Wages, the cost of living and professional recognition are contributing to a skill exodus from the turf care profession. Talk to any course manager or grounds manager, and their biggest challenge in the last few years has been attracting and keeping hold of skilled workers. Similarly, the sentiment from many team members is often heavily focussed around their pay and progression.
With the cost of living and interest rates soaring, we talk to both the GMA and BIGGA, and look at why rewards - from even simple labouring and low skilled job roles, have tracked better against inflation and get viewpoints from within the industry on what can be done to attract and keep qualified and experienced staff.
Finally, we got a perspective from a new course manager who has switched his twenty-year plus office job to working outdoors, where every day is different.
THE GMA: Respect and understanding
Industry representation and workforce development are core pillars within the GMA's strategy - we hope that through the delivery of our five-year strategy that the grounds management industry will have a viable pipeline of skilled talent for generations to come.
A huge part in raising the profile of the sector is done through campaigns like #GroundsWeek, - our annual awareness campaign, now in its third year - which celebrates the incredible work that grounds volunteers and professionals undertake to make sport possible.
Last year, we created a big buzz during #GroundsWeek reaching 52 million people on social media and securing high-profile national media coverage. This year, we saw unprecedented engagement and support right across the industry and beyond with 143% increase from 2022 in web searches, reaching different audiences with over 81% of website visitors 'new' to the GMA/sector.
Our increasingly close partnerships with the sporting National Governing Bodies (NGBs), including ECB, RFU, RFL and FA/Football Foundation, provide us with more influence in gaining support for the grounds care community. By continuing to highlight the importance of grounds staff, as well as the struggles faced, we're working to identify solutions with the NGBs so that the role of grounds staff is embedded in the wider sporting operation.
Since 2014, the GMA has been successful in securing more than £9 million investment from NGBs, specifically focusing on raising awareness and upskilling volunteers via its GaNTIP & Pitch Advisory Service programmes. Approximately £21m of funding has been invested in football alone per year, along with £15m per annum across RFU, RFL and Cricket.
Reward and recognition
It has previously been difficult to attribute a 'one-size fits all approach' to reward and recognition, due to the variance in job titles, roles and salaries. For example, in grounds management across sport, two people can have the same title of 'Head Grounds Manager', but one might be at a top-six Premier League club and the other might be at a grassroots facility. One could manage a single pitch with one member of staff, or they might oversee a site of twenty pitches with a team of half a dozen. Equally, there are many other factors to consider when it comes to salaries, from performance to CPD.
To assist with simplifying and consolidating this, the GMA recently launched the Grounds Management Framework (GMF) - which sets out the national standards for natural turf across sports including football, cricket and both codes of rugby.
The GMF aims to legitimise and professionalise the industry. For the first time, it sets out a clearly defined pathway and progression in the sector, whilst providing clear development and lifelong learning opportunities for those already employed or volunteering within grounds management.
Left: Jason Booth - Chief Operating Officer at the GMA Right: Grounds Management Framework
The GMF combines benchmarking qualities, skills and knowledge, and resources required to maintain natural turf sports surfaces into one easy-to-use framework. By grading the standard of a playing surface, from basic to elite, grounds staff, employers and key stakeholders will be able to understand the level of expertise required for the pitch's maintenance.
The next stage of the GMF is aligning salary bands with each level of the framework so that grounds staff and their employers can understand what the appropriate salary would be in recognition of their professional expertise.
Working with the NGBs, our aim is to embed the GMF into the sports standards so that it becomes a key reference point which aligns pitch quality, experience, skills required and ultimately the associated salary for those maintaining that standard of pitch.
By launching the GMF, we are inspiring the next generation and future-proofing the industry by beginning to address the current recruitment crisis in the industry and closing the gap in an ageing workforce.
Cost of living crisis and salaries
For members, we're developing and expanding the resources and assistance available to them to gain more professional recognition. We're working with experts to produce guidance that will support grounds staff with essential skills, such as work-based negotiation tips. We continue to work with all sporting bodies (including NGBs, Premier League, Sport England etc.) to find a solution to the salary and recruitment issue.
For the industry, we are continuing to tailor our Learning LIVE seminar programme at SALTEX to suit the needs of today's grounds care sector.
We accept that we face a significant challenge to improve professional recognition. It will take time to address these changes, however, we are making good progress. The value of the industry should not be underestimated; currently the industry employs over 37,000 people with 45,000 volunteers, supports over 5,000 businesses and holds an approximate economic value of £1 billion.* This is a huge achievement.
At the GMA, we'll continue to build on positive developments such as the GMF, our work with
the sporting National Governing Bodies, and efforts to improve resources available to members and wider industry so that, as an industry, we can weather the storm and come out the other end thriving.
Jason Booth - Chief Operating Officer at the Grounds Management Association (GMA)
* Figures taken from GMA's 2019 Sports Vital Profession research.
BIGGA: Making the world a better place for greenkeepers
The recruitment and retention of staff is a topic many of our members have raised with us in recent years. While it's important to understand this is not an issue that is limited to the sports turf industry, we're aware that working towards a solution is of vital importance to the ongoing health of our industry.
In the past year, we've undertaken two major surveys that looked directly at workforce-related issues. The results were hugely powerful, providing hard data on life at over 500 clubs.
There were three key findings:
- Since 2018, team sizes have increased by an average of 1.5 people, so golf clubs are prepared to invest in staff given the additional income provided by the post-pandemic golf boom.
- Salaries at the higher end of the industry are increasing and, until the recent cost of living crisis, they were outpacing inflation. But, at the lower end of the industry, there is still a need to offer attractive salaries.
- The number of golf clubs using the 'Committee for Golf Club Salaries' for guidance when setting salary levels has tripled since 2018, meaning that golf clubs are increasingly comfortable asking for advice when setting salary levels.
These were positives, but there were also several worrying elements. It's upsetting to know that one in three greenkeepers is actively looking at other careers and that only half are happy in their role. Generally, greenkeepers love their jobs, so the reasons for that unrest must extend beyond the role itself. The very best companies put staff first on their agenda, but golf clubs have rarely done that, prioritising instead the wants of their members.
Left: Jim Croxton - CEO, BIGGA Right: Enjoying work at Loch Lomond Golf Club
The surveys indicated that over half of clubs had vacancies they were struggling to fill. An advert on the local noticeboard isn't enough anymore and every decent sized company is doing outreach to promote their brand. That process takes golf clubs out of their comfort zone and so this year BIGGA recruited a Workforce Project Manager, Jenny Bledge, who is developing resources that help clubs play a more active role in their community.
Jenny's role is a fundamental shift in the activities of BIGGA. We've always looked after our members, but we now believe part of that support comes via encouraging people to join the industry. If there aren't enough greenkeepers on a team, and so they aren't able to achieve the expected standards of course preparation, it will cause undue stress.
People today make their career choices from a position of heightened awareness, having undertaken extensive research in their various options. They want to ensure the working environment will live up to their expectations before they pursue a career, and so golf clubs have no choice but to bring themselves up to scratch. Following the post-pandemic boom, many clubs have money in the bank, but how many are spending those reserves on making their facility a good place to work?
First Green programme
First Green is an American programme developed by the GCSAA and now being introduced by BIGGA to the UK. We believe First Green to be hugely important in the coming years as a means of attracting the attention of a diverse young workforce. First Green brings groups of young people - particularly schools - into the golf course environment, where they undertake STEM learning activities and discover more about the golfing ecosystem. Sitting alongside our other projects, such as advertising greenkeeping to those looking to change careers, First Green is an exciting opportunity for every golf club to tackle the challenges of recruitment head on.
There's a secondary point to First Green, too. How many golf clubs could say that if a group of young people was visiting their facility tomorrow, they would be proud of the greenkeeping facility and comfortable with the conditions they expect their team to work in? First Green is another means of raising awareness of the need to be a good employer.
The message from BIGGA and the wider golfing industry is clear: if you want people to work for you, your facility must be an attractive place to work.
It's a job seeker's market, so you must make your offering more attractive than all the others. That means looking at working hours, working conditions and welfare facilities and making sure you have the flexibility required so that if someone comes to you with the correct attitude and willingness to learn, you aren't turning them away. It's also about ensuring that the greenkeeping team is protected and able to undertake their duties in a way that is free from undue criticism, which can often amount to bullying or harassment. We're pushing alongside the Golf Club Managers Association for the introduction of a code of conduct for staff welfare that golf clubs must adhere to.
While these long-term projects are undertaken, we're aware that there are times when members struggle to cope, whether due to difficult working conditions, the cost of living or any number of other factors. That's why BIGGA is training a nationwide network of Mental Health First Aiders, who can offer help and advice to anyone who needs it.
We also work with Andy's Man Club and other wellbeing partners and provide a confidential lifestyle counselling helpline for our members. There is a dedicated mental health page on the BIGGA website and the Continue to Learn programme features more mental health-related content than ever before.
We're still a greenkeepers' association, here to support our members. But how we deliver that support has evolved over recent years and we now work with a vast array of stakeholders to strive towards fundamental changes in the golf club working environment, while retaining those vital one-to-one relationships and sense of community that so many of our members have come to expect.
Jim Croxton - CEO, BIGGA
Recent research highlighted that the industry is in need of new recruits to join the sector - but we all knew that, didn't we!
The GMA survey highlighted that currently 40% of the workforce is over fifty years-old and, without an influx of new recruits, this could result in a significant employment gap within five years.
Sport simply could not take place without the contribution of grounds management and, without quality grass pitches, not only will our nation's health and local communities suffer, but so will our talent offering when it comes to professional teams and leagues.
If improvements were made to existing grass pitches, almost 1,400,000 (1,376,252) more children could play rugby or football every week and 489,859 more could play cricket every season.
Having worked so long in education, I have been able to see young people come into the college and, by completing qualifications, advance in the industry to high ranking jobs - with major responsibilities (and salaries).
When asked to reflect, they are all clear that having the qualifications to back their applications was far more valuable than just having experience in a job. Employers can't easily quantify experience on a CV, but a qualification gives them a feeling of certainty about an applicant.
My advice for those starting out in the industry would be to have a vision of what they want to achieve and then look at what it will take to get there (e.g. Level 2/3 Diplomas or apprenticeships, pesticide application certificates etc.)
I would also say find a good employer who will support your CPD and then be prepared to work hard in that job. Network as much as you can and, if possible, take jobs that offer advancement and ability to pick up new skills - rather than ones that just pay more. In short, I would say focus on the end of the game rather than the warm up!
Andy Wight - Oaklands College
Manufacturing viewpoint - Kubota UK
In times where we find ourselves with an ever-increasing skills gap, finding the right people to fill vacancies in aftersales departments is one of the biggest challenges Kubota dealers currently face.
What we do certainly isn't the '9 to 5 job' some desire, and it can be a labour of love at times, however, there are many things to enjoy about working in this industry too!
Progression of technology and witnessing the industry diversify to meet the demands of our evolving world is really exciting to be a part of. This, combined with the variety, new experiences, daily challenges and even the simplicity of just being in the great outdoors are all reasons to consider this as an excellent career choice. Ultimately, there are so many great people involved in what we do, but we need more.
To help conquer this challenge, Kubota have focused efforts on our apprenticeship scheme - supporting our dealers to develop home-grown talent within their businesses.
In conjunction with Llysfasi College, we offer a manufacturer-led apprenticeship in Agricultural and Horticultural Engineering. Our courses integrate hands-on experience with the latest products and diagnostic equipment, combined with a practical and online learning programme.
Looking to the future, the Kubota aftersales team have signed up to collaborate with our dealers to work with schools to inspire young learners aged 7-14 by attending curriculum linked sessions and careers events to further promote what our industry has to offer.
Tom Lockwood - Field Service Manager, Aftersales - Kubota UK
A change of career
That is exactly what 44-year-old Stewart Marshall has done. Last year, Stewart opted to move from his office job to working in the great outdoors as he became the Course Manager at Dudley Golf Club.
Stewart talked us through why he joined the industry and what he has enjoyed throughout his first year.
He started by outlining his previous job. "I was an operations manager for GKN. It was an office-based job and the money was very good, so I was fortunate to pay off my mortgage. I couldn't have afforded to take the salary reduction if I still had those responsibilities."
He explained the motivation for change: "I had no sense of satisfaction. We were turning over millions of pounds, but it was all just numbers. Now, at the end of each day, I can see what I have contributed to. Visitors and members appreciate your efforts and it's rewarding when they make nice comments about the course."
Buy why greenkeeping?
"I have always loved the outdoors and gardening. For fifteen years I wanted to start my own gardening business, but I never knew how to do it and I couldn't afford to start at the very bottom in terms of salary. I knew two guys who were already working at Dudley Golf Club and, during the pandemic, I was able to offer them a helping hand. The club said they would love for me to join them, so after a few negotiations, I was delighted to accept the position as course manager."
Stewart expressed his enthusiasm to learn about the industry: "I'm 44, so it is certainly different to join the industry at my age. For me, it is all about learning; I'm at college, I volunteer at other clubs in order to learn about the industry and I sign up to every seminar going."
Stewart went on to highlight what he has enjoyed so far: "I have been forwarded for the Toro Student Greenkeeper of the Year and I never thought that would happen. Most people my age are leaving the industry to go and earn £15/16 an hour stacking shelves at Aldi. I just feel like I have the enthusiasm for the job, it's a cliché, but I feel like I have found my calling. I am so motivated; I can't wait to come to work in the morning."
Stewart has fully adapted to life as a greenkeeper: "A lot of people say it's a stressful job. I took no holiday last year, but I just don't feel like I am at work when I am here. It is a lifestyle that I enjoy."
Rising cost of living
Increases in the costs of consumer goods, underpinned by supply chain bottlenecks, have been one factor behind rising inflation and more reasons for people to seek better pay by considering a new career.
In a recent Government survey (period 1st to 11th June), the most commonly reported issues continue to be the cost of living (91%), the NHS (83%), the economy (75%), and climate change and the environment (62%).
Commonly reported reasons among adults who said their cost of living had risen were: an increase in the price of food shopping (97%), in gas or electricity bills (64%), in the price of fuel (39%), or an increase in their rent or mortgage costs (23%).
The average wage rise in Britain in 2022 was 6%, so it's no wonder that many people are struggling with day to day bills and subsequent mental health and wellbeing issues.
It's encouraging to see that BIGGA are training a number of mental health first aiders and the GMA are encouraging anyone who needs assistance to reach out to them for support. However, the economic situation is bleak and it will be a long time before things settle down - how many skilled professionals will the industry have lost by then?
Across the pond
Golf course superintendents and their teams in the USA are being recognised for the value they bring to their facilities and communities. The average salary for superintendents has climbed to $109,621 (£88,000) annually
The new average salary is an increase of 12.6 percent over the 2021 report.
The average age of a superintendent is 47.1 years, with 16.6 years in the profession.