4 Tips to Attract Turfgrass Students

Written by Mitch Rupert, Talent Strategist at Tyler Bloom Consulting

I didn’t know what to expect as I prepared for the first industry job fair I’ve attended. But I was certainly curious.

What would the Penn State University students in attendance want to talk about? What kind of advice would they be looking for as they navigate the seemingly endless tables of golf and industry leaders looking to hire them?

What surprised me as the fall day in State College, Pennsylvania, unfolded is that many of the students I spoke with didn’t necessarily have a plan. I watched as they walked into Alumni Hall and headed toward their desired course.

You couldn’t shine a flashlight in the cavernous room without hitting representatives from a course which has hosted a major championship. They garnered much of the attention of the students in attendance, and for good reason. The reputation of those clubs and the opportunities they afford those who work there are well documented.

The big takeaway is what I heard from those who came by our table.  Unsure and indecisive about their career pathway, the students didn’t always know exactly what they were looking for as they searched out internships or their first full-time employment. 

With the state of labor the way it is — especially in the golf industry — more power than ever is in the hands of the employees. So as these recent or soon-to-be turfgrass graduates enter the professional field, it’s important to have a plan of how you can attract and develop them.  Ultimately, why do you want to attract them?

Turfgrass graduates are the proverbial unicorns that nearly every job advertisement on industry job boards targets and desires. With enrollment numbers in a state of flux over the last five to ten years, filling entry-management positions has continued to be a challenge for golf facilities across the country. 

Employers who desire candidates with a turfgrass education need to remember this key message: candidates don’t know what they don’t know. Employers have the ability to adapt their offerings not purely based on compensation and benefits, but laying out a career pathway for success that is catered to individual needs, drives and motives.

Here are some considerations:

Plan for the organization you want to build

A sound career pathing blueprint starts with the right questions. Those include, but aren’t limited to:

  • What does successful career pathing look like at your facility and the industry?
  • What does our personal development program entail?
  • How does career pathing vary for different ambitions?
  • How do student interns and turfgrass graduates help us achieve business goals?

Traditionally, student interns and turf graduates provide a feeder system for entry level assistant roles and technician positions.  Ensuring you are able to provide foundational on-the-job experience will help prevent gaps in future skill needs.

Does the course setup for Ladies Day depend on the knowledge of plant pathology to get the job done?  No. Does a turf education guarantee someone can identify  the difference between 10 ounces per acre of growth regulator or 10 ounces per thousand square feet of growth regular?  One would hope. 

Consider the student pool, while limited, typically can bring energy and focus on career goal attainment, and they are looking to climb the managerial ladder.  Their goals can be tailored to provide learning and development through operations, technically focused tasks, small crew leadership and site specific agronomics.

When you encourage people to set goals that might stretch them, both behaviorally and in terms of their practical skill set, you’re building leaders at all levels. And companies that promote leadership throughout the organization are better equipped to withstand adversity and change. 

Being transparent and upfront about how the internship experience will help point individuals in the right direction will provide security and confidence for students. 

Develop a marketing and engagement budget

Employers continue to use social media in creative ways to highlight company culture, employee testimonials, career opportunities, operational practices and their employer brands.  

Develop a budget to cover items like communication and marketing materials, training, kick-off events, incentives or reimbursements.  Without adequate funding and support, your program stands little chance of sustaining itself and making a long-term impact. 

Consider looking at your annual budget expenses for 2023, and investing a portion into some collateral marketing to enhance your image and reputation.  Our friend, Brian Laurent of Superintendent Network, has developed some fantastic videos. 

Invite school advisors and faculty to your site to view operations, receive input and demonstrate why your facility will provide a great experience for students.

Encourage one-to-one mentorship

The #1 differentiator in the fight for good talent is you.  Your leadership, or lack thereof, will define your success in recruitment. Not every candidate wants to work at a top 100 facility or host a professional tournament, so consider reshaping your value proposition to provide one-to-one mentorship.  

Being able to have direct access to the main leader is desirable, and can have a major impact on someone’s trajectory.  Employees want to know they can talk shop at the end of the day, ask questions and pick the leaders mind.  Consider setting weekly internship meetings, guest industry speakers, calibration classes, irrigation repair and career development sessions.  

Providing career and leadership guidance will encourage employees to seek opportunities within the company rather than outside it.  Involving your key players such as equipment managers and assistants will make a real impact.  Don’t go at this alone, because you’ll likely be overwhelmed. 

A big reason why companies struggle to attract interns is a bad mentor-mentee match.  Word of mouth spreads within universities and peer networks, and thus leaves companies wondering what’s left to do. Ultimately, good mentorship helps match goals, strengths, personal interests and more to run an effective internship experience.

Be open to redefining the existing role 

For the most part, candidates will experience routine daily practices, applications, course setup and other typical duties in any internship. We can’t forget the fundamentals. However, providing different growth opportunities and exposure will attract a diverse pool of candidates. 

Create management scenarios, and consider your definition of “management.” Individuals can manage other things besides people. For example, you can oversee:

  • Projects
  • Initiatives
  • Systems

Consider these options when you have a strong individual contributor whose interests or behavioral strengths don’t align with traditional or existing management roles. Tie the opportunity to a goal or ambition they’ve expressed. In doing so, you’re developing leadership traits while acting on their developmental priorities, fostering both engagement and growth.

Make it easy for an employee to take advantage of various niche tasks. Want to establish new technology programs?  Delegate tasks such as the digital job board, social media or moisture management readings.

Does the individual need to improve communication skills?  Consider offering crew management for the week, leading a Green Committee meeting or safety meeting.

Consider highlighting where you work

This has everything to do with what geographic region of the country in which you’re located, and the assets of your location beyond the golf course.

Why is this important? Individuals are moving their life to work there. Highlighting the town and social component may sweeten the pot.  Location plays a huge role in attracting and retaining the best employees, many of whom keep a close eye on where they’re based in order to optimize work-life balance. 

Fortunately, it is becoming more and more common for clubs to offer some sort of housing setup or stipend, which should help relieve some of the cost of living burden. But it’s not a given, and that’s an important question to discuss with your key stakeholders. 

And by carefully considering these recommendations, you’re going to give yourself a better chance of landing the proverbial unicorn.