The Need to Promote Careers in Turfgrass
It is no secret that there has been a significant decline in enrollment for turf programs the world over. Many of the bigger more influential institutions throughout the US have been sharing their concerns regarding the downward trend of interest in turf from younger generations. Hiring managers in the turf industry know this phenomenon all too well. Over the last 5 years, it has become increasingly difficult to attract seasonal workers, turf interns as well as post-grad turf students to fill middle management roles. This winter, turf job boards were slammed with postings and opportunities. The Ontario Golf Superintendent Association’s (OGSA) job board carried over 24 postings at one point in January, many of which did not get a single application. And these weren’t your run-of-the-mill entry level jobs – many were salaried management positions at vibrant properties who pay well, provide benefits and offer RRSP contributions in some cases. I know I would have loved to see that level of opportunity when I was a student graduating in 2012. Yet, today some of these postings will go another year unfilled – WHY?
Why is the industry seeing such as decline in young people pursuing careers in turfgrass management?
As managers, our first thought is to look internally. I am often asked “What can I do better to attract new staff, improve morale, increase recognition and retain staff longer?”. But the problem is larger than just a good recruitment strategy or compensation plan – it is a lack of people. Young people are just not interested to work in turf, whether it’s for a summer or for the rest of their lives. fact is that the turf industry as a whole is not doing enough to promote careers in this field. We get frustrated and complain year-to-year over reduced attendance at job fairs, lack of seasonal applications and a waning number of career-driven turfies graduating from programs - yet only a small percentage of us take action to help make a difference. Turf lacks outreach, it is plain and simple. We lack what I like to call engagement ambassadors. Traditionally, students have relied on their parents, teachers, and guidance councillors to align their interests with specific career paths that fit their skill set. These people are the major influencers in our younger generation’s lives and yet very few of them know much, if anything, about turfgrass management and what our industry has to offer. In my role at the Guelph Turfgrass Institute (GTI), I have been fortunate enough to sit in on meetings hosted by the U of G with parents, high school teachers and guidance councillors. I was astonished to discover that almost none of them were aware of the turf programs at the University of Guelph or the plethora of careers options in the field. What was more surprising (and encouraging) was after only a few minutes of talking about our programs, the experiences our students have on their co-ops, and that 100% of our students are hired in the industry after graduation, the immediate response was “WOW! How did I not know about this? I have 2 or 3 students that this would be perfect for. I know they will love it!”.
These exchanges tell me two things: First, it tells me that reduced enrollment in turf schools in not due to a lack of interest but rather a lack of awareness. Secondly it tells me that a very simple and quick conversation can help make an immediate change. Once these influencers become aware, they will continue to share information and interest amongst their networks – they become the voice of encouragement, the engagement ambassadors, if you will, when we can’t be there. I would have benefited greatly as a high school student if someone had mentioned careers in turf to me. Unfortunately, I did not “discover” turf maintenance until I was in my twenties trying to pay for tuition and get free golf over the summers. I know there are others in this industry in the same boat. So many of us found turf as a second career after pursuing education in fields like geography, economics, engineering, police foundations, or business.
These days, middle schools and high schools are more career driven than ever. Students are being asked to make decisions about their career as early as grade 7 and 8. These pivotal choices play a massive role in the pathways young people take regarding future courses, co-ops, life experiences, skill building, summer jobs, volunteer opportunities and ultimately, post-secondary education. If our industry truly wants to see a change in the numbers of young people pursuing careers in turf, this is the primary target audience we should be focusing on.
The silver lining to this is that a great number of industry and association driven outreach initiatives have sprung up over the past few years in order to bring change to this growing crisis. For example, the Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) has the First Green program. This initiative brings students, teachers and local media onto the golf course where they are introduced the game of golf and participate in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) based activities and workshops aligned with their curriculum to gain academic credits. The Western Canadian Turfgrass Association (WCTA) was the first recognized Canadian partner of the First Green program and has executed a number of different events on golf courses as well as sports fields with overwhelming popularity and success. This program has been wonderfully successful and is very promising for the future of industry outreach initiatives. First Green remains in its infancy stages and requires more willing turf professionals to volunteer their property and time in order to be succsessful. Another great outreach initiative I learned about recently comes out of Maryland where a regional turf association is partnering with the University of Maryland to engage with high school students during career planning events as well as partnering to produce online webinars and short lesson plans in STEM based turf principles. These courses not only engage the student in topics of science, math and technology but act as a two-way credit for their high school curriculum as well as the turf program through the university should the student choose to attend. This partnership between the association and the academic institution is an ingenious way to forge an evolving pathway for students which begins at personal interest level, leads to educational pathways and potentially a career in the field. The Guelph Turfgrass Institute at the University of Guelph began the Turfgrass Outreach Project back in 2017. This was a multifaceted initiative to reach out to younger generations, teachers, guidance councillors and the general public. The goal was to not only bring awareness to careers in turf, but also inform public stakeholders of the positive environmental benefits grass brings to our society. Over the past two years, we engaged with over 60 guidance councillors across Southern Ontario, 50 teachers and 300 students between grades 9 and 11. Workshops covering math skills, plant biology, soil health, integrated pest management and construction principles have all played a role in piquing the interest of these groups. It has been encouraging to hear the positive responses, see return participants and growing interest from others by word of mouth. It was also encouraging to see our Diploma in Turfgrass Management program see a significant increase in student enrollment in the fall of 2019.
Above: High school students having the chance to learn about thatch, moisture management, soil texture and drainage principles at the Guelph Turfgrass Institute as part of the Turfgrass Outreach Project
But it is not just up to the associations and the academic institutions. Individually, each of us has a greater responsibility to act as good ambassadors for our industry. Participating in community events, attending career days at schools and creating opportunities for meaningful exchange between friends, family members, co-workers and neighbours goes a long way towards getting the word out. A very simple thing each of us can do is make an effort to hire, inspire and mentor one or two high school students each year. When young people love their jobs and their bosses, others soon follow in their footsteps.
In closing, I want to share with you that turf is not the only industry struggling. Education and careers in agriculture are also at risk of seeing decline. The Ontario Agricultural College at the University of Guelph has been implementing outreach strategies to re-invent outdated ideas and misconceptions surrounding what it means to be in agriculture. It seems young people think of agriculture as farmers on tractors tilling soil, sowing seeds and harvesting crops. They do not think about the scientists in labs advancing genetics and breeding. They do not think of the marketing, branding and commercialism behind food production. They do not think about the innovation and engineering behind the technology in precision agriculture. As a result, the agricultural industry has funded a massive outreach project at the OAC in order to engage and bring awareness to young people on the diversity and broad range of interest the field of agriculture includes. As I sat in on these meetings, I couldn’t help but think “Turf isn’t even fortunate enough to have a negative perception. It’s not in the conversation – it’s not even on the radar!” This has been the single biggest motivator behind many of the GTI’s ambitions to get out and spread the good word of turf. Every conversation, every engagement, every moment we find the time to share how great our industry is, could potentially equate to a new aspiring young turf manager.
Rob Heggie, Property Manager at BMO Field and alumni of the DTM program at the University of Guelph seen here engaging with students about career opportunities in turf
NOTE: If you are interested to participate in outreach activities but dont know where to start, we would love to hear from you. We can provide you with a starting point to connect you with regional turf associations, schools, or even provide some helpful tips and materials when considering workshops for specific age groups. We often have industry proessionals participate in our programming and would love for you to participate with us as well.