As spring shifts into the heat of summer and the U.S. unemployment rate remains right around 6 percent, so many other industries are learning a hard truth month after month that golf course maintenance leaders have recognized for decades: Good help is hard to find, and you need to be creative to not only bring folks on board but to also keep them engaged.
What do creative employers offer during this Great Return to the workplace? Competitive salaries or wages, of course, as well as some variety of health benefits. Signing and referral bonuses are becoming more common, and more flexible schedules are a tremendous perk.
Alex Stuedemann, the TPC Deere Run director of golf course maintenance operations now in his eighth year back in Silvis, Illinois, leans especially heavily on that last perk.
“We have to break the mold of how we build our teams,” says Stuedemann, whose course recently hosted the 50th John Deere Classic. “Whether that means here at work or even how we go about our personal lives, there’s not just one track that gets us to success. … If we can continue to have this attitude moving forward, those conversations people have about the stress and the mental health of our business will continue to go in an upward and positive direction.”
Stuedemann is running with a 25-person crew — “a first-world problem” he says, and “the old muni guy in me needs to put in that qualifier because some of my colleagues are going, ‘Shut up, Alex’” — but that number is deceptive. With 19 full-timers and six part-timers, he is already three full-timers short of where he was before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the full-time count will likely drop further after a handful of crew members return to college campuses following a year of virtual classes in the maintenance facility during their shift.
“They would come into work 5:30, 6 o’clock, work until 8 or 9, then sit in my office behind their laptop for class, then go back to work after lunch,” Stuedemann says. “I feel comfortable with my staffing level right now but come Labor Day when the colleges are back in the classrooms, we might be up a particular creek.”
Take Alec Austin, Shane Bleeker and Trevor DeJaynes, all of them part-time crew members. Austin attended United Township High School in East Moline, Illinois, where the dean of students is longtime TPC Deere Run crew member Abel Zertuche. Zertuche recommended Austin join him for the summer after Austin’s 2016 graduation, “and he came back every summer, worked weekends through the fall and just had a great attitude.”
When Austin started work on his nursing degree, Stuedemann told him that “wherever we can fit into that, let me know.” Austin graduated in early 2020 at the start of the pandemic and was hired as a cardiac care nurse. “His first day on the job after he got his license, he was in the COVID unit,” Stuedemann says. “Once he got in there, he called me and asked, ‘Do you mind if I just work a day or two every couple weeks?’ He has proved himself to be such a reliable employee that that was a rhetorical question.”
Bleeker joined TPC Deere Run from a neighboring golf club and worked on the crew while also working part time as an EMT. After he landed a full-time EMT position in Northern Iowa, “we kept in touch and he came back and volunteered for a couple tournaments,” Stuedemann says. Bleeker moved back to the Quad Cities for another EMT position in Bettendorf, Iowa, and started talking with Austin, shared his TPC Deere Run schedule with him. “‘Hey,’ Stuedemann recalls Bleeker asking him, ‘can I do that, too?’”
DeJaynes, meanwhile is a physical education. teacher and a high school baseball coach, and also arrived at TPC Deere Run thanks to Zertuche. His day jobs normally grant him plenty of summer flexibility, but the state high school athletic association pushed baseball season into July because of the pandemic and DeJaynes was unable to work weekends. “‘Why does that change anything?’ Stuedemann asked DeJaynes. ‘If we can get you through this summer, and if you enjoy working with us, I want you back every summer.’ … He works when we need the help the most, which is 6 to noon. I can’t say enough about him.
“Those three guys might only work 30 hours combined some weeks but the impact they have that allows our staff to get other things done or the stress it takes away from me or my assistants, the gain is immeasurable.”
You might not have the kind of pipeline that Zertuche provides for TPC Deere Run, and you might not have the budget to bring in as many part-timers as Stuedemann. Whatever challenges you face shouldn’t keep you from workforce flexibility.
“It’s continuing to be creative and open-minded,” Stuedemann says. “I can very well see us capitalizing on people in other professions wanting that three- to four-hour-a-day job, whether it’s in the morning or the afternoon. … We all have to kind of break our stubbornness and not live by the statement ‘that’s the way we’ve always done it.’ Maybe we’ll be able to attract people with continued flexible scheduling and maintaining a level of expectation that we’re satisfied with.
“Golf has always been challenged because you’re working outdoors in the elements, but it’s been compounded by people growing in their appreciation for their personal lives and their health,” Stuedemann says. “I spent all of 2020 just worrying about whether my staff was safe and healthy. Now you parlay that into an employee who is thinking the same thing about themselves, wanting to be safe and healthy and enjoying their job, and they will be more selective about the jobs that they want. From our perspective, we’re trying to appreciate it beyond the toils and understand it from a personal side.
And Stuedemann’s personal growth has played a big part in his evolution as a leader. Having kids certainly helped: His daughters celebrated their seventh and fourth birthdays around the tournament and their needs have influenced how he works and what he expects from others.
“I’d be lying to you if I said I think I’ve always been this flexible,” he says. “It’s a modification of my own experience. I’m a workaholic and I love my job, I love my time here, but me appreciating that more as I get further into my career is recognizing not everybody is like that. Getting to know my staff and understanding their needs, I want people to be open and comfortable telling me what they’re looking for out of a job with us. We do year-end job reviews for all our staff, and we always ask, ‘Do you feel comfortable in your role? Are there areas you want to grow?’ And some people will say they want to learn this or understand this, and others will say they’re fine just where they’re at. I think that’s fantastic. We can build around that. If I can provide the open channel of communication, I can understand them and make sure we’re as adaptable as we can be while still meeting our expectations for the golf course.
“I hope more people recognize that people are the only way we get this job done. If we can’t be more flexible and adaptable, it’s going to be a tough row to hoe.”
Matt LaWell is Golf Course Industry’s managing editor.