For superintendents, creating the best possible golf course conditions begins with training, retraining, retaining and rewarding a quality maintenance staff.
Good help can be hard to find in any profession, and golf course superintendents are putting a premium on finding the manpower to ensure that they can provide golfers with top-notch playing conditions. After all, those efforts begin in the maintenance shop. With a crew of quality employees who are trainable, dedicated, and passionate, superintendents can mentor personnel who can adapt to new approaches and ever-changing industry technology.
Chris Carson, Golf Course Superintendent at Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield, N.J., knows the traits he needs in his crew members.
“I look for eagerness to grow, a desire to become a superintendent, good communication skills, and an awareness that this is a business,” he says. “More than anything else, I look for passion. I want somebody that loves the business and wants to grow.”
Ryan Cummings, Golf Course Superintendent at Elcona Country Club in Bristol, Ind., has a similar philosophy. “I can always serve as a teacher on any turf-related task,” says Cummings. “I can’t teach work ethic, and I can’t teach dependability. I look for those intangibles you cannot teach.”
Learning the Basics
The Echo Lake golf course maintenance department does not have a formal training program, but Carson says new employees must “learn the basics.” New crew members start out with tasks such as cutting greens and approaches with hand mowers, raking bunkers, and doing trim work. Once they have established those skills, Carson says, “We get them on machines. People that show aptitude and desire tend to grow.”
On their first day on the job at Elcona CC, new grounds crew hires get a general overview of the 18-hole golf course. “They are never by themselves for the first few days,” Cummings says.
He also gives new employees a laminated sheet with step-by-step instructions, written in English and Spanish, that they can take out in the field.
Some of the first maintenance tasks they perform are raking bunkers, filling in divots, trimming, or walk-mowing greens. While the foreman typically oversees training for new grounds crew members, Cummings trains new senior-management personnel. “We make sure they understand the expectations of quality that our members have,” he says.
For established staff members at Elcona, retraining usually pertains to new equipment. Staff members also watch YouTube videos to learn how to operate new machines, and they go over the equipment manuals. “We make sure the operators read those through and through before they’re turned loose on a machine,” Cummings notes.
Sometimes, Cummings or his assistants make changes to the maintenance schedule on the fly, so he’s taught another helpful skill to crew members. “When the staff comes in the shop, they’re trained to look at the job board immediately,” he says.
Training for new employees at the 27-hole Sparrows Point Country Club in Baltimore, Md. begins before they ever set foot on the golf course. “Before employees start, they’re given a digital file with all of our standard operating procedures,” says Director of Grounds and Facilities Tyler Bloom.
The digital file includes articles, YouTube videos, and testimonials from employees about their work experience that Bloom films after they have been on the job for 30 days, and again after a year on staff. New employees can relate to the people in the videos, he notes.
“We do a lot of in-field training,” continues Bloom. “A new employee is partnered with someone who has been here at least six months. Mentorship isn’t just coming from me. It’s disseminated all through the organization.”
Typically, new employees at Sparrows Point also start out with jobs such as filling divots, raking bunkers, using backpack blowers, planting flowers, or cleaning up debris. Bloom also makes sure they know how to drive a utility cart and within about 60 days, he will start teaching them how to use basic equipment.
He also turns to manufacturers and distributors for training assistance. “I try to leverage every resource I have,” he says.
Giving Everyone Their Part
Seattle (Wash.) Golf Club uses a Section Maintenance system to maintain the golf course and train its maintenance staff. With this system, the grounds crew is divided into six teams of three people, and each team maintains a three-hole section of the 18-hole golf course.
“It’s a way to take a great golf course and try to make it better,” says General Manager Kipp Johnson. “It’s a good accountability tool, and it’s a good way to see how we measure up against ourselves.”
The program is also beneficial to new employees, because it accelerates expectations and gives them an earlier look at the standards that are expected. For seasoned staff members, it promotes leadership and accountability.
“It helps the new guys learn the golf course,” says Golf Course Superintendent Matt Schuldt. “They learn the lingo—tee box, apron, rough—and where the holes are. It also helps them learn a system and routine, and with time management.”
The Section Maintenance approach improves the performance of veteran staff members as well, Schuldt notes. “We try to pair a seasoned employee with a new one,” he says. “They feel like they are being empowered to help train somebody. They have a say-so in our operations, and they learn new parts of the golf course.”
The program also promotes responsibility among the crew members. “Every guy has his own cart and his own tools,” reports Schuldt. “We’re able to hold people accountable for their equipment. We’ve become organized in the shop and in the field, and we’ve become more consistent. Our priorities are clearer. [Everyone knows] what to do in what order, so they understand what the golfers want.”
Cross-Training and Safety
For the best course conditions, golf course properties usually cross-train maintenance crew members so that anyone can perform a given task.
“We do that to make sure all of our bases are covered,” says Cummings. “Many of our staff can run almost every piece of equipment, because you never know what life will bring. Cross-training is necessary in our industry.”
Schuldt also relies on his seasoned crew members to cross-train new staff members, and tries to match up personalities that will work well together.
“The veteran staff member feels like he is part of something good and will make it better,” he says. “It creates more of a team atmosphere, versus management telling people what to do.”
In addition to cross-training personnel, superintendents must ensure that employees understand how to do their jobs safely. At Echo Lake, for instance, employees receive training on individual pieces of equipment. In addition, some staff members are bilingual, which aids in communicating with a largely Hispanic workforce.
The Elcona maintenance staff has unlimited access to safety videos that are produced by a local vendor, and they watch a video once a month. Topics range from safety to golf etiquette to hearing and eye protection.
After they watch the videos, staff members take a five-question quiz online. Anyone who correctly answers all five questions gets an extra hour of pay.
At Sparrows Point, staff members watch one or two safety videos each week or undergo workplace ethics training. In addition, Bloom says, “Once a month, one person leads a 30-minute discussion on a safety topic. We use real-life situations that we’ve seen on the work site.”
Schuldt depends on vendors, who are typically on site once a month, to conduct safety-training sessions. In between visits, staff members also prepare questions for the vendors. Maintenance personnel attend day-long seminars sponsored by local chemical and fertilizer companies as well.
Schuldt also asks staff members what they want to learn and what kind of safety equipment they need. In addition, he takes photos of potential hazards to share with crew members, and to discuss ways to avoid the issues.
Looking for Labor
Of course, superintendents also need staff members to train, and Carson, a frequent speaker at industry conferences, says finding labor is one of the biggest obstacles that superintendents face.
Wages, demanding hours and hard work contribute to the paucity of a viable employment pool. “The business is a hard one,” says Carson. “It’s a lifestyle that requires an intense commitment.”
Years ago, he notes, he might have had 15 to 20 applicants for four positions, but that’s now no longer the case. He is fortunate, though, he adds, that Echo Lake is “close enough to an urban center in Newark, New Jersey that there is a pool of employees that fits our profile.”
To recruit employees for Elcona CC’s maintenance staff, Cummings offers flexible schedules and part-time hours to student workers. “Not a lot of young people know that this is a rewarding career path,” he notes. During the summer, he also hires teachers who want to fill their time and earn extra income.
When he arrived at Sparrows Point in 2014, Bloom says the property did not have a program geared toward long-term employment. For the last three years, however, the facility has put more emphasis on employee development.
In 2019, adopting practices he has used for several years, Bloom founded a consulting company that serves the turfgrass, green and club industries in workforce development and strategy. He helps clients build recruitment and development models that rely on outreach, high school work-based learning, and apprenticeship. He calls mentorship the foundation of the program.
One of the most effective recruitment tools that superintendents have at their disposal is word-of-mouth among existing staff personnel, friends, or family members. Other resources include retirees, who can perform less labor-intensive tasks; H-2B visas, which allow foreign workers to come to the United States temporarily to perform non-agricultural labor or services on a one-time, seasonal, peak-load, or intermittent basis; online job boards; inmate work-release programs; special-needs individuals; and relationships with local high schools, colleges, and universities.
“Once you’ve experienced it, it’s a cool place to work,” says Carson, whose initial golf course employment came in the form of a summer job. “When you engage young minds and show them some of the mysteries of growing a golf course, that can pique their interest.”
With five high schools located within a five-minute drive of Sparrows Point, Bloom offers an internship program for local students. The schools now serve as the primary labor pool for the Sparrows Point golf course maintenance department, and Bloom says the students have no preconceived notions about the worksite.
“We went from 50 percent turnover to 90 percent retention,” he adds. “The high schools are feeding me employees every month. I never lack a supply of people, and our overall staff structure is better. We can pick and choose.”
He also has a relationship with a job placement firm for people with developmental disabilities. And in January, Bloom says, Sparrows Point became the first golf course in Maryland to be approved for golf course management apprenticeships by the state Department of Labor.
The employment initiatives not only give students a real-time lesson about the importance of a work ethic, but also provide them with an overview of turfgrass-industry career paths, Bloom says.
“Somebody’s got to show them what it’s like to work on a golf course and give them direction,” he says. “This is a career. You don’t need to be a superintendent or an assistant, but you can go into sales or landscaping, or work on sports fields.”
While Bloom’s efforts began as a way to recruit employees for the golf course maintenance staff, his methods can be effective, he feels, for attracting employees for any department, from the golf shop to the culinary team to the front of the house.
At Seattle Golf Club, thanks to word of mouth, “We had to turn people down last year,” Schuldt says. As an added incentive, the property rewards $100 to an existing staff member who recommends an employee if the new hire works out.
“There’s a lot of creativity [in recruiting] going on right now,” notes Carson. “It’s projected that more is coming.”
Retaining Quality Employees
To keep golf course maintenance operations running smoothly, employee retention is as important as recruitment. And little things can go a long way to let employees know that they’re appreciated.
At the 18-hole Echo Lake CC, where the average tenure for a crew member is 14.4 years, Carson says he tries to create a team and family atmosphere of mutual respect. He also believes in compassion and treating people the right way.
“We work together for a common goal,” he says. “We respect them as individuals. They can do an honest day’s work for an honest day’s pay.”
Sparrows Point employees typically stay on staff for three or four years, Bloom notes. If he hires a 16- or 17-year-old intern, he usually can count on having that person on staff for at least two years.
He also conducts a pre-screening assessment to evaluate the behavior and cognitive skill sets of his new hires, so he can put them in the best position to succeed.
Believing the job should offer employees the opportunity for continuing education and advancement, he holds weekly professional development sessions for the staff as well. “It’s important to have a vision for them,” he says. “If they do well, they’ll be rewarded.”
Rewarding the efforts of the crew members is effective as well. As part of the Section Maintenance system at Seattle GC last year, Johnson and Assistant General Manager Matt Morgan conducted reviews of each golf course section in June, July, and September. After each evaluation, the members of the winning team received gift cards. This year, the individual teams will receive a prize, but Johnson says the entire crew will also be rewarded if the staff as a whole meets expectations.
If a full-time crew member shows promise, Schuldt encourages him to get a two-year degree and keep working while attending school. He also offers employees flexible hours to cover staffing needs, even if it means hiring one or two extra part-time employees. “People need a life/work balance,” he says.
Assistance for Assistants
Golf course superintendents train their crew members to work safely and effectively. However, most superintendents try to help their assistant superintendents advance their career opportunities as well.
Chris Carson, Golf Course Superintendent at Echo Lake Country Club in Westfield, N.J., says there is a shortage of assistant superintendents. He believes young people are less inclined to spend four years in college, followed by seven years as an assistant superintendent with the hope—but no guarantee —of landing a superintendent’s position. Instead, he says, many properties are developing assistant superintendents in-house, rather than recruiting them from turf schools.
To put themselves in the best position for advancement, Carson, who also teaches at Rutgers University, recommends that assistants work at a property that offers learning opportunities and the chance to move forward. “Making sure you’re working for the right company is one of the keys to growth in our business,” he states. “They should work for a superintendent who is willing to mentor and challenge them.”
Carson also encourages his assistant superintendents to get involved in property activities by communicating with members and attending budget or greens-committee meetings when appropriate.
For the last several years, Ryan Cummings, Golf Course Superintendent at Elcona Country Club in Bristol, Ind., has taught a Golf Industry Show seminar for assistant superintendents, to help them understand the budgeting process, how to train individuals, how to use available technology to make decisions, and to practice the dialogue involved with hiring or firing people. “They get enough agronomic experience on the job,” he notes.
Tyler Bloom, Director of Grounds and Facilities at Sparrows Point Country Club in Baltimore, Md., tries to understand what his assistants’ passions are to help them advance in their careers, whether they end up working as a golf course superintendent or in a related field. If assistants only have their eye on a superintendent’s position, Bloom feels that they’re limiting their potential.
“It’s a very competitive job market,” he says. “The skills you develop working on a golf course transcend this specific sector.”
Matt Schuldt, Golf Course Superintendent at Seattle (Wash.) Golf Club, has sent his assistants to observe construction projects or demo days at other golf courses in the area. Schuldt also believes that interacting with the membership helps assistant superintendents develop their management skills.“I involve them in greens-committee meetings each month so they can talk to members, and they do golf course tours with greens-committee members,” he says. “I give them the latitude to make as many decisions for the operation as possible. Empowering them to make decisions for others is the key.”