Digging deep for labor solutions

By and |  August 18, 2017 0 Comments

Any of the following five ideas could be the difference between a skeleton crew and a successful crew.

Photo: iStock.com/JonGorr

Photo: iStock.com/JonGorr

There were no new Terminator movies this summer, but Skynet clearly hasn’t won. Most work on the golf course is still done by humans.

But finding those humans — and expecting them to “be back” each season — has proven a constant challenge for courses around the country.

In the final part of our three-part series on labor, we share five ideas that superintendents around the country have used to successfully navigate the current labor market. In the first two parts, we discussed the challenge of the assistant superintendent position and the challenges of the H2-B program and attracting laborers.

Refer a friend

It’s a dog-eat-dog world in the Chicago golf market. Not only are courses competing for golfers, they’re also competing for labor.

At Briarwood Country Club in Deerfield, Ill., superintendent Justin VanLanduit has a full crew for the first time in six years. And yes, he admits some of his best new workers came from other area courses. But that’s business — Briarwood made those workers a better offer, thanks to a new bonus system that rewards employees for referring friends and rewards those who return each season.

“It’s really helped me retain my labor,” VanLanduit says. “At the end of the day, we may spend $10,000 on this seasonal bonus program, but it saves me a lot of time and a lot of money not having to re-train guys only to lose them and having to re-train more guys the next year.”

In previous years, VanLanduit had to get by with a crew of 16 or 17. He now has 22 hourly laborers. With a full staff, he hopes to come in 30 to 40 percent under budget on overtime pay. Plus, the crew has built a sense of continuity and experience, and he says it shows in the way the golf course looks.

The system works like this: An employee who refers a new employee receives $300 if that new hire finishes the season at the club (one worker is potentially due $900 at the end of this season). Also, a seasonal worker who returns from one season to the next receives a $350 bonus for returning. If they stay until the end of June they get another $250 bonus, if they stay until the end of August they receive another $250 bonus.

“We’re just like everyone else — we’re hurting, and not only is it harder to find good guys but it’s even harder to keep them,” VanLanduit says. “If you bring in a guy, what are the odds of keeping him the following year? That’s why we had to get inventive.”

Inmate labor

It’s a small crew at Fox Run Golf Course in Yankton, S.D. The peak-season crew at the city-owned course is nine people.
That includes two people who must dress in bright orange shirts that read “INMATE” on the back.

Rockie Wampol has been working at Fox Run GC for 26 years. Even though it’s a city-owned course, Wampol says there are expectations to keep course conditions at country club levels. His inmate labor comes cheap — the state is paid about $1.75 for every hour the inmates work, while the inmates make 25 cents an hour.

“Honestly, I’d rather hire (people from the community) to take the jobs, but on the other hand, we’ve had some good inmates who can work circles around the others,” Wampol says.

Wampol must arrange for daily transportation for the inmates to and from the course. Yankton Community Work Center, a minimum-security facility, is less than 2 miles from the course. It’s Wampol’s obligation to monitor the inmates. That’s why he keeps a maximum of two inmates on the crew at any one time.

“Any more than that and they’re hard to keep an eye on,” says Wampol. “They are in prison for a reason.”

Wampol has been using inmate labor for more than 20 years. He’s asked for specific inmates by name before, and one inmate successfully worked three seasons on the crew before transferring to a different prison.

“Sometimes they’ll make an enterprise of it and they’ll try to pick stuff up while out on the golf course (to take back to prison,)” the longtime superintendent says. “Again, they’re in jail for a reason. It comes down to trustworthiness. After a while you get good at it and can tell within a few weeks if someone is worth keeping. We make it work. The bottom line is saving money.”

A win-win in Ohio

Mark Jordan, CGCS, oversees 36 holes of golf at Westfield CC, Westfield Center, Ohio. Jordan several years ago recognized there were a few jobs that were notoriously hard to keep filled. Those jobs included equipment washing and a dedicated shop cleaner.

He reached out to the Medina County Board of Developmental Disabilities to see if there was the potential to work together. The Board sent a life coach to meet with Jordan and learn about the jobs and their requirements. Following that initial meeting, the Board suggested a few candidates. Since that first meeting, Jordan successfully has used workers with developmental disabilities to help not only in the shop, but also on the course.

“We have a gentlemen who started out as an equipment washer for us, and his learning capabilities allowed him to progress. So, he hopped on a bunker rake and then a fairway mower, and now he’s mowing rough for us,” Jordan says. “He loves it and he does a wonderful job. You have to take into account safety and risk, and you’re not going to put someone into harm’s way. Their coaches will help guide you on that. So, they work with you, and it’s not just your judgment or your call on what they do.”

Another program Westfield has taken advantage of is Project Search, which provides internships for young people with developmental disabilities who are about to graduate high school. He calls it a “win-win” for the golf course and the student intern.

Jordan says that while he has had many superintendents tell him they appreciate what he’s doing with the programs, no one has asked him for guidance on how to try it at their course.
“Go online, find Project Search in the area,” Jordan advises. “There are county groups in each state that have developmentally disabled programs. It’s another (labor) option for superintendents to investigate.”

If you build it, they will come

Rick Mooney never thought he’d be learning about sewer systems and developing grounds for apartment construction, but that’s what the superintendent at Whitetail Club in McCall, Idaho, currently is working on.

The club, part of the Shore Lodge Resort, is in a remote ski resort town. The local labor pool is small to begin with. That’s why Mooney must recruit labor from outside the area and offer living accommodations to make it easier for someone to relocate there for the season.

“The labor market is just getting tougher and tougher, and after we kept going farther and farther with the J-1 (Visa) and H-2B programs, we finally started looking elsewhere to find people to come here during the high demand season,” Mooney says. “It’s a game-changer for us in the market. We’ll get people to experience Idaho and get them to stay for an entire season.”

The resort currently has 24 condominium units on site. The plan is to work with a company in Spokane, Wash., that builds pre-fabricated single-room units that can be joined together with a shared living room, adding 32 single rooms. Plans are for the building to be located next to the corporate office for Shore Lodge — a par 4 distance to the golf course.

When completed, Mooney hopes to have close to 100 beds on site for laborers at the resort. Mooney says Shore Lodge charges minimal rent (about $175 a month) on the rooms to make residents feel responsible for taking care of them.

“Imagine you’re from Ohio and you secure a job with us. As soon as you land in town, you’ve also secured housing,” Mooney says. “We know this is going to cost us, but the result is we have more people who want to try to come work for us. A lot of people have never experienced the mountains. This makes it an easy entry point for them to come here and work a season for us.”


A common challenge for military veterans is writing a résumé that translates to a non-military job. They might be the perfect fit for a civilian job — say, mowing fairways — but does operating a tank qualify as relevant experience?

It does, says Sean Pritchard, CEO of MilitaryHire.com. A veteran himself, Pritchard and MilitaryHire.com have helped more than 500,000 veterans in their career search.

“There’s a perceived gap between what a military veteran has as far as experience and what an employer is looking for,” Pritchard says. “Golf course maintenance is a great example of something you’re not going to learn in the military. However, what the military does teach is how to do new jobs. It’s hard to capture on a résumé, but these people are used to hitting the ground running and quickly learning what they need to do to be successful and giving it their best.”

Customers of the site pay a monthly subscription fee. Employers can post jobs and access résumés. There are no finder’s fees or commissions when a match is made. Pritchard says the site’s most successful users aren’t the people who wait for résumés to fall from the sky, but the employers who proactively contact the veterans.

Golf courses are regular customers of the website, Pritchard says, and have had success finding maintenance workers.

“When it comes to learning how to operate different kinds of machinery, that’s a common thing in the military,” Pritchard says. “Early hours aren’t going to bother a veteran because they have been waking up and training at 5:30 a.m. the whole time they were in the service. And they are certainly used to doing a hard day’s work in the hot sun — a golf course is a lot nicer than a faraway desert.

Featured Photo: iStock.com/JonGorr

This article is tagged with and posted in Columns, Featured, Maintenance

About the Author: Seth Jones

Seth Jones, a 25-year veteran of the golf industry media, is Editor-in-Chief of Golfdom magazine and Athletic Turf. A graduate of the University of Kansas School of Journalism and Mass Communications, Jones began working for Golf Course Management in 1999 as an intern. In his professional career he has won numerous awards, including a Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association (TOCA) first place general feature writing award for his profile of World Golf Hall of Famer Greg Norman and a TOCA first place photography award for his work covering the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. In his career, Jones has accumulated an impressive list of interviews, including such names as George H.W. Bush, Samuel L. Jackson, Lance Armstrong and Charles Barkley. Jones has also done in-depth interviews with such golfing luminaries as Norman, Gary Player, Nick Price and Lorena Ochoa, to name only a few. Jones is a member of both the Golf Writers Association of America and the Turf and Ornamental Communicators Association. Jones can be reached at sjones@northcoastmedia.net.

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