Four years ago, I sat in my office chair at Sparrows Point Country Club posting job ads on websites and Craigslist, banging my head against the wall to find potential staff amid the mid-season golf calendar. Craigslist? Really? We could not facilitate the type of staff to advance our operations, let alone field enough employees to complete elementary maintenance programs.
I did not have the benefit of modern facilities, average pay scale offerings or a pedigreed work environment to fall back on. I battled an aging infrastructure while still dealing with the pressures of delivering a product for a membership with lofty expectations. However, the labor challenges we face are not discriminate of public, private, resort, high-end or low-end facilities.
In my first two years as a golf course superintendent, I had been through two assistants, two equipment managers and a rotating door of seasonal employees. My pedigree at high-end and world-class golf facilities meant little to nothing as a source of recruitment or motivation.
This was as rugged and uncomfortable of an environment as I had ever been thrown into, and I had two options — quit or solve the problem.
Solving the problem
While scrambling in the process of restructuring maintenance programs, a guidance counselor from a nearby high school stopped in. He was searching for businesses that would help support a work-study program formed by the Baltimore County Public School system for the 2015-16 school year. I really didn’t give the gentleman much time as I knew our “seasonal” team would be diminishing once school returned, and so would my labor budget.
As the season slowed down and I had time to catch my breath, I recognized I needed to spend the 2015 offseason more on staff development than agronomics. We had a core group of millennials and a handful of crafty veterans who I felt could become mentors for this new generation. Embracing the changing workforce would be the first step to address our staffing issues.
I brought on our first work-study student in the late fall of 2015. What did I have to lose? I couldn’t muster a consistent pool of candidates, so anybody — literally, any body — would be better than nothing. The guidance counselor provided me a structured curriculum the student needed to follow. At the time, I thought how silly this was to embrace high school students, who had no business operating a $70,000 rough mower, let alone demonstrating the ability to consistently show up for scheduled work shifts. The well-documented challenges across the industry with millennials was nothing we were immune to.
The work-study program begins in September with a requirement of 10 hours on a weekly basis until the school year ends in May. Like many areas of the country, the golf season is winding down in the late fall with reduced staff sizes. However, I could easily find 10 hours collectively among my staff that could be allocated to one student. Starting small with one student can be a handful enough without the proper protocols and processes in place.
As time progressed with the student, I found a unique aspect within this situation. I could use the student to help facilitate maintenance as needed — leaf cleanup, weekend preparations, bunker maintenance or other entry-level tasks. I created some flexibility that had not existed. His comfort level grew the longer he was with our staff. What seemed like a liability turned into an asset.
I needed to be all in on this journey to create my workforce and work environment. As the months moved on, I leveraged my industry network to educate and interact with our staff with monthly professional development seminars. The hope was to find one or two connections throughout this process to motivate our team and keep them engaged to grow and advance.
I empowered our core group to take the initiative to become leaders, and coach and train the next crop of employees. They had an opportunity to work with this student on a trial basis. As a result, our core group would acquire the skills and confidence needed to grow into more advanced roles.
Now, with a core staff becoming more equipped to a team concept and held responsible for improving the work environment, I had the right framework to recruit, attract and develop. As each season passed, our onboarding and training procedures became stronger and more seamless for new employees.
With the help of the guidance counselor, he connected the dots to five other school districts within 10 miles of Sparrows Point. Following each initial meet and greet, I began to find applications coming to my desk on a monthly basis. All with similar credentials and a business card of their respective guidance counselor as an informal stamp of approval.
As our staffing numbers started to increase, it allowed me to improve our hiring processes to attract individuals already in the workforce. Balancing quantity with quality was a good position to be in. I now had the leverage to create a “next man up” culture.
Developing the work-study program provided an opportunity to stay focused on a central purpose — mentorship. Reintroducing this concept would help establish the type of culture I was accustomed to in my early career. Through engagement in the industry over the last few years, I have been able to introduce the game of golf with career opportunities.
As an example, in 2018, one of our work-study students assisted our irrigation specialist throughout the year with repairs and servicing, then attended a Toro Lynx training seminar while also assisting with snow removal and clubhouse grounds maintenance during the winter months. I took the student on a field trip to Penn State University to meet with the turfgrass department. When the season picked back up, this student became a huge asset to our operation not just with irrigation repairs, but also understanding the entire property and flow of our workday. His success became a benchmark for incoming summer seasonal help, and also challenged our core staff to step up their game.
Our turnover rates in 2014 were over 50 percent with little to no attrition of being connected to Sparrows Point Country Club. Since then, we have seen retention rates climb as high as 87 percent and have had little to no challenge filling roles within our department.
Our high school program went from one intern in 2015 to 10 in 2019. If not for budgetary restrictions, that number would increase. As we have developed relationships within the school community, the guidance counselors have acted as our recruiters. All that time spent in the first two years of the program have now created an endless supply of candidates.
A large percentage of our success can be attributed to working with guidance counselors and establishing relationships with five other school systems in our community. Attending job fairs, participating in mock interviews and engaging with students in community events were all critically important.
Many people may wonder if they have the time to engage with the schools to this level. At one job fair alone at Patapsco High School, I spoke with more than 150 students looking for seasonal and summer employment. On average, I spend 15 to 30 minutes each day with our staff on professional development via industry or non-industry channels. This is easily infused in morning meetings or lunch breaks, so I am not taking away from production.
Within our department, we have promoted advancement in many forms — internally and throughout the industry. Earlier this year, a board member recruited one of our fast risers due to the type of development programs implemented at Sparrows Point. In 2017, two former assistants moved on to head roles, one at a respected Maryland golf facility, the other at a Division III university. They were replaced with two ambitious gentlemen who started as high school students in 2013 and 2014 and have gained the technical and professional skills to advance into assistant roles in our operation.
We will become the first golf course in the state of Maryland to begin a formal youth apprenticeship program in 2020. Working with non-industry leaders as part of Baltimore County’s Workforce Development Committee, it is mind-blowing how little mentorship and professional development are part of their work cultures. We have a competitive advantage that needs to be shared to bring in quality people.
One of the best results has nothing to do with staff retention or advancement, but diversity. Our team is built with individuals who had no perspective of the game of golf or professional opportunities in the industry. The students who have come into our workplace bring various cultural backgrounds, ethnicities and personalities. It generates a larger purpose than growing grass: creating an environment of teamwork and respect. These were two key principles we lacked five years ago and they were sparked by high school students.
Facing the No. 1 issue in the industry
This all started with the idea to think outside the box, beyond traditional means of staff recruitment and development. Going against the grain, figuratively and literally, has provided a path to endless opportunities to make an impact.
Through trial and error, I recognized a golden opportunity in my own backyard to develop a comprehensive mentorship program to address our immediate issues while also creating a sustainable program. I no longer needed to compete with elite country clubs in Baltimore, D.C. or the Mid-Atlantic, or local businesses. I could embrace the uniqueness of Sparrows Point Country Club and its impact in the community.
Never in my imagination would the program turn into this type of feeder system. To expect this to work as your primary means of labor would garner false hope. Today’s labor market is challenging traditional frameworks and systems. But not embracing the opportunity to grow from within your community and championing internal development will leave you banging your head against the wall, staring at Craigslist ads in the very near future.