The largest potential labor source for golf courses might also be the most maligned

If you believe the cynics during the labor discussions at turf shows and conferences, millennials don’t work enough and text and tweet too much. They would rather play videogames than work outdoors. They arrive late and leave early. They work 15 hours but want to get paid for working 40.

Superintendents relying on millennials are ignoring the noise. Their eyes are telling them something entirely different.

With the proper managerial approach and handling, millennials, and in particular those ages 18-23, can provide the industry with a valuable labor source. Statistically, millennials represent a huge part of the labor pool. The generation, which consists of adults ages 18-34, surpassed Baby Boomers earlier this year as the largest group in the American workforce, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of U.S. Census Bureau data. There are 53.5 million millennials in the workforce.

The National Golf Foundation released a 76-page report earlier this year to help industry stakeholders attract more millennials to the sport. A similar study designed to help industry stakeholders recruit and retain millennial workers has yet to be conducted.

As the economy improves, superintendents, especially in economically prosperous regions, are going to experience greater labor pinches than the ones they already face. And, remember, the pinches are always a political decision from becoming full-blown industry crises. Imagine maintaining your course without assistance from workers holding H-2B visas. Or what happens to your staff if the Department of Labor passes a proposal that would require employers to pay overtime to workers making up to $50,000 annually, including managers?

Still ready to give up on tapping into the millennial workforce?

Millennials are different than other generations, but they aren’t unreachable or lazy, according to superintendents who work closely with the generation.

“This is the next group of employees in the workforce,” says Dan Mausolf, the superintendent at Radrick Farms Golf Club in Ann Arbor, Mich. “They bring a new view on the operation and the industry. They are so connected with what’s going on in the world today and always look for new ways to do things. They are constantly learning and have no qualms about passing along their opinions. The feedback they give is a tremendous asset to improving golf course management, quality of workplace morale and the way to get things done”

Superintendent Matthew Gourlay incorporates student labor into all aspects of the maintenance operation at Colbert Hills Golf Course, a 27-hole facility two miles from the Kansas State University campus in Manhattan, Kan. Every worker on Gourlay’s staff is part of the millennial generation, which consists of 18 to 34 year olds. The fall crew includes 24 part-time student workers, the equivalent of nine full-time employees. “A lot of these kids have great attitudes,” Gourlay says. “And we try to work around their schedules as much as possible.”
© matthew gourlay

Holistic and flexible

Patrick Reinhardt, the superintendent at the Georgia Southern University Golf Course in Statesboro, Ga., has little choice but to connect with millennial workers. Statesboro, population 28,422, is a college town in rural Georgia. The course is competing with other golf facilities in the area and landscape companies for student workers. The maintenance crew consists of 25 workers, including 21 students who are full-time students and part-time golf course maintenance employees. They work less than 25 hours per week on the course.

The facility opened in 2013, and initial plans involved using students as complementary pieces to a larger full-time crew. Early returns on student workers convinced Reinhardt and other university officials the course could flourish with a millennial-heavy maintenance crew.

“They take pride in their work, they are hard workers and they are really, really smart kids,” Reinhardt says. “These are all kids that have gotten into a college that has high standards, so you know they are smart. It’s just figuring out how each one of them learns. Do they learn by showing? Do they learn by doing? Do they learn by some other way? I really enjoy it. I try to take every person as their own. The guys I have right now, I wouldn’t trade them for anything.”

A holistic approach is also helping superintendent Matthew Gourlay fill positions at Colbert Hills Golf Course, a 27-hole facility in the college town of Manhattan, Kan., population 52,281. The course is two miles from the Kansas State University campus, and Gourlay’s fall crew consists of 24 part-time student workers, the equivalent of nine full-time employees. Kansas State has a turfgrass program, but the majority of Gourlay’s workers are involved in other academic pursuits.

It’s a matter of management style and finding each person’s strength and weakness. If I have a student in here and just put him on bunkers or give him a Weed Eater, they are kind of the low man on the totem pole. If I’m spending all day on the Weed Eater or raking bunkers by hand, I’m not going to have any fun. I’m going to be bored, and that’s when I’m going to turn to other things.” —Patrick Reinhardt, Georgia Southern University Golf Course

Flexibility helps Colbert Hills attract a slew of millennial workers. Instead of the entire crew arriving and leaving around the same time, Gourlay works with students to craft schedules that satisfy both parties. He also creates distinct schedules for the spring, summer and fall seasons based on employee availability. Reinhardt and Gourlay use digital job boards to simplify what could be a daunting scheduling process.

“A lot of these kids have great attitudes,” Gourlay says. “And we try to work around their schedule as much as possible. Obviously, we need to get the golf course ready first thing in the morning, but after that our schedule is very flexible. It has to be to work with their school schedule. We have guys that come in during the afternoons and do mowing and watering and irrigation work or anything like that. We are really flexible, and I think that really resonates with the staff.”

Understanding the personal needs of students helps Mauslof’s course attract and retain workers. In the peak season, Radrick Farms, which is operated by the University of Michigan, employs 24 to 28 maintenance employees, with 80 percent of the crew ranging from 19 to 24 years old. If the course schedule doesn’t include any events, Mauslof tries to give workers a half-day shift on Fridays and one weekend off day. “I have to keep in mind that it is their summer and they have vacations and other downtime things they want to do,” he says. Mauslof also lauds his assistant superintendents for spreading jobs around among crew members, which prevents employees from getting burned out by one particular task.

Georgia Southern University Golf Course superintendent Patrick Reinhardt made millennials an integral part of his crew even before the 18-hole facility opened in 2013.
© Guy cipriano

Customize, collaborate and communicate

Collaboration and customization are concepts helping manager reach millennials, according to Scott Zimmer, a generational expert and speaker for BridgeWorks, which describes its employees as “generational junkies.” Zimmer says millennials relish being part of a decision-making process. Managers, for example, are more apt to receive questions about a work process from a millennial than a Baby Boomers, a group comprised of 50 to 69 year olds.

“When Baby Boomers look back at their formative years, it was more of a dictatorship. There was no family vote. Someone was always in charge,” Zimmer says. “But a lot of Baby Boomers didn’t raise their kids that way. Millennials have been given a voice in decisions since they were young.”

A failure to understand those generational differences are often the root of the stereotypes millennials hear about their work ethic. And, yes, millennials are aware of how they are often viewed by older generations. “It’s not very motivating to millennials when others think they are just dumb, entitled, lazy or tech dependent,” says Zimmer, a member of Generation X, a group consisting of 35 to 49 year olds. “Let’s look past these stereotypes and find out who this generation is. That’s when you will have the most success finding and retaining those workers.”

Zimmer hasn’t worked directly with the golf industry, but he says businesses are experiencing success with millennial workers by providing opportunities to create a customized work experience (unique opportunities that are easily shareable with others). This could mean something as simple as allowing a golf course maintenance employee to post a picture on a social media account of a sunrise during an early morning shift. Zimmer, who grew up working on a dairy farm in Minnesota, adds that money isn’t the sole motivating factor for younger generations. “Millennials want to know that this is the job for me,” he says. “They want to do something that resonates and has meaning.”

Baltusrol Golf Club director of grounds Mark Kuhns isn’t as reliant on millennial labor as Reinhardt, Gourlay or Mauslof. The 36-hole New Jersey club’s national reputation and competitive compensation packages yield low turnover rates. But Kuhns places major emphasis on an internship program that annually contributes 12 workers to a peak season crew of 75.

It’s not very motivating to millennials when others think they are just dumb, entitled, lazy or tech dependent. Let’s look past these stereotypes and find out who this generation is. That’s when you will have the most success finding and retaining those workers.” — Scott Zimmer, BridgeWorks LLC

Finding qualified interns, even for a club of Baltusrol’s stature, can be tricky because of declining enrollments among major turf schools. Tweaking and customizing its program to meet the desires of students helps Baltusrol find talented interns, many of whom are apt to join the full-time staff if a position becomes available when they graduate.

“One of the things we do different here is that we give them an opportunity to get involved in all aspects of our operation,” Kuhns says. “From our budgeting, forecasting, to our spraying, fertilizer applications, calibration of equipment… We even allow them, if they want to, to work on small engines or grind reels to get their hands dirty and to learn what is involved in those processes.”

Kuhns, in his 39th year as a superintendent, says today’s students “definitely have a different outlook on life” and “are very focused on the learning process.” In addition to exposing students to a variety of tasks, he pairs each student with an assistant superintendent to monitor progress and takes the group on industry field trips to places such as supplier facilities or the nearby USGA museum. He says the program receives numerous word-of-mouth referrals, a strong sign it resonates with students. “You need to keep them involved and keep them interested in it and just don’t say, ‘Hey, go dig that ditch all day long or go rake bunkers all summer,’” Kuhns adds. “That’s going to turn them off. We want to make sure when they leave here they are inspired to go on and do better things.”

Providing opportunities for workers to perform a variety of distinct tasks in a team environment can help superintendents recruit and retain millennial employees.
© Matthew Gourlay

Reinhardt, 33 and in his first head superintendent position, sees similar value in creating a work environment where jobs have deeper meanings. He struggles thinking where the Georgia Southern course would be had he not cultivated a strong millennial workforce.

“It’s a matter of management style and finding each person’s strength and weakness,” he says. “If I have a student in here and just put him on bunkers or give him a Weed Eater, they are kind of the low man on the totem pole. If I’m spending all day on the Weed Eater or raking bunkers by hand, I’m not going to have any fun. I’m going to be bored, and that’s when I’m going to turn to other things. I’m going to have that lazy attitude, that play-around-on-my-phone mentality. If you can get them engaged in their job, so they have a sense of purpose in their job, that’s when you really start to see that turnaround.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s assistant editor.