EDITOR'S BLOG: A groundsman's lot

Under-appreciated and under-valued
EDITOR'S BLOG: A groundsman's lot

After several weeks of blogs talking about specific sports, this week I would like to turn my attention to the role of the greenkeeper and groundsman, who I still believe after all these years, are undervalued in many ways.

For many years the IOG (Institute of Groundsman) and other sports governing bodies have been trying to address this problem by promoting our diverse industry and stating the appropriate salaries and education paths these turf professionals should be on.

Admittedly yes, there are now a select few top grounds professionals, who are earning a decent salary. However, they are often on call 24/7, 360 days a year and under pressure to deliver exceptionally high standards of work.

In the main though, there are still many turf professionals up and down the country who are not earning anything like the recommended salaries that these governing bodies are stating.

The current average salary wage for a grounds maintenance operative is estimated at around £9.14 per hour - not a lot in terms of the skill sets they need to do the jobs they are expected to undertake.

Our industry is also still trying to get rid of the stigma of ‘you only cut grass?’ Which again see us being deemed unskilled and therefore being paid as little as possible. This is not also helped by the fact that there are plenty of people (man in a vans) offering their services cheaply and undermining the real value of the skills we require to do this work.

Most professional groundsmen and greenkeepers have over many years, acquired a unique skill set to enable them to do their work. In essence they are chemists, mathematicians, weather forecasters, diplomats, IT literate, wildlife experts, mechanics, soil scientists, plant pathologists and agronomists coupled with having to manage staff and often work all hours of the day.

The truth of the matter lies in the misconception of what their roles and job descriptions should be, coupled with the fact that quite often the staffing levels and appropriate resources and machinery are not forthcoming - further hindering the potential of the work that can be achieved.

All too often, caused by a complete lack of understanding of what these turf professions need to do, by and large this applies to the general public, many professional sports players and quite often some of the people who employ these grounds professionals.

Far too often, I meet grounds professionals who do in fact have the relevant skills, drive and ambition but are restricted by the fact that the site is under-resourced - both in terms of staffing levels plus essential equipment and machinery to carry out the work.

And at worst the grounds staff are not treated with the respect they deserve! I also take note that there are a number of groundstaff, who often don’t always help themselves with a poor attitude and demeaner. However, on the whole, greenkeepers and groundsmen are generally very thoughtful and considerate and only want to do the best they can.

A recent visit to a large sports campus bared these findings out. A site with a large cricket complex, some winter sports pitches and a high usage expectation, having only one member of staff on site to undertake the multitude of tasks required.

I also regularly see this problem at many other sporting venues, where one, or a skeleton team of staff, is expected to maintain the facility whilst vastly under resourced.

Quite often the main reason for this is the lack of understanding of what is required to deliver a consistent functional and sustainable sports facility. At the end of the day, there is an annual maintenance cost for the upkeep of these natural grass and landscaped facilities.

This has been borne out by the many examples we are seeing today, where sports clubs are closing and the standard of maintenance in recent years has deteriorated. None more so than what we have been witnessing in the demise of parks and public open spaces, due to the lack of investment in both staff and resources.

These issues are also being seen regularly in the golf industry, where many golf courses have, in recent years, suffered reduced maintenance budgets with the net result of decreased numbers of greenkeeping staff being retained.

Also many groundstaff often have to put up with poor welfare facilities such as toilets, shower, mess rooms and shed / garage facilities.

For me, the issue lies with management who really should look at their assets in a different way. A good example is often seen in the private school sector, where the likes of Rugby School, Millfield School, Shrewsbury School and many others have understood the value of investing in their grounds and facilities and employing appropriate staff numbers and essential machinery.

Their reputation lies not only with the academic education on offer, but largely on the facilities they have to offer. Attracting paying customers is often secured on the ambience and overall appearance and maintenance of the schools’ grounds.

The value of green open spaces and sports facilities cannot be underestimated. Their value in terms of what they bring to the table is priceless, so why are we not prepared to pay for the upkeep of these unique land assets? It is time we have a better understanding of the value they bring to the community and invest wisely in the dedicated people who desire to look after it.

And finally, these leads me on to another problem, where is the next generation of greenkeepers and groundmen coming from? A recent article I wrote on this can be read here.

I have said on more than one occasion, our wonderful turfgrass and amenity sector is a unique and rewarding industry to work in. The scope and variety of work and the opportunity to work anywhere in the world, is astounding. Once you have acquired the fundamental skills of horticulture and groundsmanship, there is no end to the opportunities on offer within this ever changing, global industry.

We should not rest on our laurels though. It is important we continue to inspire and recruit a new generation of ground professionals to come and work in our industry - and more importantly that they have the opportunity to learn from their peers.

We also need to ask ourselves, are our colleges and universities teaching the relevant skills and knowledge base to enable these newcomers to do the job that they have been employed for?

And more importantly paying a decent wage that comes in line with other professional tradesmen.

Finally, I firmly believe the way forward is for any given facility / sports club / recreation ground should produce a viable 5-10-year business plan:-

  • Where are you now? Record the current condition costs and resources used to maintain the facility at present.
  • Where do you want to be? Decide on your objectives on where you want to be 5-10 years’ time what improvements need to be done, capital works, maintenance regimes, machinery purchases and staffing levels and reviewed budgets to sustain your objectives).
  • How do we get there? Set out your objective and goals and put in place a detailed achievable programme to achieve these aims.

By setting up this document you are effectively putting in place a working document that helps you manage and improve your facility over time and, more importantly, recognise the skills and aspirations of your staff that hopefully creates an opportunity to reward their services with decent pay and working conditions.

As we know, prevention is better than cure. Any lack of investment in both staff and natural grass facilities will only lead to an overall decline in the facility, that in the end will cost a lot of money to put right. Taking the time to evaluate yourselves and buy into a long-term investment strategy in staff and resources will go a long way to securing the future of your sports facility.

Laurence Gale, TurfPro editor

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