Labor woes

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It’s amazing how easily conversations these days with superintendents turn into discussions of their labor woes. The topic is not one they welcome because it suggests factors beyond their immediate control that limit their ability to get their job done.

Professionals in any trade are more comfortable dealing with things they have some influence on: acquiring technical skills, getting comfortable with new equipment or chemistry, learning to improve their people skills, or simply adopting a more relaxed state of mind. The problem with the current labor shortage is that its origins — and most of its solutions — are part of larger social trends that are out of the hands of superintendents. Nonetheless, it helps to identify cause and effect if we are going to address the problem. As far as I can tell, there are four major cultural factors contributing to the labor shortage in golf.

1. The caddie ranks disappeared

The caddie yards were once the biggest source of junior golf recruitment into the game, both recreationally and vocationally. The skill set acquired was invaluable, not only for inculcating golf savvy but also for disciplining youth into behaviors that served them well in education and work life. The golf cart displaced all that, as did onerous youth labor laws.

For all the laudable efforts of caddie scholarship, the ranks of loopers have been lessened dramatically. The result has been a dilemma for the game, not only in attracting the next generation of golfers but also in gaining the early attention and interest of people who might be drawn into the game as a career.

2. Teen work has waned

It used to be commonplace among American middle-class kids to have a paper route they delivered from a bicycle, shovel snow, mow lawns, work as a department store clerk or wash pots and pans in a college cafeteria. Teenage work life has faded for all sorts of reasons: parents too scared to let their kids actually labor, a more restrictive regulatory climate, the lure of video games and computers as youth entertainment, the disappearance of many of those jobs due to increased professionalization by landscape companies, and the advent of big-box retailing that prefers to rely on low-paid adults.

There is little doubt that folks arrive in their 20s with less work experience than was the case three or four decades ago. That means less willingness to put up with the demanding, relatively low-paying work entailed on a golf course.

3. Minimum wage is too low

Many states have raised minimum wage rates and most golf courses offer starting rates above that threshold. But the point for labor is that when pay is deemed so low as to not provide an adequate wage, disincentives set in and it becomes a rational economic decision to seek employment in industries that offer higher pay, less demanding physical work, more suitable hours and weekends off.

4. Immigration reform stalled

It’s no secret in physically demanding industries like agriculture, restaurants and hospitality that Americans are opting out of the ranks and leaving a labor vacuum that has to be filled by those more willing (or desperate) to put up with demanding, low-paying conditions. Historically, that has entailed a labor force from overseas — whose ranks have proved to be incredibly hard working, law abiding, tax paying and willing to sacrifice for their families. The political environment has made immigration reform difficult to achieve and many industries face severe labor shortages because of restrictions on who and how many foreigners are to be allowed in to fill those positions.

Where does this leave superintendents trying to recruit qualified labor? Luckily, there are a few tools still available worth deploying. Paying $1 or $2 more per hour is a starting point. Recruiting women into the applicant pool dramatically expands the likelihood of finding people willing and able. Enhancing the work environment to make it more appealing to people of diverse color, ethnicity and language goes a long way to promoting a welcoming place. I’d also suggest ancillary benefits like transportation vouchers and health care coverage. It also helps to offer the possibility of career advancement through training, workshops and intensive short-course programs in turf management.

Superintendents can’t solve large social problems, but they can address those consequences on a case-by-case basis. The game’s newfound popularity demands newfound management expertise.

Bradley S. Klein, Ph.D. (political science), former PGA Tour caddie, is a veteran golf journalist, book author (“Discovering Donald Ross,” among others) and golf course consultant. Follow him on Twitter (@BradleySKlein).