Superintendent Ron Dahlin has all the potential crew members he could ask for, but choosing the right applicants still makes all the difference for his course.
It sounds perfect to have an unending supply of potential crew members coming to your course looking for work.
“Being on the college campus, it’s an unwritten rule that we hire as many students as we can,” says Ron Dahlin, superintendent at the Meadows Golf Course at Grand Valley State University in Allendale, Mich. “I have a rather large pool of applicants that we can pull from. There are years that go by that I don’t even have to post on the student job board.”
Dahlin hires from the student population often to work the 18-hole tournament course, managing the bentgrass tees, fairways and greens. He has a team of two full-time staff and 12 part-time crew members to cover the course, each working about 20 hours a week. Of those, most are students at the university. Though the course is a part of the university, the crew is staffed independently, which gives him freedom to work with only the students who can keep up with the needs of the turf.
“It is so cool to get a student who’s a freshman, because you usually have him for four or five years after that,” says Dahlin. “Granted, you’re going to lose him eventually, but if you can get a good kid, by the second year they’re pretty in tune to what’s going on. By the time they leave here, you’ve really gotten to see them grow and develop.”
But when they’re starting, the interview is all about making that first connection and establishing the ground rules for Dahlin.
“The first thing we do with anyone we hire is talk about hours and their schedule,” says Dahlin. “We talk about their availability, and we talk about expectations that I have of their work here. I expect them to be here every morning, and if they’re not going to be here or something’s going wrong, I need to know about it. I let them know we’re working outside and that we’re going to be working hard.”
The discussion varies sharply from his past experience in golf outside the university, where he worked at another course.
“It was a much stricter place,” he says. “We had a three-strikes and you’re done policy, and that just wouldn’t fly here. [The assistant superintendent] and I would be doing all the work. I’m probably much more flexible than what I used to be. The things that I’ve watched for is really the sincerity and the honesty in these kids. You want to see some excitement in their voice; you don’t want them coming through the door and having this feeling that it’s just drudgery. I try to be a little more in tune to the intangible and learn a little bit more about these kids.
“We can get some great work out of these kids. Some of them you have to teach how to work and really set expectations. But when you get them tuned in and you get them to be part of the team, they get to learn some new things about themselves.”
But even the best employees can have some trouble with work or encounter issues on the course. Rather than just jumping to a flat set of rules for discipline or termination, an employee should have every chance to make things right, says Dahlin, and that takes a personal touch from the superintendent.
“The first thing you want to do when you notice something is to stay connected with them,” he says. “When you start having issues, they’re going to start pulling away. Maybe find a time to sit with them, or do a job alongside them for a while. You can’t point out their faults in front of everyone. In the morning when you have a crew meeting is not the time to do it.”
Talk with the employee to let them know that the expectations that were discussed during the interview and hiring aren’t being met, and ask if there’s a problem, or if something is happening that they didn’t expect when they came in. Let them know what the expectations of the job are, and there will be some flexibility as they learn the work.
“I think it’s really my responsibility to try and figure out a way to make it work, but sometimes you get to a point where it just doesn’t,” says Dahlin. “Rarely do I just look at them and say, ‘You know what, it’s not working out,’ because if you’re open with them to that point, they’ll usually tell you they’re looking for something else.”
But if the employee isn’t working along with expectations and is causing damage to the team’s ability to work, it might be time to sit down with them one more time.
“If it comes down to the point that I have to let someone go, I’ll bring them in,” says Dahlin. “The two of us have already started to talk and we’ve already started to manage both of our expectations for the job. It’s always done behind a closed door and rarely has it been 30 seconds and done. It’s always been a good conversation to say it didn’t work out for Meadows.
“Hopefully, it gets to the point where you can talk to them and say, “In the future, these are the things I think you can work on to make it a little bit better so you don’t have to go through this again.’ You shake their hand before you let them go through the door.”
But up to that point, flexibility within reason is key for maintaining the strength of the course even when workers are struggling with expectations. Giving the team a little bit of leeway gives them the opportunity to encourage the others to pick up the pace, he says.
“I’m not a hand-holder,” says Dahlin. “The crew will kind of pick everyone up, and they’ll help each other along most of the time. We’re proud of the product we put out there, and we’re proud of the people that make it happen.”