Believe it or not, I do not live and die based on how many “likes” I get for Tweets or posts on Facebook. That said, I do love that warm fuzzy instant feedback and occasionally it is a good barometer that you’re on to something.

That happened a few weeks back in a discussion about the prospects for assistant superintendents on Gary Grigg’s awesome “Golf Course Maintenance” Facebook page. Brian Benedict from Seawane G&CC asked a good question that ignited a zillion responses:

“Anyone concerned about the lack of assistants and kids in the turf schools? Seems like more and more the jobs are plentiful and the applicants are non-existent.”

At some point, I saw the post and replied: “Huge problem and it’s likely to get worse until we get assistant salaries in line with reality.”

That got a few dozen “likes,” thus giving me a nice little ego boost and indicating that maybe I was a little bit right. Thus, a column is born!

So let’s start this conversation for real…

Turf school enrollments are less than half of what they were back in the peak in the early 2000s and many of the smaller schools have eliminated the degree entirely. The market downturn started in 2001 and we went from high demand and lots of growth to closing more than 1,000 courses, stagnant budgets and little if any salary growth for supers or assistants. Now, as the business gets healthier, demand for talent has far outstripped supply.

Golf is no longer the only game in town for young turfheads. On top of smaller enrollments overall, many students see sports field management or even lawn care as better options than golf.

Salaries for assistants have not increased commensurately with salaries for superintendents. We’re still stuck in this AIT salary model based on the outdated notion of “apprenticeship” – the young turf grad commits to a few years of indentured servitude and 80-hour work weeks in exchange for a quick opportunity to get a head super job. That simply never happens anymore. And remember that many of these traditional four-year turf students will graduate with a crapload of student debt. Most assistants don’t get decent superintendent jobs (paying $50,000 or more) for 7-10 years these days. Why?

Superintendents are staying put in their current jobs. There’s little mobility and many supers are holding on to their current positions for dear life.

So, we have fewer young people interested in spending a pile of money to get a degree in a field where they will almost certainly starve and work their butts off in the heat and cold for 10 years before maybe getting a decent job. They can be totally passionate about turf and that still doesn’t work if they have families to feed.

So, what do we do?

I’ll now refer you back to my pithy Facebook response because it’s the only legitimate answer. We have to improve compensation for this position.

I’m not sure I trust any of the salary averages from the various associations that produce such things, so let’s just take a typical hypothetical situation. A super at a mid-scale private club earns $85,000 a year. Chances are good under the traditional apprenticeship formula that his assistant makes $35,000, or about 40 percent of the boss’s salary.

We need to start looking at the value of a good assistant to an effective agronomy team and make the case that assistants should earn 50 to 60 percent of what the super earns. When the super at that mid-scale club makes $85,000, the assistant deserves to make $45,000 to $50,000 as a general rule.

How do you make that change? Well, first, look at the profitability of your facility. If you’re doing relatively well, your owners can probably afford it if you make the case. Second, if you have to choose between reducing your crew headcount by one or even reducing crew hours in return for recruiting and retaining an excellent assistant, that’s a no-brainer.

The fact is assistant salaries are going to go up because of demand at the top. We’re already seeing Top 500 clubs reassessing pay scales for the second-in-command and other key positions. The discussions about assistant compensation that began with the possibility of the Department of Labor’s planned changes to the overtime law have now turned into a realization that we simply have to pay better if we want quality people.

As Paul Latshaw wrote in this space a couple of months ago, “It’s the superintendent’s responsibility to fight for good salaries for assistants.” As you consider what’s important to your future success, remember those words and begin to make your case for the future.

Pat Jones is editorial director and publisher of Golf Course Industry. He can be reached at pjones@gie.net or 216-393-0253.