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Guest Post: The Assistant Superintendent Role Reconsidered


Greg Wojick, CGCS

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by Greg Wojick

ee84cf2dae32f2f1d1655d7b0eaca7c4-.jpgLooking through the assistant superintendent job listings on the TurfNet Job board the other day reinforced in my mind that the superintendent's approach to their assistants' positions may need some rethinking. 

For years and decades, superintendents handled their assistants by hiring young, letting them learn by doing and observing, and then, after a year or two on the job, sending them on their way to their first superintendent's job. 'Two years and out' was the typical mantra.

Times have changed. With the glut of qualified assistants vying for a handful of superintendent opportunities each year, the wait has become three to five years and out -- if they're lucky. But for many assistants, those years come and go and they're still where they started. If they've managed to maintain their enthusiasm through those 100-hour workweeks, the superintendent keeps them on, expecting that they'll continue their job hunt.

An Alternative Approach

Think about this: Most supers hire and train an equipment manager or a horticulturist and almost never assume that these hires will move on in a couple of years. They'd much rather retain these employees if they can continue to handle the challenges of the job. This type of hire makes a lot of sense when you think about it.

Many superintendents state that assistants enter the business intending to be a superintendent one day and the typical approach employed in the industry is due to this reason. This is acknowledged, however the competition to gain a superintendent position has started to make a change here -- assistants are leaving the industry in large numbers due to lack of superintendent positions and no room for promotion or compensation at their existing club. Add to that 60-plus hour work weeks in season where they could make about as much working at a local Home Depot, as someone stated in The Forum recently. It makes a strong case that it may be time for a new path.

So I'd like to suggest an alternative approach and a healthy change to the super's mantra. Instead of two years and out, why not make your mantra, Hire, train, and retain

Hire Right the First Time

To make this new mantra possible, it will mean starting with a new mindset. Many superintendents will, in a pinch, hire assistants thinking that even if they're not the perfect fit, they'll do the job for a time and then leave. With this no longer being the case, it's essential that you spend extra time and effort on the front end making sure that you hire the best fit from the start.

The 'hire, train, retain' approach requires a serious search effort. Calling your buddy down the street and asking if he knows anyone who's available, is not the type of effort I'm talking about.  As most veteran supers know, sometimes that method works, but often it doesn't. To conduct a comprehensive search, it pays to use not only listings like TurfNet, but also firms and consultants who can also help with the time-consuming duty of identifying the right fit for your particular operation and course. Another tack to consider is to beat the bushes locally to see if you can identify a person who may not have a turf degree, but who is a quick study, eager to work hard, loves the game of golf, and will likely be satisfied staying on as a career assistant. 

True, this approach can seem daunting, particularly if you've lost an assistant at the start or middle of the season, but if you've ever endured a bad hire -- and I know most veteran supers have -- then you know this hiring approach can pay lasting dividends.

Try a Progressive Training Approach

Many superintendents will craft a yearly spray strategy for their pesticide and fertilizer applications. How many lay out a training strategy that allows for the success of their assistants? I have heard so many superintendents say that they expect their assistants to work 100 hours a week. Aside from being a little daunting for even the most ambitious young assistants, is that training? Is that giving them something specific to strive toward or achieve? Is working 100 hours a week going to instill pride in their work, or just wear them so thin that they end up hating the job and, ultimately, the profession?

Aside from providing assistants with specific performance goals and standards, why not consider a work schedule that more closely mimics other hard-driving careers where people do have quality time away from the job? Working hard and long is not always horrible -- as long as it's not constant.

If you're finding it difficult to hire just-the-right assistant, let go of the idea that overworking assistants is their right of passage into the golf business.

What's more, there is a law of diminishing returns. More hours do not mean greater productivity. Fatigue can slow the mind and body to a point where productivity will actually diminish, and worse, more accidents are prone to happen.

The best thing you can train your employees to do is to work smart, not long. Offer them an opportunity for growth in skills and responsibility. Good training makes for greater job satisfaction and the likelihood that assistants will stay the course.

Retain Good Help

Consider this job listing:  Work in the golf industry. Expect 44-48 hours per week during the season. Golf privileges with time to actually play. Excellent opportunity for career growth.  Sounds reasonable, right? Maybe even desirable?

Let's face it, you're more apt to attract and then retain people if they feel they will be treated reasonably -- not simply as a workhorse -- recognized as a valued member of the operation, and rewarded for exemplary performance, even if it's with time to play golf.

If you're finding it difficult to hire just-the-right assistant, let go of the idea that overworking assistants is their right of passage into the golf business. Convincing yourself, and your club of the merit of a 'hire, train, retain' approach may be your ticket to that gem in the rough -- an assistant who will work smarter, not longer, and be inspired to exceed your expectations for years to come.

 

After nearly 30 years as a golf course superintendent and consultant, Greg Wojick co-founded Playbooks for Golf in 2008.

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As an Assistant Superintendent I can tell you thge key reason why there is a mass exodus of Assistants leaving. While you are correct in all the reasons mentioned the main reason is money. Assistants will not stay ssistants because in this industry you cannot afford to support yourself let alone a family on an Assiatant Superintendents salary add that with the hours we work and its either get a Super position or find a new career because yo can afford to stay as an Assistant. The GCSAA likes posting the average Salary for Superintendets and boast how Salaries for Superintendents have Risen; however, increases in salary for Assistants tend be stagnant. The average salary for Assistants ahve risen in the last 15 years but for the most part its a salary that requires you to make sacrifices until you can get a Superintendent position.

 

So, what I'm trying to say is if there is to be a shift in the way Assisatnts are viewed in order to keep qaulity Assistants around than the average salary for assistants needs to go up as well. Oh and I might work 44 - 48 hrs a week in winter.

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As a former Assistant for 6 years at high end private clubs, and a few seasons as a Head Super at a semi private resort course I can say that it is a combination of the long hours, high stress, most often unappreciated effort, and the diminishing salaries that drove me away.

 

I graduated from Penn State in 2004 and chose to follow my fathers footsteps into turf management. I watched him work endless long days, weeks, months, and entire years for about 40 years (and for some crazy reason I still chose Turf) until one day it abruptly ended when I was working as his assistant at the time hoping to one day take over his spot. He was one of the "old guard" type with 25 years at his last private club with conditions constantly improving every season. He had a killer package with a great salary, company/personal truck, gas, phone, and even a huge house on the property. That benefit package was most of the reason that I chose to follow his path, however those days are long gone, replaced with "half the age, half the wage".

 

After my father was asked to resign (for reasons having ZERO to do with course conditions, but everything with course politics) and I was basically told not to even bother applying for the new spot I had a real sense of urgency to get out of the golf arena. I have since found an amazing opportunity as a head groundskeeper at a 40 acre nun convent/retirement facility filled with 40 hour weeks, weekends off, no chemicals to spray, and most importantly a customer base that actually appreciates the hard work being done around campus and go out of their way everyday to let you know. It also is kind of like having 100+ grandmothers around, there is always fresh cookies, muffins, and cakes in the break room, a free lunch daily, and lots of employee appreciation activities.

 

The pay isn't the head supt. pay of private clubs, but it's about the same as a lot of assistant jobs advertised these days. I will gladly take the low level of stress, increased time with family, and overall general happiness with my job over the money. Marrying a doctor also didn't hurt.

 

The boom in Turf related degrees of the past ten years has really taken it's toll on the field. Most people 10 years ago when you mentioned Turfgrass Management their response was "Turf - What? That's a degree?" Now, its more like "Oh yea I know a few guys who do that", and that's part of the problem, but as I have read recently now enrollment is on the decline.

 

I guess the reason I'm sharing this is if you are in the same boat as I was, don't forget to expand your job search parameters to the grounds-keeping jobs at cemetaries, colleges, townships, apartment property manager positions, church/religious organizations etc.. Your previous golf course experience usually puts you right at the top of every pile of resumes for these types of positions, and with a great interview the job is yours.

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