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West Michigan golf courses foster next-gen talent with new turf apprenticeship program

Crain's Grand Rapids Business | Published on 4/18/2023

An apprenticeship program aims to help West Michigan golf courses lure in new recruits to work in the turf maintenance side of the business.

Strategizing new ways to attract young people into the industry has become a key priority for the industry, particularly as an older generation of owners, managers and crew members head toward retirement age, golf course executives told Crain’s.

As the 2023 season kicks off, course owners say they’re worried that Michigan’s $4.2 billion golf industry won’t have enough workers to keep up with the resurgence of demand it has experienced since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

“The golf business is good, (but) we’re seeing Boomers retiring out of the turf side of the business and there are not enough applicants to fill the need,” said Jeff Hoag, co-owner of Scott Lake Golf and Practice Center in Plainfield Township, north of Grand Rapids. 

Hoag, who partnered with his brother to buy the course from their parents in 1975 and serves on the board of directors for the Michigan Golf Course Association, noted that the multi-generational family ownership of many courses can contribute to the challenges with talent attraction. 

Jim Szilagyi, general manager of Otsego-based Lynx Golf Course, which his grandfather founded in 1935, echoed those sentiments. 

“We’re a small business with a limited amount of staff and a limited amount of people,” said Szilagyi, who serves as vice president of the Michigan Golf Course Association. “We’re not immune to the employment challenges that everybody else has.” 

Lynx was the first course in Michigan to participate in the new Registered Apprenticeship Golf Course Maintenance Technician Program, a program from the Michigan Golf Course Association that offers candidates the chance to learn turf maintenance roles while immediately filling job openings. 

The trade group coordinated with the Michigan Department of Labor & Economic Opportunity and U.S. Department of Labor to launch the apprenticeship program in June 2022. 

“We decided to tackle the issue as an industry head on and create a registered apprenticeship and develop our own talent pipeline from within,” said Jada Paisley, executive director of the Michigan Golf Course Association.

The program started last year with its first apprentices at Lynx Golf Course. The apprentices accessed online career training supported by Golf Course Superintendents Association of America and on-the-job training alongside other industry professionals and a mentor.

Apprentices who complete the program receive a certificate from the Department of Labor while also earning a wage, a factor designed to help younger professionals learn the ropes of the industry while helping them get ahead in their careers. 

The Golf Course Maintenance Technician Program currently has nine apprentices enrolled for the 2023 season, but Paisley said she expects to see 20 by the end of the year. Most apprentices will take about one or two years to complete the competency-based program. 

Paisley said the program aims to attract talent and offer them training with the hopes of piquing their interest to continue their education in the field. 

“The registered apprenticeship is not to take the place of a four-year degree by any means,” she added. “It is to really address the critical agronomy needs that the courses have while potentially exposing somebody to a career that they might not have thought of before.” 

According to Paisley, the causes of the current talent shortages in golf course maintenance are multi-faceted. In addition to losing workers to retirement, the industry also faces lower college enrollment nationwide following the COVID-19 pandemic, which is taking its toll on niche programs like turf maintenance. For example, Fortune last month reported undergraduate college enrollment dropped 8 percent from 2019 to 2022.

“Michigan State (University) maybe had nine students in their turf program where they used to have 40,” Hoag said. “You get a series of years like that and all of a sudden there’s no professionals coming out of the program.”

At the same time, Paisley added, graduates from in-state turf programs are not finding the salaries in the area to meet their needs, and are leaving for better pay. According to Paisley, 94 percent of Michigan’s golf courses are small businesses.

“Their salary just can’t meet the demands of a four-year turfgrass student coming out of school — not that they don’t understand the reason, they just can’t match (it),” Paisley said. “So what’s happening is those students are going to private, member-owned clubs or they’re leaving the state.” 

Hoag added that while Michigan’s golf industry remains healthy, he’s noticed examples of younger staff leaving for higher salaries, particularly on the East Coast.

“We’re seeing some of those very qualified young people moving out of Michigan and getting a 25 percent pay increase by going to New York or Connecticut,” he said. 

In order to change this, Michigan Golf Course Association’s new apprenticeship seeks to not only attract new talent but also nurture current employees to grow within their companies. 

“We’re known for our golf in Michigan,” Paisley said. “So if we don’t do something to continue that, what does that mean for those tourism dollars? It’s really developing the talent from within and as an association, our board of directors just didn’t see any other options other than to do this. It’s just a really great way to develop that next generation.” 

Michigan ranks seventh in the nation for its annual economic impact from golf. According to a 2022 report from the Michigan Golf Alliance, a nonprofit representing the state’s golf industry, courses in the state attract tourism dollars totalling $300 million annually from out-of-state players, and more than $600 million annually in additional revenue through lodging, meals, transportation, equipment and more. 

Paisley at Michigan Golf Course Association said the apprenticeship program is aimed squarely at ensuring the industry has the resources it needs to continue to compete for that tourism spending. 

Other courses signing on to the apprenticeship program include Boyne Golf’s Bay Harbor Golf Club and The Highlands at Harbor Springs, Gull Lake View Golf Resort in Augusta, Raisin Valley Golf Club near Tecumseh and The Emerald Golf Course in St. Johns. 

Paisley anticipates more courses signing on for the program as spring continues. 

“It’s an endeavor that we’ve never taken on before, but we really saw it as a way to build the next generation of golf course agronomy,” Paisley said. “When you think of traditional registered apprenticeships in plumbing (or) mechanical (fields), this is a skilled trade too. It’s a well proven talent pipeline solution for other industries and now it’s in place for golf.”


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