective ways to find new employees.
> While low or non-competitive wages, early-morning and weekend hours, and labor laws can impede recruitment, superintendents can retain employees by offering them benefits such as work-life balance, flexible hours, and opportunities to advance in their careers.
> There is a direct correlation between the attitudes of course-and-grounds staff members with the equipment and tools they’re given to perform their duties, and the direction they’re given for the conditioning of the property they help to maintain. A little friendly competition, such as who produces the “straightest lines,” can also add to job enjoyment and satisfaction.