The Reality of Today’s Labor Issues

“Be careful what you wish for, lest it come true!” 

We’ve all heard this famous saying/warning that originates from Aesop’s Fables around 260 BC, the world’s best-known collection of morality tales.  For many years, all of us in the golf industry diligently worked and hoped that our industry would miraculously rebound and return to our former glory days of constantly booked tee times and new membership waiting lists. Well thanks to an unlikely reason, COVID-19, that’s precisely what we got. Although I’m certain that none of us gave much thought about any of the potential downside of such an unforeseen turnaround. I’m talking about the diminished labor pool that virtually everyone now must find a way to navigate in 2022.

Rounds and revenue are both significantly up across the entire industry regardless of geography and facility type, which is great from a business viability point of view. However, the necessary number of golf course workers needed to properly maintain the course is ridiculously low. For most of us, working on a golf course has been something that we always wanted. Unfortunately, it’s not for everyone.

I think it’s fair to say that most people aren’t really attracted to getting out of bed before the sun rises to walk mow greens or rake a seemingly endless number of bunkers or fill in divots on the, now, overly used driving range. Plus, that’s not to mention that weekend work is more than likely required, as well. On face value, working on a golf course isn’t as prestigious as we would like it to be. And that, my fellow colleague, is at the heart of the problem.

Today’s world is clearly in favor of the employee and not the employer. The constantly shrinking pool of available labor and increased hourly rate has driven far more away from the course maintenance life and into other jobs that are less demanding.

Being a superintendent who can’t find adequate labor is absolutely no fun. Many superintendents I spoke with at the GIS this year talked about having multiple vacancies that they simply cannot fill, both permanent and seasonal positions. So, the real question is what did they do?

Increase the hourly rate being offered.

Most superintendents told me that they had to offer about a 25% higher starting rate just to get some people to apply for a position. Even then, after learning more about what the job entailed, many of the applicants decided against accepting. Plus, by offering a higher rate to new employees, it also meant raising the wage of the current employees so they wouldn’t leave. No experienced employees want to earn the same, or less, than a new guy off the street; especially when other golf courses in their area are also looking for experienced help. Most superintendents said they have “very limited” success with this tactic.

More overtime.

The most common answer I got was that the staff that they did have simply had to work to more hours. This meant a huge increase of overtime hours. Ironically, the time and a half rate they had to pay put a severe drain on their budget which became an issue from the GM or owner of the course since it wasn’t anticipated or properly budgeted for. At best, this tactic works as a stop gap only. There’s no better way to burn out an employee than running them into the ground to try and keep up maintenance expectations.

Reduce the overall amount of maintenance work.

One superintendent relayed that they evaluated the course and came up with a prioritized list of maintenance tasks to focus their limited work force on. This tactic is logical and better distributes the work force on what really matters. The only problem is that golfers think that everything really matters when their golf ball finds its way into a less prioritized area of the course. If you’re going to implement this strategy, I would highly recommend that communication is the key to successfully navigating this potential minefield. Communicating these tradeoffs and challenges to golfers is more important than ever because the choices made can have a clear impact on course presentation and conditioning. When golfers express frustration about course conditions, it’s often because they aren’t aware of the limitations or costs involved with their expectations. Hopefully, better understanding will lead to more realistic expectations. 

Reduce or eliminate projects.

We all want to improve our course and often spend an enormous amount of time lobbying the upper brass on why they are needed. But unless you have the work force in place to successfully complete them, they become a burden and will likely end up pulling more time from your staff than you can afford.

Final thoughts

It is important for GMs, owners, greens committees and golfers to understand that there is a limit to what a golf course can do with the staff they have available. Many course maintenance tasks require training and practice, it’s not simply a matter of hiring someone off the street if you even could hire someone. Retaining staff after they’ve gotten experience can be equally challenging, especially with countless other industries competing for the same labor pool.

Everyone thought returning to the good ole’ days of the golf industry where the tee sheet was constantly full was going to be the only thing that was needed for a bright future. Boy were we all wrong.