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January 2022

Working Overtime — to Stay Staffed-Up

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By David Gould

Every November there’s a Careers in Golf event during championship week of the National Collegiate Club Golf Association. Hundreds of club golfers from 55 universities who gather to compete also get a chance to scout golf employment opportunities.

“We get a dozen or more golf companies and organizations who attend, and over the years it’s been a career pathway for a lot of graduates who love the game and have excellent qualities to offer,” says Kris Hart, founder and CEO of Nextgengolf, which runs the association. Lately he’s detected rising interest in golf careers among his club-golf collegians.

“The pandemic has caused people to reassess their lives and think about pursuing their passions instead of simply earning a paycheck, and we hear some of that attitude from our college students,” Hart says. “They say they want to make a living doing something they find fulfilling.” His implication? The golf industry’s personnel needs could be met in part by the same cultural currents that are driving more people to play the game, and that’s a happy thought.

Within golf’s stressed-out labor market, happy thoughts have become rare. John Jacke has owned and operated Tee Off Temps for 30 years, providing a nationwide staffing service for golf courses and landscaping companies. From his base in Stuart, Florida, the market-savvy Jacke observes a miserable hiring scenario for his clients.

“I’ve never seen it anywhere near this bad,” Jacke laments. “If you came to me with 1,000 people who were ready to work on golf maintenance crews, inside of two weeks I could have every last one of them placed and working. And their compensation wouldn’t just be a good wage, many of them would have free housing, too. That’s how out of whack supply and demand is.”

White-collar workers who’ve gone through the pandemic still getting paid but no longer commuting have embarked on every home-improvement project they previously lacked the time or motivation to oversee. The result has been a hiring blitz in landscaping, building construction and home repair—leaving fewer workers for a course superintendent to bring on. All of this is on top of a longstanding worker shortage throughout course maintenance — one that’s prompted university agronomy programs, in concert with the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America, to revise course requirements so degrees can be earned more quickly.

“The courses need supers and assistant supers,” says Jacke, “and the supers I talk to need everything — irrigation techs are a particularly desperate need.”

Meanwhile, the national workforce is actually shrinking. Census Bureau statistics from calendar year 2020 showed it to be the first year in U.S. history that the number of working-age Americans (16 through 64) was lower than it had been the previous year. That figure shrank just .1 percent, but the size of the drop wasn’t the point, given that our economy has for so long been fueled by steady increases in worker population. Reasons for this downward shift include a sharp fall in immigration, a retirement wave for the baby boom generation and a slowing birth rate. And yes, the ranks of Americans in that 16-64 age group also have been diminished by the hundreds of thousands of coronavirus deaths. Economists point to these 2020 stats and warn that worker shortages will continue for years to come.

Desperate times call for desperate measures — or at least experimentation. Among the restaurant industry’s many tales of creative worker recruitment, few got more attention than the McDonald’s in Medford, Oregon, that hung out a banner asking 14- and 15-year-olds to apply for work. Surprisingly enough, the strategy yielded a large number of these mid-teen candidates. The ones who hired on performed not just effectively but with a notable esprit de corps. A similar move was tried by the head of a Texas fast-food chicken chain, who told the Wall Street Journal he’d begun promoting workers in their teens and early 20s into management positions that pay $50,000-plus.

Reliance on youth was a tactic also used by semi-private Emerald Lake Golf Club in Matthews, North Carolina. Golf operations manager Ben Vancuren looked at the relatively plentiful group of teens working in outside services and began cross-training them for golf shop duty. At the same time he bumped their pay $2 an hour, to encourage them to work more shifts each week. “The golf shop is a tough area for us to cover, because there’s no tip money like you get outside,” says Vancuren. “There’s another level of training for it, as well, based on all the different green fee levels, but our outside workers have shown they can handle it. They’re all trained in the shop now, so they can move in and out.”

The grueling summer of 2021 put Emerald Lake’s senior people, the boss included, through the wringer. Vancuren manned the shop counter six days a week for months on end, with only himself working inside and often just one ranger out on the course — even during 120-player shotgun events. “The kitchen and the front of the house struggled as well, with our weddings coming back on and basically skeleton crews working them,” Vancuren says. “For about a month our head chef was all alone in the kitchen.” Despite pay hikes for a large group of employees, Emerald Lake’s seasonal payroll is expected to come in under budget because of the understaffing.

Other segments of the golf workforce show shortage, including instructors. Recent reports from the National Golf Foundation (NGF) indicate that boosting golf participation and retaining rounds-played momentum is directly dependent on those who teach the game. The NGF’s recent survey of 1,000-plus golfers and former golfers explored 70 possible factors behind a person’s “conversion,” from beginner to committed golfer, and found four of them to be most pivotal: “receiving professional instruction, learning in a specialized group setting, starting with reasonable expectations and having a fun introductory experience.” When those four conditions were met, wannabe golfers crossed the line into committed golfers.

But good luck finding instructors. Proponent Group president Lorin Anderson has seen the number of open positions at golf academies and clubs nationwide rise sharply, with the help-wanted signs getting reposted for weeks and even months. “In my 15 years of serving the instructor community exclusively, I haven’t seen anything remotely like this,” says Anderson. “Facilities had been recruiting coaches by word of mouth for years, to avoid getting a flood of résumés. Now they’re spreading the word however they can, but the candidates aren’t there.”

“Skimpflation” is the new term economists use for scenarios that all the shortages and workarounds tend to produce. Customers show up with money to spend, and prices are what they’re used to, or even higher; meanwhile, service is reduced. This past season it became necessary for The Golf Club at Yankee Trace to discontinue its casual dining operation. “We ran the restaurant as long as we could,” says Steven Marino, head professional and senior manager at the 27-hole Centerville, Ohio complex, “then we had to shut down. We’ve now got our Friday fish fry back going, as well as our Sunday brunch. On a staffing basis, that’s four weekly shifts out of the normal 12, but at least it’s trending the right way.”

At the four New England facilities in the portfolio of Tri-State Golf, “weekends were the only time we could open the restaurants,” reports Steve Landis, the company’s regional general manager. “As the season began, we kept hearing from prospective hires that they were doing better financially by staying home, collecting the extra unemployment money, and not having to pay child care. That put us in a hole.”

If there’s no full-on solution to the labor woes of the golf industry (or for that matter, the entire economy), what’s left is to search for the most productive innovations. One tool in the hiring toolbox that has worked nicely for golf operators is the so-called hiring event, whether billed as a “job fair,” an “interview week” or some other term. The Golf Club at Yankee Trace, with its 69,000 rounds of golf, its 32,000-square-foot clubhouse and its busy banquet schedule, more or less saved its bacon by conducting a weeklong recruitment event in late March.

“We hired a majority of our seasonal staff in that one five-day period, including 25 banquet servers,” reports Marino. Yankee Trace was still understaffed across all departments throughout the 2021 season, but the manpower infusion from that week in March made the burden at least manageable.

“A job fair is attractive to applicants because everything happens quickly – you can basically get hired on the spot,” says Marino. He and his team “squeezed what would be a two-week process into one day” for many of the people hired, knowing the value this would hold for the applicants. “It’s also a major positive for your own time management, as the person doing the hiring and staffing,” Marino adds with enthusiasm.

Applications or résumés were due in several days before the start of the event. Drug screening, required by Yankee Trace’s municipal ownership, was done on-site. References were produced by candidates on arrival, and interviews took place expeditiously during the initial visit. “Our job offers were conditional, but we made them same-day and most of those offers became final,” Marino says. “The pool of people who responded was quite strong because we promoted the event strategically. You have to put your message in places where college and high school kids are going to be looking.”

Another wise tactic is to take the beverage cart job and break it into a lot of shorter shifts. “That one position gets a lot of attention,” says Marino, “but when you cross-train bev-cart people for the walk-up window and other food service jobs, they like those as much or more. Beverage carts can turn out to be a lot of driving around and not enough transactions to fill up the tip jar the way people expect.”

The hiring-event route was likewise successful for a seven-course operation in Fairfax County, Virginia, according to the county’s director of golf enterprises, Jesse Coffman. Based on its October timing, this recruitment initiative was confined to a single day at a single site, and produced about a dozen new hires all in one swoop.

“In promoting it we had respondents name the course closest to where they lived and then a second-choice location, which helped the process,” says Coffman. “We held the event at a course in our group that has a very busy driving range, so we got walk-up candidates who came to hit balls and saw our job fair sign. Some people came to pick up information, but quite a few asked if they could start work right away.”

Similar to the thinking at Yankee Trace, the Fairfax County strategy was “geared toward not having to say to anyone, ‘we’ll get back to you,’” explains Coffman, who staffed his event with one manager from each of the facilities plus an HR person from the county administrative staff. “We set a goal of being able to answer any question we got asked, on the spot,” he adds. Some of those asking questions came on behalf of a family member, especially family members who were in school during job-fair hours, and there were quite a few of those attendees, according to Coffman.

Before the pandemic, daily-fee and semi-private golf operations found themselves in a position of mild dread as they looked out at minimum-wage hikes soon to kick in. Then came Covid-19, golf’s demand surge, plus a sudden dearth of job-seekers. It all conspired to alter workforce economics. “I look around and see fast-food employers and the amusement parks raising their rates beyond what the new minimum-wage regulations are calling for,” says Landis of Tri-State Golf. “The $15-per-hour minimum that we were seeing in the future has arrived already.”

It’s interesting to reflect on daily-fee golf’s original way of staffing up with dedicated, low-cost workers: Married couples who owned the courses had lots of kids and put them to work early. Longtime course broker Hilda Allen has seen that classic scenario gradually fade. “Nowadays if a son or daughter grows up working at the family course and stays in that role, they’ll tend to make it their life’s work,” Allen says. “The ones who go into non-golf careers very seldom want to move back to their hometown and take on all the hard work that comes with running the family golf course.”

The merging issues of unfilled positions and rising prices appear likely to gather momentum jointly in 2022.

“There’s a sustainability challenge in the golf industry’s human resources area,” says Ronnie Miles, longtime Director of Advocacy for the NGCOA. “Enrollments are down in the university programs that have traditionally been feeder programs for senior managers at golf courses, and retirements are looming. Golf needs to invest in a management-succession strategy, and the revenue to do that probably needs to come via higher green fees.” When Miles does the arithmetic on this, he comes up with “$2 a round on 30,000 rounds” to pay for “a mid-level person on staff who can provide depth and be part of the future.”

Oh yeah, the future. Since those first face masks and gallon-sized hand sanitizer jugs were rush-ordered two years ago, solving immediate problems and leveraging each new wave of demand has been a golf operator’s daily activity. It’s probably time, on the staffing side and elsewhere in the business plan, to start thinking more long-range.

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