Strategies for dealing with labor shortages

Golf course maintenance

Here in the Northern Hemisphere we are now hitting mid-summer and the peak season for golf. For course maintenance teams this means long hours, too many jobs to get done and extreme pressure to maintain and present your facility at its best. Apart from the usual agronomic challenges we face, a major inhibitory factor these days is the growing problem of staff shortages.

Part time/seasonal employees have a huge impact on the maintenance of many golf courses and without them many courses cannot provide the level of quality playing surfaces demanded by golfers.

Golf courses worldwide are struggling with this problem, finding, and keeping employees were the top two issues for golf course superintendents in a recent USGA Green Section study. This was mirrored in a British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA) survey which shows that a third of greenkeepers were considering leaving the industry. Golf course maintenance staff, from the superintendent down to the seasonal workers perform highly skilled tasks which directly impact the quality and playability of multimillion dollar sports facilities…. Without them there would be no golf!

What can be done to help alleviate the problem? 

Well, there several options available, divided into two main areas. Firstly, improve the way you attract and hold onto staff, and secondly, look at ways you can achieve your maintenance standards with less staff.

Staff recruitment

As a golf facility looking to hire seasonal staff, you are competing with numerous other businesses, so it’s important to highlight the benefits of working on a golf course…. most people outside the golf industry think ‘well you cut grass and rake bunkers!’

Golf course

Employees of today place a high importance on flexibility, ongoing skill development, and a defined career path.  You need to emphasise the enjoyable outdoor work environment, offer attractive benefits, highlight networking opportunities and diverse job responsibilities. The availability of education and ongoing skill development would be a key incentive for many

There are few seasonal or part time jobs that can rival the atmosphere and benefits of working on a golf course!

As a former superintendent I know the difficulty in raising the dreaded factor of budgeting! But it’s a factor which needs to be addressed, balance the need for higher wages and gauge that against any loss in services that a smaller staff might cause. 

A superintendents’ ultimate responsibility is to maintain and protect their ultimate asset – the golf course. With fewer employees on hand, golf courses must consider ways to get the job done with less staff.

Let’s highlight areas which can be utilized to compensate for lower staff levels.

  • The average 18-hole golf course has approximately 38 ha (95 acres) of maintained turfgrass. The rough, practice areas, nursery, and grounds account for approximately 64% of the area, tees, fairways and putting greens account only 36%. Prioritise this 36% where most of the golf takes place and reduce efforts in less important areas.
  • Reduce fertility, irrigation and weed control in these low-play areas. Lush, green turf across your entire property is not a priority and reducing inputs in these areas, apart from saving money, will reduce the need for frequent mowing, encourage greater biodiversity, and allow you to re-allocate ground staff to the greens, fairways, and tees. 
  • Consider removing unessential accessories such as ball washers, water stations, rubbish bins and benches. Reducing the amount of time spent servicing them will free staff for more important tasks.
  • Many golf courses have adopted the use of triplex mowers for maintaining greens and tees, if your facility hand mows these areas, now would be a good time to switch. 
Golf course
  • Plant growth regulators (PGRs) are standard these days on fine play areas, but when applied to other areas, especially roughs, they can drastically reduce the frequency of mowing
  • Aeration is a labor-intensive practice that requires the support of the entire maintenance team. With low staff availability consider less labor-intensive practices like solid-tine aeration instead of core aeration. 
  • Reduce bunker maintenance the overall presentation and expectations for bunkers will likely need to be adjusted…. Maybe it’s time for bunkers to truly be a hazard.
  • Flowers, shrubbery, mulching, all look good, but they do not directly impact the game and require considerable man hour inputs. This is an area where member volunteers can be very helpful.
  • Often significant time is required for irrigation, especially hand watering. Ensure you have a surfactant program in place and consider using inputs such as Silica, this will reduce drought stress and the need for frequent hand watering. 

The use of robotic mowers and other high tec equipment is a recent innovation which can have a significant impact on reducing staff hours. These, along with enhanced methods of data collection and interpretation, can be used to improve maintenance procedures and concentrate resources where they are most required.

Golfers can also help in times of low staff levels, in my experience, many Golf Club members are enthusiastic about volunteering around the course and are willing to help and carry out tasks such as maintaining flower beds, divots repairs, bunker raking and hand watering.

Main points

  • Emphasise the healthy, enjoyable, and rewarding environment of working on a golf course.
  • Highlight the availability of education and ongoing skill development. 
  • Ensure flexible working times to accommodate workers in school or with additional jobs.
  • Reduce maintenance in nonessential areas.
  • Ensure your maintenance programs include PGRs, these will reduce mowing frequencies.
  • Inputs such as surfactants and Silica will ensure your irrigation has maximum impact and will reduce the need for time consuming hand watering.
  • Utilise robotic equipment and technology, ensuring automated and more efficient operations will reduce the level of staff required.

Dr. John Dempsey
Independent Turfgrass Research

Email: [email protected]

Golf course mowing
Golf course mowing

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