While the COVID-19 pandemic initially closed nearly everything, one thing it opened was people’s minds to golf. The National Golf Foundation reported a net increase of 800,000 golfers over the past two years, the largest surge in almost two decades. And with more golfers comes more responsibility.
For young job seekers hoping to jump into that responsibility, getting a certificate or degree may be their first step. With more than 60 schools offering turfgrass management programs, it seems like the options are wide, but they are, in fact, very limited.
“Turfgrass programs are an endangered species across the U.S.,” says Timothy Marten, an associate professor at SUNY Cobleskill. “They are one of the fastest-declining program areas in the broader bookshelf that is plant science. So, if you’re looking for species that are on the endangered list, turfgrass programs are sliding all the way over into the critically endangered.”
Low enrollment numbers and interest levels have caused some universities to adjust by adding their program as a minor or implementing a new certificate program.
“At Oregon State, we have started a certificate program that a person can accomplish in a year,” says associate professor Dr. Alec Kowalewski. “I think what that does for the current industry trend is you have a lot of people that are working in golf courses that don’t have formal education. Now there’s another way for them to get educated, continue working on that golf course and now have to go and get a degree.”
The certificate program at Oregon State currently has around 20 people.
Despite having to make new course and program accommodations, the danger of losing the program does nothing to thwart aspiring and current turfgrass management students’ attitudes toward the profession. They are still eager to enter the workforce toting the valuable experience and knowledge these programs provide.
“I think there’s a lot of excitement in turfgrass management because the golf courses have been so busy,” Kowalewski says. “It seems like for a long time, it was not a popular thing to do, but with all the golfing now there’s a lot more intense attention towards golf as a recreation event, which then I think draws more employees in because there’s just more energy going into it.”
It takes a special type of student to pursue turfgrass management.
“The ones that are coming in are the ones that are more diehard,” says SUNY Cobleskill professor Dr. Alex Ellram. “They are mainly students that have already worked on a golf course, or they have played golf, and so they have a stronger — it seems to me at this point, anyways — desire to stay in the industry.”
And they have plenty of reason to, with higher wages and more benefits.
“The job opportunities are obviously amazing, right?” Ellram says. “They are trying to make it more appealing by not making the hours quite as demanding. There’s more of a tendency to do that. And there’s also more of a tendency to try and recruit from within and really push the people that are already there to stay and maybe go on for education than maybe there used to be in the past.”
For professor Dr. Doug Linde, being successful involves making a conscious effort to promote the program at Delaware Valley College in suburban Philadelphia.
“Years ago, I used to make a brochure to print and send those out to students,” he says. “And now instead of that energy, I’ll take some pictures and put them on social media.”
Not only have professors and faculty had to change the way they recruit students, but once they get those students, they must keep them around and ensure their success. One way to do that is by adapting and appealing to the generational learning differences.
“The students have changed a lot since I started, that’s probably the biggest change … just their learning tendencies,” Linde says. “My teaching style has changed because you notice and get feedback like, ‘Well, that isn’t working’ and most of my colleagues have adjusted a little bit as well.”
The future of turfgrass management programs nationwide remains precarious despite the golf surge. But those within the industry continue exuding passion about developing the next generation of turf managers.
“The ones that are coming in are strong,” Ellram says. “There’s just not as many of them.”
Cassidy Gladieux is a Kent State University senior and Golf Course Industry contributor.
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