Feature Article - March 2002
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Grounds Forces

The latest challenges and strategies in grounds maintenance

By Mitch Martin

Labor market
Fishing Derby for the disabled at Ramapo
Valley County Reservation in Mahwah, N.J.

The quality of the machines, of course, will be useless if there is no one to operate them. Finding and retaining skilled employees remains a critical issue for grounds maintenance supervisors.

Just a year ago, the labor market was tight across the country in almost every industry sector. But the U.S. Department of Labor's Bureau of Labor Statistics reported unemployment at 5.8 percent in December. That is the highest unemployment rate in more than six years. The general expectation among economists is that number will continue to tick up slightly through at least much of the second quarter of 2002.

However, grounds managers tend to say the employment situation for them has only stabilized, instead of improving.

"If 45,000 people get laid off at Ford, it doesn't do us any good because those people aren't skilled in the areas we need for them to be good employees for us," Pouly says.

When American Elms
succumb to Dutch Elm
disease, park staff replace
them with resistant varieties.

The labor pool situation hasn't improved as much as it has become less bad.

"The one sort of possible improvement is people aren't being drawn into other fields just because of some high-paying opportunity," Pouly says.

O'Donnell says a Villanova program that gives a free education to employees continues to give him a distinct advantage. The program allows him to hire more highly motivated and skilled people than he might otherwise have. And he says he is willing to live with the fact that many won't make a career out of grounds maintenance after they receive their degree.

"I think in the end it's really helped us," O'Donnell says. "I'd rather have a really great employee for five years than an average one for 10 years."

Cochran says hiring for his 125 full-time positions has been stable in recent years, but the critical seasonal hirings appear to have improved in the same time period. Cochran says he draws on high-school and college students for much of his summer staff. He has also looked to recent retirees for seasonal and part-time staff.

"I think a lot of the people we get are just drawn to the good conditions," Cochran says, "and a lot of them want to be in the golf environment you get at the jobs on our courses."

Economic conditions can only provide so much help for grounds maintenance jobs because they are really not about the money to begin with.

"The bottom line is that in this particular industry, you don't get into it to be a millionaire," Pouly says. "You do it because you really enjoy it."