How high can you go?

Features - Cover Story

Superintendents reveal what measures they are taking to attract entrylevel hourly workers.

April 10, 2017
Guy Cipriano

Competition for a dwindling workforce lurks everywhere.

Think about your commute. That restaurant on the corner. Hiring. That coffee shop using Italian words to describe drink sizes. Hiring. That developer who purchased the land surrounding the club. Hiring.

Brian Powell sees the conundrum whenever driving through the Durham, N.C., neighborhoods surrounding Old Chatham Golf Club. Plywood, nails, concrete, shingles. He realizes the building materials help North Carolina’s Research Triangle expand its tax base and national prominence.

He also knows what it means for Old Chatham and other area golf facilities. “We are now in a demand cycle for labor where demand has exceeded supply,” says Powell, the only superintendent in Old Chatham’s 16-year history. “It’s taking us longer than it ever has and longer than I have seen in my 30-year career filling an open position.”

Three time zones away, Josh Clevenger attempts to perform labor miracles. He’s seeking seasonal help in the Bay Area. Clevenger, the superintendent at Claremont Country Club in Oakland, Calif., can offer seven 40-hour per week positions from March 1 to Oct. 31 to supplement his full-time crew. He had filled three spots when spring started March 20.

Claremont increased its starting wage from $11.50 to $15.50 in recent years “just to get people to think about it,” Clevenger says. But the peak golf season will begin with four open maintenance positions. People aren’t thinking about working at golf courses in the Bay Area, where median household incomes approach $100,000 and average monthly rents exceed $2,300.

“It’s not just us having a hard time finding people,” Clevenger says. “We’re having a hard time finding dish washers, line cooks, service people. We talk a lot about the struggles we have as a club to find those entry-level positions. It’s not getting any better. We’re having a hard time now and we’re looking out five, 10 years from now. It’s pretty bleak in terms of where we are going to be and what type of wages we have to pay just to get people to come here and show up for a job.”

Even facilities in markets where recessions begin earlier and end later are experiencing labor challenges.

Country Club of Detroit superintendent Ross Miller lost multiple employees last fall because of revived factories offering an hourly wage $3 per hour higher than what the club could pay. The factory jobs also offered full benefits. Miller says he’s not encountering the same issues finding job applicants as facilities in golf-dense parts of Detroit, but the pool of potential candidates capable of passing the club’s screening process has decreased since he arrived in 2014. “I would post at $9.50 and you would get 50, 60 applicants when the economy wasn’t doing as well,” he says.

A facility’s reputation matters little to most hourly workers. Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis, Mo., is hosting the 2018 PGA Championship, yet it faces the same dilemma as thousands of other clubs.

“You can see it, you can hear it,” says superintendent Carlos Arraya, who served as a general manager in Florida before landing at Bellerive. “The highest of the highs … Everybody is facing it. They can say they aren’t, but they are. You can get bodies, but are you able to attract the right people to retain and train to be great employees?”

Always competing, always looking

Superintendents are wary of the labor market. Only 7 percent of the 531 respondents to GCI’s 2017 State of the Industry survey consider it an industry crisis, but 48 percent say they are nervous about what awaits.

“We have been asked to deliver a certain product and people have a set expectation level of the quality we are trying to deliver on the golf course, and you can only do that with enough labor and the right-trained labor once you get it,” Powell says. “It’s frustrating to see a new home being built and see people that are filling those jobs that otherwise could be filing your job and working for you. And I have some friends in the commercial construction industry. They’re feeling the same pressures.”

Superintendents in Sun Belt states are often the most affected by construction patterns. Isla Del Sol Yacht & Country Club’s Kevin Sunderman experienced more than a dozen crew changes in 2016 because of an uptick in construction in the St. Petersburg, Fla., area. The turnover contrasts what Sunderman experienced when the housing market struggled.

“There were all sorts of people working in that industry and then when it crashed, they were no longer building or remodeling houses,” he says. “It was easy to find help. As that has picked up the last couple of years, those people have left and went back to framing houses and doing plumbing, electrical and HVAC work because they can make more money doing that. We are left struggling finding a workforce that wants to show up on time at 6 o’clock in the morning, wants to work out in the heat all day long, wants to work weekends and, oh by the way, do it for maybe a couple dollars over minimum wage.”

Sunderman spent inordinate time in 2016 training new employees unfamiliar with golf course maintenance fundamentals such as how to travel between holes, walk mowing and raking. He’s always accepting referrals from veteran employees, but the volume of leads produced by existing crew members is shrinking. Superintendents are a persistent lot, and Sunderman says he’s considering approaching ministers at local churches about the job opportunities the golf industry can provide congregation members.

H-2B and other visa programs aren’t a widespread labor solution in Florida or other golf havens. Only 11.7 percent of golf facilities are using some type of a visa program to fill positions, according to GCI’s research.

“I’m not aware of anybody participating in H-2B in my area,” Sunderman says. “Part of the challenge is you have to be able to demonstrate the fact that you cannot hire American workers to fill those jobs. I can hire American workers to fill jobs. Anytime I put out an ad out I get people that apply and I can hire. Whether they work to the quality that we need, that’s where the challenge comes in.”

Finding quality employees has become a 365-day pursuit. Sean Reehoorn tries to supplement his crew at Aldarra Golf Club in Sammamish, Wash., with college or high school students interested in spending a summer on a golf course. Reehoorn grew up playing golf and working on golf courses. He says students who play golf are ideal summer employees because they require little training on the game’s nuances. But golf-playing students looking for summer jobs on a golf course are almost extinct species in suburban Seattle. “It seems like the kids who play golf don’t want to work on a golf course,” Reehoorn says. “You’re having a hard time finding college and high school kids who think, ‘That’s a summer job I want to do.’”

Asked when he typically ends his search for seasonal student workers, Reehoorn says, “I don’t ever really close it.” He forges ahead with loyal full-time workers who remain committed to the club despite a thriving local economy, which includes the presence of Costco’s headquarters less than 10 miles from Aldarra’s entrance. Boeing, Microsoft, Amazon and Starbucks are among the other prominent employers in the region.

“Finding labor is hard,” Reehoorn says. “A lot of guys are struggling in our area and trying to mix in part-time guys, and that’s hard because people want benefits. Cost of living has gone up substantially in Seattle in the last five years. The hourly market was held down for so long artificially. Now to keep quality hourly workers you have to pay them north of $15, 16, $17, $18 an hour.”

On the way to $15

Rising minimum wages add to the labor challenges confounding the golf industry.

Seattle leaders passed a law in 2014 that will gradually increase the minimum wage for all workers to $15 per hour by 2021. Large companies (501 or more workers) must pay workers who do not receive medical benefits $15 per hour as of Jan. 1, 2017. Small companies (501 workers or less) must pay the same workers $13 per hour. Workers at small companies, a category golf courses not owned by management companies fall under, must be paid $11 per hour if they receive tips of if the employer pays toward medical benefits.

The state of Washington enacted an $11 hourly minimum wage for all workers on Jan. 1. The state’s minimum hourly wage will increase to $13.50 by 2020. Golf facilities in the region are already hiring entry-level maintenance employees above the mandated minimums, Reehoorn says.

“We are now in a demand cycle for labor where demand has exceeded supply. It’s taking us longer than it ever has and longer than I have seen in my 30-year career filling an open position.” —Brian Powell, Old Chatham Golf Club

California’s current minimum wage is $10.50 per hour, but the state has passed a law that will boost the rate to $15 for all businesses by 2022. Multiple Bay Area cities, San Jose and Oakland, will reach $15 an hour sooner. Superintendents are curious how minimum wage mandates will affect staff morale, and Clevenger says they could produce animosity among workers because new seasonal employees without benefits might be receiving higher hourly rates than experienced workers earning benefits.

Brian Benedict, the superintendent at The Seawane Club on Long Island, must cope with similar numbers and mandates affecting East Coast operations. New York will enact a $15 minimum wage in phases, with all New York City businesses hitting the number by 2019, followed by suburban Nassau, Suffolk and Westchester Counties in 2021. A $15 per hour minimum wage will increase most golf course labor budgets by an average of 20 percent, according to Benedict, whose course sits in Nassau County.

“I foresee two areas of concern,” Benedict says. “Forced increase wages by NYS resulting in exponentially increase labor costs that are static resulting in less weeks worked or layoffs. The other major issue are the crew members that are above the yearly statewide increased hourly rate. What do they get when they see their other crew members getting $1 raises from 2018 to 2021? Do they get the same increase even though they’re over the minimum wage threshold all ready? It’s a tough question. Probably only one that the larger budget clubs can handle monetarily.”

The Northeast is the most expensive place to support a golf course maintenance crew. The average entry-level wage is $11.20 per hour, and 66.7 percent of the region’s maintenance departments have labor budgets above $300,000. The District of Columbia ($11.50), Massachusetts ($11), Connecticut ($10.10) and Vermont ($10) have minimum wages above $10 per hour. Increasing hourly rates mean shorter tenures for seasonal staff at many Northeast facilities.

“It seems like the seasonal labor period is getting shorter,” Benedict says. “With increasing wages every year set by the state and federal government and the labor budget staying the same, something has to give. If the hourly rate per man goes up with the wage increase and the labor money stays the same, the only variable that changes is the weeks in season worked. Years ago the crew used to work 34 to 36 weeks per season and now we’re down to 27 to 28.”

It’s usually about pay

Pay is the No. 1 reason employees give superintendents for leaving a golf course maintenance job, with 57.4 percent of workers leaving for a higher-paying job in another industry. Another 11.5 percent leave for a higher-paying job at another golf course.

Stagnant participation rates and an oversupply of facilities put golf course operators in tricky spots. A restaurant owner, for example, can pass increased labor costs onto customers by incrementally raising the price of sandwiches or drinks without losing business. Golf facilities, especially ones in saturated markets, become vulnerable when dues and greens fees are increased. “You have people on fixed incomes that don’t want to see their dues go up and the cost of rounds go up, but they are going up because you are going to have to compete for workers,” Arraya says.

Creating an inviting culture for employees is helping Bellerive attract workers. The culture involves managers crafting flexible schedules based on employees’ personal needs.

“We have a big staff because we have taken full-time equivalents and we have found enough people that want to be flexible,” Arraya says. “We have taken people with three or four different schedules. We get more done and we save the club money because we are not paying full-time benefits to these people.”

“You can see it, you can hear it. The highest of the highs … Everybody is facing it. They can say they aren’t, but they are. You can get bodies, but are you able to attract the right people to retain and train to be great employees?” — Carlos Arraya, Bellerive Country Club

Powell has found the opposite works at Old Chatham – full-time, year-round positions are more attractive to prospective employees than seasonal positions. The club also offers medical benefits, lunch and uniforms, and the starting hourly wage has increased $1.50 since 2008. Once they join the crew, most employees find the work rewarding and they recommend Old Chatham to family members and friends. The average tenure of an Old Chatham maintenance employee is around six years, according to Powell.

When an employee receives a higher-paying job, Powell says he makes it a point of wishing him or her well. “The rest of the staff pays attention to how a person is treated,” he says. If a key crew member is considering leaving, Powell will approach club leadership about possible tactics to retain the employee. But money-driven defections are unavoidable.

“I would much prefer to have trained people on staff and I would prefer to have veterans going out and doing certain tasks,” he says. “But I’m confident my assistants and myself can adequately train people how to do things the right way. I feel confident that as long as we have bodies coming through the door we can be successful. What concerns me in today’s economy – particularly in this area – is that we just aren’t seeing the bodies come through door.”

Guy Cipriano is GCI’s associate editor.