The line of people who have spoken more often than Bruce Williams on the subject of career development for golf course superintendents is a pretty short one. He has helped superintendents prepare for job interviews and he has assisted clubs in the search to fill vacancies. So, you listen when Williams, a second-generation superintendent with nearly 50 years of industry experience, says every challenge facing greenkeepers today is a veiled opportunity.
"I would have in capital letters on my resume PROBLEM SOLVER," said Williams, pictured at right. "When people are hiring you, they want to know how you can solve their problems. They want to know how you can make their golf course better. They want to know how you can do better with less. Problem solvers get the jobs."
Make no mistake, Williams, who works today as a consultant, headhunter and international business manager for Brandt, knows full well the challenges facing superintendents today are many: wage and labor issues, increasing demands from golfers on course conditioning with a shrinking pool of resources, job security, rising costs of goods and resources just to name a few.
"The greatest skill of successful superintendents is they are problem-solvers," said Williams. "When I say that, I mean they find a way to make things work. They find a way to get things done. And this is no different with the pandemic. Because of my tenure in the business and my family's heritage in the business, I would say this: This business has been through World War II, this business has been through recessions and economic downturns and other things that have created the need to think outside of the box. The people who are successful do not throw their arms up in the air and say 'What am I going to do? How am I going to survive this?' They find a way to get it done."
Although the Covid era has revealed cracks in the labor market across several industries, including golf, the struggle to find enough help is not necessarily anything new, and finding enough help has been a challenge for a long time. Williams recalls a similar situation in the 1970s when he worked for Frank Dobie at Sharon Golf Club in Ohio.
The club pieced together a crew, the club employed people from other vocations looking for additional part-time hours, such as farmers and school bus drivers.
"Our best employees were farmers. We knew we could not get them during harvest or planting, and we knew they were not available during deer hunting season," Williams said. "We also had a lot of women on the crew, and some were school bus drivers. None of these people were interested in 40 hours, but they all wanted 20.
"When I grew up working on a golf course, you were up at 4:30 in the morning, worked until 2:30 in the afternoon, and your boss didn't have any problem with you working overtime, and you worked seven days a week. And if you didn't want that job, there was someone else who did. If you were late to work, it meant you were fired. While I am not a fan of people being late, you don't have the luxury of firing people for that today.
"With something specific like Covid, people are having a hard time finding people to work on their golf courses, so it's time to get creative."
For example, not all jobs have to be done - or even started - before the first group goes off in the morning. Staggered start times by staff that include completing some jobs later in the day, can help expand the talent pool and reduce the number of manhours associated with some tasks.
People want more out of a job today than they did 30 years ago.
The other side of the labor shortage is that interns, recent turf school graduates and aspiring assistants can be choosy when deciding which positions to accept, and that is not a bad thing.
"Students can make $15 or $20 an hour, and they can get housing. And now, people have five or six offers to pick from," he said. "One man's challenge presents opportunities for others."
Williams believes among the factors influencing the labor issues in the turf business is the lack of upward mobility for hourly employees.
"We lack, in the golf industry, a qualified training program. We lack a system to move people up through the ranks," he said. "If you show up for work and they tell you 'Eddie is going to teach you how to rake bunkers,' that is like sending your kid to school and having them taught by another kid. That is a superintendent's job. Then if they put you on a weed eater for 10 years, and there is nothing else for you, the word gets out on you. We have to develop plans and programs to move people up through the system. We haven't had that. We need to look at entry level employees as mid-level, so they can advance their skills and compensation. People want more out of a job today than they did 30 years ago."