© Matthew Laznicka

The United States, in general, and the golf course maintenance industry, in particular, have endured more labor challenges over the last year than a maternity ward filled with 12-pound newborns.

The COVID-19 restrictions that stretched through 2020 into early 2021 begat record numbers of rounds, which begat more wear and tear on the turf, which begat the need — and, at long last, perhaps the financial flexibility — for some extra hands. But those hands were hard to find. HELP WANTED signs remained in windows everywhere, even as the national unemployment rate plummeted from 14.8 percent in April 2020 to 4.2 percent last November, not much higher than it was before the start of the pandemic. Workers have more leverage than they have in generations, and employers — golf course maintenance departments among them — have reacted by offering more than ever before. Increased starting wages. More flexible schedules. Plenty of free golf, of course. Even team meals, sometimes grilled by the superintendents themselves.

“I’m doing everything I can,” says Dan Brickley, the superintendent at Lebanon Country Club in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, since 2002. “I’m cooking for these guys, I’m coming in at 4 o’clock and smoking ribs so they have lunch, I’m taking them fishing, I’m taking them hunting, I’m taking them golfing, just trying to do everything I can other than money — because I’m locked there — and it’s exhausting.

“100 percent, this was the most challenging labor year, and it’s not even close.”

The news that labor is a challenge — a struggle at many courses — comes as no surprise. A year ago, 54 percent of respondents to our annual State of the Industry survey listed labor as at least one of their top three anticipated challenges for 2021. Thirty-nine percent listed COVID-19 adjustments and interruptions.

Labor remains the greatest challenge. The wrath of a now-yearslong global pandemic is second.

“Labor is at the core,” says Scott Norton, Ross Golf Center superintendent and Country Club of Boyne grounds manager in Boyne Falls, Michigan, in northern Michigan. “Managing grass is easier than managing people. Grass shows up every day and works hard every day. Motivating people is a much taller challenge.”

So is just finding people. Who works on a golf course these days? Where are Brickley, Norton, and so many other superintendents turning to find new folks? And what really worked in this wildest of labor years?

The average crew

There is no average crew on any golf course anywhere. Multi-course mosaics and rustic resorts might have 100 or even 200 crew members. Nine-holers in Iowa or Vermont might have a single full-timer most of the year and a few part-timers or seasonal staffers when play picks up. And if you expand the definition of average from the size and makeup of a crew to include how that crew performs, probably every superintendent will tell you their crew is well above average.

But the average crew, at least among the respondents to our annual survey — which focused more on labor this year after shining on a light on the response to the pandemic pickup in 2021 and the personal toll of turf life in 2020 — includes 7.80 full-timers, 3.48 part-timers, and 6.99 seasonal employees. (The medians are 5.00, 3.00 and 5.00, respectively.) The average tenure for a full-time crew member is an impressive 9.6 years.

The average crew included 3.2 students and 2.8 retirees last year — groups that, at least anecdotally, were well represented among part-time and seasonal employees. More than 38 percent of respondents said they hired more folks from those two groups last year compared to previous years.

Almost every survey respondent said they anticipate hiring at least as many seasonal employees in 2022 as they did in 2021. Thirty percent said they will hire more, and another 67 percent said they will hire about the same. Only 3 percent, the true outliers, said they anticipate hiring fewer this year.

Nearly half of all respondents said that at least some of their crew does not speak English as their first language, with about 21 percent of all crew members in that bucket. As you might expect, Spanish is the top primary language among those folks. Tim Powers, the superintendent at municipal Poplar Creek Golf Course in San Mateo, California, counted among his crew Filipinos, Hispanics, Japanese and Punjabis. “I’ve had to learn some different languages,” he says.

Perhaps not surprising but certainly disappointing: Only 36 percent of respondents have even one woman on their crew, with less than 6 percent counting at least three. The average number of women on a crew? 0.77.

Only 7 percent of respondents said any of their crew members are also members of and represented by a labor union.

Does all that sound like your crew? Probably not, because there is no average crew.

Among the dozen superintendents and turf pros interviewed for this package — in addition to the 226 who responded to a series of emailed survey questions — some fill their crews almost exclusively with full-timers. Others rely more on seasonal employees. Among that latter group, some hired far more high schoolers. Others, either because of the available labor pool, or local laws, or both, turned to retirees. Some love Indeed.com. At least one thinks it is a total waste. At least one other superintendent filled his part-time roster sheet before Tax Day. Most everybody else was scrambling into the summer.

There was one constant, though, when they discussed labor: Whenever they needed somebody new, word of mouth — and referrals from current crew members — almost always worked best. And while referral bonuses are not yet anecdotally common, they are starting to spread, and they seem to help. One course, not mentioned in this package because they requested anonymity, currently offers $2,000 bonuses to current crew members whose referrals are hired and work 90 days.

“When I was up at Crystal Springs (Golf Course) and I needed more guys, I would just talk to my crew and they would bring a friend in,” Powers says. “They were the screening process. One guy, he said, ‘I have a friend who wants to come to work.’ He came up to me an hour later and said, ‘Nah, forget that. He won’t work hard enough.’ Because if it doesn’t work out, then I’m going to be upset with them.”

Turning over every stone

While there might be a best answer to the never-ending question about how to fill a crew, there is no wrong answer.

Chris Michaelson turned to the two neighborhoods that border Oneka Ridge Golf Course in White Bear Lake, Minnesota, and are filled with teenagers who can walk or ride their bikes to the course. When he was turning over his seasonal staff for the fourth time last season (yes, the fourth time — it was a rough year), Brickley turned to former crew members who were laid off after a local landscaper shut down.

And Bryan Tipton, the superintendent at Hillsview Golf Course in Pierre, South Dakota, looked across the street — literally, just a few hundred yards west on SD-34 — to the South Dakota Women’s Prison.

Tipton has worked either 26 or 27 years as a superintendent — he lost count somewhere along the way — and mixed in a nearly-decade-long stretch running the pesticide program for South Dakota. He noticed then that the state often turned to inmate labor and figured he would at least dive into some research.

“I run two to three inmates, and they work full-time,” he says. The rest of the crew is more along the lines of what you might expect — a full-time assistant, mechanic and irrigation technician, more retirees now than college students among the part-timers and seasonal staffers, a couple teachers who work during the summer. One college student last summer left during the season. His new job? Tinting windows. “It was air-conditioned,” Tipton says. “He was tired of working in the heat.” The inmates, though, are different.

They tend to work focused and diligently. The first year alone, the program trimmed about $30,000 from the labor budget. “I have no problems with my labor budget anymore,” Tipton says, “and we still have quality work out here.”

The program was spotlighted in 2019 and 2020 by the GCSAA, a SiriusXM Radio program, even CBS Sports. “It was the lead-in to the PGA Championship,” Tipton says. “A lot of people recognize me from that. They might not remember the person, but they remember the story.” But it quietly faded away during much of the first year of the pandemic after the prison locked down because of COVID-19.

“It was a great year for me to catch up on podcasts because I was out on a mower about 90 percent of the time,” Tipton says. “We lost them for almost the whole golf season. I got them back in December 2020 and I’ve had them back since then. They were pulled this year on October 27, right into our fall shutdown time — they had an outbreak at the prison — so it didn’t hurt us. I lost them for the month of November, but they’re back now.

“It was like heaven (to have them back). In 2020, we were hardly staying on schedule with them gone. I remember just being exhausted. If we didn’t have the inmates this year, there’s no way we would have been able to do what we did in 2020. My assistant (Jordan Steiner) was hand-watering every day this year, and he was a mower last year. It’s just a miracle sometimes.”

Striking a balance

No matter what you might think or sometimes say about generational differences, the divide is probably not as stark as stereotypes might indicate. Every generation is represented on crews — among the crews of all survey respondents, 70 percent said theirs includes Gen Z’ers (born from 1997 to 2012), 73 percent includes millennials (1981 to 1996), 80 percent includes Gen X’ers (1965 to 1980) and 82 percent includes baby boomers (1946 to 1964). Eleven percent of crews still include at least one member of the silent generation, born from 1928 to 1945.

Retirement for the boomers is a boon to scheduling. So was virtual school for the millennials — at least for a while — with two superintendents saying that students sometimes even logged into class from the maintenance building between split shifts.

“When in-person classes were shut down during the spring and the fall of 2020, I did see a boost in the timeline of when (students) started,” Michaelson says. “That year, heck, I was having kids come in the end of April, so I was getting almost an extra month and a half. Granted, it wasn’t full days, but it was enough to get a lot of extra projects done earlier on — just the kind of stuff you’re always rushing to do, like edging bunkers, summer prep stuff that normally takes extra time.

“We were able to do it a month earlier, before the play really got going, because we just had the staff that much earlier. And that freed up time later in the summer to push projects forward into a cooler time of the summer.”

Collin Romanick, superintendent at Blythefield Country Club in Plainfield Township, Michigan, just northeast of Grand Rapids, “had a full staff this summer, but the majority were college-aged, some high school, and in our area, high schools go back before Labor Day now. Used to be after Labor Day and now it’s three weeks earlier, so it stretches us pretty thin. And most of my kids are student-athletes so they have practice. They’re just busy — kids are busy these days. Once school starts, they’re pretty much gone. I do have a few that work on the weekends still, which is good.”

That is the trade with students on the seasonal crew. They have more energy than anybody else on the course, they just leave a couple calendar flips earlier.

Brian Smoot, the superintendent at the 27-hole Crosswinds Golf Club in Plymouth, Massachusetts, worked at a local golf course when he was in high school. He also played golf, basketball and baseball, and his athletic endeavors “placed a real strain on” his relationship with his boss.

“I’m still good friends with the person today,” he says. But he definitely received some pushback when school sports ramped up and his hours on the course wound down.

“It bothered him,” Smoot says. “And it bothers me. I would never be like that to anybody who works for me.

High school and/or college students employed on your crew in 2021
None24%
1 to 342%
4 to 7
25%
8 to 10
5%
More than 10
4%
Average: 3.2

 

“I’ve always felt like a young person has the rest of their life to work. Do the best you can for as many days as you can, and I’m happy with that. It was nothing for me to work six days a week, sometimes seven, and when you’re a 15-year-old kid, that’s not right. You need to have a life outside of work also. I tell my students this: ‘You have no idea what giving me one weekend day means to me, how much it helps out.’ I’m fortunate.”

The bottom line?

Retirees employed on your crew in 2021
None24%
1 to 3
46%
4 to 7
26%
8 to 10
2%
More than 10
2%
Average: 2.8

 

Who will work on a golf course in 2032? How about in 2042? 2052? 2082? 2122? Who knows? More women would be a great start. Maybe more full-timers and fewer seasonal workers, or more seasonal workers and fewer full-timers. Maybe the industry as a whole or at least a large percentage of facilities will adopt some sort of system — whatever replaces apps in 10, or 20, or 30, or 50, or 100 years — where vetted workers come in on their own time and work for however long they want. Hey, crazier things have worked out.

Whatever happens, wherever golf course maintenance is heading, there will always be optimists, and there will always be pessimists.

Did you employ more students and/or retirees in 2021 compared to previous years?
Yes, more students16%
Yes, more retirees9%
Yes, more of both
13%
No
62%


Drew Thompson, the longtime superintendent at East Aurora Country Club in East Aurora, New York, about 20 miles southeast of downtown Buffalo, is an optimist.

“I love to see where the golf industry is going,” he says. “I hope it’s not a bubble. I’m sure we’ll back off a little bit, but I don’t think it is a bubble. I’m going to start looking at getting high school kids involved more if I can. I think that’s good on both ends.” He says that a recent high school graduate with an interest in applying to turf school will be shadowing him soon. Thompson’s son, Brendan, started turf school himself last fall. “I’m embracing that with open arms. I think that’s important. And who knows? Maybe he can talk with a few of his friends and we can get a few more of them here.”

Thompson is bullish about the industry. Not every superintendent is. Just like there is no average crew, there is no average superintendent.

“I have some guys who work for me who are still kicking around what to do with their lives,” he says. “I’ve told them, ‘It’s a good business and it’s wide open right now.’ If you can really put the time in and become proficient, you can make a good living at this as a career.”

Maybe even above average.

Matt LaWell is Golf Course Industry’s

managing editor.