Targeted recruiting has helped Sparrows Point (Md.) Country Club fill open positions on its golf course maintenance crew.
© TYLER BLOOM

It’s no secret that the turf industry is dealing with a labor shortage. Enrollment in college turf management programs is on the decline and superintendents are finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified applicants to fill open positions.

Some Maryland superintendents are taking steps to deal with the situation, taking different paths to the same destination by reaching out to students of varying ages.

Ryan Kraushofer is the superintendent and general manager at Westminster National Golf Course, a public facility in Westminster, Md. He’s been around the turf industry since he was 12 and currently serves as president of Mid-Atlantic Association of Golf Course Superintendents and its roughly 400 members. Kraushofer looked into the First Green program, which originated in the Pacific Northwest some two decades ago. The aim of the program, which now operates under auspices of the GCSAA, is to introduce students to the turf industry.

Kraushofer’s program involves fifth graders. This spring, he scheduled three field trips, one each in March, April and May. The excursions involve roughly 100 students each and are a blend of education and fun.

“We’re teaching them about soils found on golf courses and the different types of grasses,” Kraushofer says. “We’re teaching them about area calculations, how important proper area calculations are for golf course superintendents when it comes to seed, fertilizing, and putting down our pesticides and fungicides.

“And then we teach them about water conservation. We let the kids use moisture meters and explain that we don’t necessarily need to water the entire green. We can take hoses out and just hit hot spots.

“Then we have our putting station and a station we created that we call the 411 of golf. We teach them a little bit about physics and how you need to be able to identify your golf ball, so we let the kids draw their name or whatever they want on to a golf ball. And then these kids will break down into a driver group, a pitching wedge group and a 5-iron group, and then we have a pro hit their balls down one fairway.”

The students then measure the difference in distance between shots hit with a driver as opposed to a 5 iron, making the conversion from feet to yards in the process.

Kraushofer notes it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find qualified help for his staff and thus increasingly important for him and his peers to engage in outreach efforts.

“It’s harder for superintendents to find summer help,” he says. “We’ve posted ads for assistant superintendents. It’s getting hard to find qualified candidates or people that want to become an assistant superintendent, just because the enrollment in turf schools is way down.”

Tyler Bloom leads the golf course maintenance efforts at Sparrows Point Country Club, a private facility just east of Baltimore. Like Kraushofer and his colleagues elsewhere in the state, Bloom is finding it increasingly difficult to find qualified applicants for openings on his team because of his budget versus the wage scale in the region.

“I kind of recognized my approach on things wouldn’t be to go after the college interns or postgraduates,” he says. “I was going to have to build from the ground up at every level of my operation from the assistant level, all the way down to the person who just walks through the door.

“We had challenges with just bringing in general laborers through routine channels, whether that was through websites or newspaper ads. I kind of knew we needed to find a different recruiting method.”

A solution to his problem arrived four years ago when a guidance counselor from a nearby Baltimore County high school (the city and county of Baltimore are separate jurisdictions) walked into his office and wanted to discuss the idea of a work-study program for his students.

“At the time, I really didn’t connect the dots that this could be an internship program,” Bloom says. “It was just getting bodies in the door, getting the high school students in, and it was just through trial and error and just talking and integrating with the students that I realized ‘My God. They don’t even know that this is a career.’”

Since that time, with the support of the Baltimore County school system, Bloom has brought in additional work-study students from six different high schools. The first, Adam Naribanchik, is now his first assistant. “I have five or six guys right now that have all kind of followed Adam’s path,” Bloom says.

That path includes a work-study curriculum in which the student attends school half a day and spends half a day working with Bloom at Sparrows Point.

“This is a full 12-month program,” Bloom says. “I really try to hire people in the fall and early spring, sometimes even in the winter, so I can get them introduced into a workplace culture because they have no basis for that.”

Bloom says the program not only give the students a real-time lesson about the importance of a work ethic, but provides them with an overview of the career paths the turf industry offers.

“Somebody’s got to show them what it’s like to work on a golf course and give them the direction,” he says. “This is a career. You don’t need to be a superintendent or an assistant, but you can go into sales, you can go into landscaping, you can work on sports fields.’”

Bloom has considered developing a statewide apprenticeship program for aspiring turf professionals. He’s had several meetings with officials from the Maryland State Department of Education on the subject.

Dean Graves will retire in June from his post as the superintendent at the Chevy Chase Club, just outside Washington, D.C. But Graves is looking to stay connected to the industry as a mentor. He points out that he not only has the desire to give back to his profession, but will also have the time to help developing a mentoring program for students that might want to consider a career in the turf industry.

“I can go to different high schools in different counties,” he says. “Go there and actually give a presentation to students, parents, or both.”

Graves envisions a formal mentoring program that would be affiliated with local school systems. “The superintendent would have to qualify for it,” he says. “It’s not like (the student) would be a summertime employee. They would actually come and fill out an evaluation. How they’re progressing, how they’re learning, are you being mentored? It’s not just having somebody come in on weekend to fill divots, it’s taking them under our wing to teach them.”

Graves notes that he has mentored a member of his own staff who is now looking at pursuing a degree in turf management. Graves wants students — and their parents — to know they can make a good living in the industry. His immediate goal is to put more students on that path.

“We’re hoping that we get the numbers up,” he says. “If we get one out of 10 (students) to continue in the profession, I think that’s a pretty good ratio. Right now, we don’t have the 10.”