Turf Education

Features - Career

Learning is universal, but education is personal

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February 7, 2020

Steven Spielberg, Benjamin Franklin and you – all polymaths, to a degree.

Polymaths have extensive knowledge of a wide range of subjects and you’re aware of the spectrum of knowledge and skills required of superintendents. You may not be as aware of the current choices in turf education, why they matter to you and how deeply – and exceptionally – involved you are in those choices.

There’s work available, with assistant superintendent compensation starting in the mid-$30,000s and extending well into the $60,000s. Superintendent salaries start in a higher range and extend through to six figures for some properties. The education requirements nearly always list as “preferred,” with the two-year degree or certificate being most frequently mentioned, and some listings clarifying that experience can supplant a degree. Equipment and irrigation technicians are expected to have a high school diploma or the equivalent and their pay rates are increasing because qualified candidates are lacking in many regions.

According to CollegeCalc.org and based on the US Department of Education’s 2018-19 Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), “The average annual out-of-state cost for a bachelor program in turf and turfgrass management is $36,443 with an estimated average four-year degree total cost of $145,772. For two-year turf and turfgrass management associate programs, the average total cost per year is $20,211 with an average two-year total program cost of $40,422.”

According to Golf Course Industry’s recent State of the Industry survey, roughly 14 percent of superintendents are “very likely” to recommend a golf course maintenance career to a young person. The survey also finds that 36 percent of superintendents surveyed believe the largest misconception family and friends have about the profession is that “it’s just about turf.” Collectively, these parameters influence choices regarding education.

Who are the students?

The basic choices in turf education include: a high school diploma or GED, learning on-the-job, a two-year certificate or associate degree, a bachelor’s degree, a graduate degree and a doctorate. With those designations, students can apply for a job ranging from irrigation tech to director of agronomy. Beyond the accomplishment, there are innumerable smaller decisions that will shape the potential of a career and a student’s quality of life when formal schooling is finished. Coursework for continuing education and additional certifications are possible. The learning never stops. These elements coupled with external factors have seen a drop in interest in students choosing education in turf.

At Virginia Tech, and “across the country in 2008, my colleagues and I saw our enrollment plummet when the economy collapsed. We are still in recovery mode, but it’s improving,” says Dr. Mike Goatley, professor and extension specialist in the School of Plant and Environmental Sciences. He remembers when turf was a popular major and recruiting students was unnecessary – major universities could have more than 100 students pursuing four-year turf degrees. Now, if there are 25 students, that program is considered robust.

A major part of Dr. Mike Goatley’s job at Virginia Tech involves selling the value of turf education to students.
© photo courtesy of Dr. Mike Goatley

“About half the students come to major in turf, usually with some idea that they want to be a superintendent or be in sports turf management,” Goatley says. Student interest increases when they find a professor they like or other students talk about their internships and generate enthusiasm for how they can turn what they are learning in class into a job. “About half the kids know they like sports and being outdoors,” Goatley adds, “but they need to be introduced to careers.”

Students do not need to know what they want to do as a career when they apply for school. General offerings present an opportunity to introduce students to turf. It’s not about persuading kids to study turf but making sure they know what career options are available to them through turf management. Many schools have turf education as part of their offerings in agriculture, but high school students may not recognize how far into sports golf turf management agricultural studies actually extend.

There has been a dramatic increase in enrollment for the online program at Penn State (World Campus) and the two- and four-year programs are also seeing higher enrollment. “We are all going to see that uptick,” says Dr. John Kaminski, a professor and the director of the golf course management program. “College is expensive. People are looking at majors based on what is a hot job market. In turf, and specifically golf course turf, we are at 100 percent job placement. Students are getting good jobs. Salaries are increasing and employers are striving for a work-life balance. All these things are happening at a perfect time. You are seeing career interest, so people go to school for it.”

Many of the students Kaminski sees in the golf course turfgrass management two-year program are older and determined to become superintendents. They usually have a four-year degree in sports management, teaching or something else, but those who have an undergraduate degree in business consistently perform well. “Those kids have a really high outlook in terms of success because it all clicks – turf, business and communications,” Kaminski says.

In Conway, South Carolina, at Horry Georgetown Technical College, a two-year school, this year has presented some atypical students. While the student body is usually a little older with some college experience (but no degree), this year they have several students with bachelor’s degrees. The school is also seeing “more young people who are straight out of high school,” says Ashley Wilkinson, professor for golf and sports turf management. Younger students have little experience, but it’s an encouraging sign that turf education is attracting more students as a first choice.

© photo courtesy of Dr. John kaminski

Financing

“The value lies in asking, ‘What is your purpose for getting an advanced degree?’” Goatley says. “A master’s degree doesn’t necessarily make you more employable. I don’t discourage the students, but I do encourage them to think it through.”

And how much education is optimal for success? Most will agree that a two-year certificate or degree will set you on a better path than no formal turf education, but there is additional value in the four-year degree.

“Some of the students are really book smart and take a liking to research,” Kaminski says. “We have the funds to hire them for it.” Two-year students don’t have time for that, but they have to make time to apply for at least one scholarship.

“Our out-of-state tuition is $22,000 for four semesters,” Kaminski says. “If a student can pull in a good scholarship and work a six-month summer internship to make $15,000 to $20,000 more, the student can pay for tuition, room and board. But you have to be a really good student and you have to be aggressive. I make them put together a package for at least one scholarship because I know they are all qualified to get it but for some reason they aren’t going to do it. It blows my mind. The big scholarships can be $5,000 to $8,000. Why would they not put a packet together?”

Financial aid creates potential when applying for admission and relief in making the decision to go to school, but scholarships help once you are in. Virginia Tech offers more than $750,000 in scholarships in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, with more than 500 scholarships available. Goatley, Kaminski and Wilkinson all encourage their students to apply for scholarships.

“Previously, the college dream was to have the college experience, find yourself and enjoy yourself,” Wilkson says. “That’s expensive now. The new college dream is to graduate with no debt, be free the minute you get out and not have to worry about college loans.”

Several second-year students receive scholarship money and the Horry Georgetown class schedule for all students is Monday through Thursday so everyone can work. Students are fully expected to be employed and 90 percent are. With year-round golf weather and around 90 courses in Myrtle Beach, the students are spoiled for choice. Between working – which reinforces their education – and scholarships, graduating debt-free becomes possible.

To help students and hire graduates with one less thing to worry about, superintendents can be aware of scholarships (particularly any offered by local professional chapters and organizations) and encourage interns or other students to apply. Currently, there is a surplus of money and too few applicants – and this should change.

The valuable intangibles of education cannot be overlooked. David Lee, director of golf course maintenance at Forest Creek Golf Club in Pinehurst, North Carolina, has his doctorate in agronomy. He chose that path “because it was the ultimate degree in the field and could provide many opportunities in academics or industry.”

In addition to the material, Lee says he learned independent thinking and problem-solving. “The science behind turf management is complex and there are many interactions,” he says. “The Ph.D. process required learning how to break down these interactions to find answers on why and how things in the field are happening.” Communication skills are high on the wish list of most employees, as are problem-solving and independent thinking.

Networks and mentors

Goatley can clearly recall his start in turf education at the University of Kentucky, which was “purely by accident.” As an undergrad struggling to choose a major, he took a class taught by A.J. Powell and really enjoyed it. Powell “was not an easy teacher in terms of a grade,” but he became a mentor and a model for Goatley as an educator. “He had so much enthusiasm and he always made class fun,” Goatley says. That energy attracts students as much as anything.

Goatley tells students to prepare for everything required of a superintendent. “Every successful turfgrass manager will tell you that growing the grass is by far the easiest part of the job,” he says. “I tell the kids, ‘please take business classes, please take communications classes and please take HR classes, because that is what is going to differentiate you.”

The best career advice he has been given is “to know your career network and know your support network at home. Don’t forget who those people are. Take care of those relationships because you are going to need them.” Every person on your staff has you as part of their career network, but you can also be a mentor, especially for young people getting their start.

Internships are a key element of education for learning new skills, addressing gaps in education and adding to a student’s knowledge. There simply aren’t enough credit hours to absorb everything that a career will demand – and rightly so.

Penn State students are required to do one official internship and there is a job fair every November, but even by then, most students have their internships secured. “Students are becoming more proactive to pick the best internship they possibly can,” Kaminski says. There is “an internship prep class where they learn about resume writing and cover letters and interviewing. They go through the whole process.” Multiple applications are encouraged – two is the minimum – as weighing opportunities and accepting and rejecting offers is part of the learning.

Kaminski visits students during their internships, leaving his clubs behind. He spends a few hours with each student, learning what they are learning, pointing out what the student might work on, and getting to know the course and the organization.

Kaminski will visit 17 courses this summer, more than a dozen of which are new to him, and he acknowledges that “It’s getting crazy competitive” – one of his students was recently flown to an interview for an internship. When superintendents go out of their way to show how invested they are in an intern’s success, “the students will bite on that almost every time.”

So, what’s next?

The future

Lee believes there is a bright future in the turf industry, though it faces challenges – labor, rising costs, a flat market, increasing environmental regulations. He believes students need to be encouraged to love what they do. “The golf industry is more than a job,” Lee says. “It’s a lifestyle that requires major sacrifices but has plenty of rewards.”

Being a superintendent means “dealing with people all the time – communications, customers, employees, up the chain, down the chain and we focus on that,” Kaminski says. Technology is going to be paramount because productivity is going to be driven by technology: GPS sprayers, automated irrigation, drones.

“As we become more GPS capable,” Wilkinson says, “with autonomous mowers and spray rigs – who is going to manage those machines? There are no mechanics programs in America to handle these $50,000 to $75,000 fairway units. Who is going to do that work? Unless we find a way as an industry to partner together to train more mechanics and technicians, the superintendents are going to become the mechanics and technicians. There’s no other option.”

While the gross cost of education continues to rise, opportunities for work and travel in the industry are robust. Parker Stancil, who has had two overseas placements, knows the advantages an international experience provides.

Stancil graduated with an associate degree from Horry Georgetown and is continuing his education at Clemson for a bachelor’s degree in agricultural mechanization and business. He has been abroad at courses in Denmark and Ireland, and now has “the confidence to go anywhere” and fend for himself. He enjoyed “studying the ways of organic management where pesticide restrictions are extreme but there is still responsibility for elite playing conditions.”

Stancil notes that many of his friends have two-year degrees “throughout the country and they couldn’t be any happier.” Though the Clemson degree has an opportunity cost, and Stancil is cognizant of that, he is pursuing his choice with the confidence to complete it.

The research and academic dimension of turf and turf’s daily realities must coexist and are most productive in tandem. Wilkinson notes that education was not high on the list of desirable superintendent attributes in a recent survey in which he participated. “If you don’t put education near the top of that list, then our decision-makers at the superintendent level don’t foster the need for education in our next generation,” he says.

There has to be a balance. As the labor shortage diminishes a more educated workforce will be desired, but with some high schools starting turf programs, and two-year degrees being maximized, four-year and graduate degrees may be in the minority for the foreseeable future.

Returning to our famous polymaths, Franklin wrote in his 1758 essay The Way to Wealth that “an investment in knowledge pays the best interest.” It’s still true but cannot always be measured monetarily. Equally true, Spielberg knows “the delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.” With the personal choices available in education and how much they matter, be aware – and proud of – how much you matter.

Lee Carr is an Ohio-based writer and frequent Golf Course Industry contributor.