We’ve been told that money can’t buy us love, happiness or health.
Yet, a recent Superintendent survey of golf course superintendents indicates 40 percent of them want more money. That is an increase over two years ago when 36 percent said they did not receive enough compensation for their jobs. So what are we to make of those numbers? Is job satisfaction for superintendents directly correlated to salary level? Are superintendent salaries too low? Is the golf course superintendent, as CNN reported two years ago, really one of the 15 most stressful jobs that pays badly?
Salary and satisfaction
Multiple surveys reveal employee satisfaction is typically not driven solely by salary, nor are wages necessarily the most important factor in job satisfaction. However, salary has shown to rank higher on the satisfaction scale when certain circumstances exist.
The first of those is the relative importance of salary to an individual. What might be sufficient earnings to one might be judged to be low to another. Second, the ranking of salary might be higher in the absence of other benefits (added vacation days, a generous retirement plan, full health coverage, etc.), or the presence of negative aspects in the workplace (poor working conditions, poor supervision, lack of professional development opportunities, etc.).
Lyne Tumlinson, founder of Lift Coaching, has worked with numerous superintendents and Golf Course Superintendents Association of America (GCSAA) chapters on employment and professional development issues. She says connecting salary and satisfaction can be “tricky” because of the many variables. She additionally identifies a third situation where data indicates salary and satisfaction can correlate to a high degree.
“The research is consistent in that salary can rank the highest on the satisfaction range when there is an issue of meeting basic needs,” she says. “Your financial needs might be greater if you are trying to raise a family, pay for a college education or perhaps care for an extended family member. If you are struggling to meet those needs, then we find satisfaction with salary might be lower, all things being equal.”
Stats don’t always tell the story
What are the salary numbers for superintendents?
The most recent GCSAA Com-pensation and Benefits Survey reveals the average superintendent salary in 2015 was $85,204, an increase of 3.2 percent over the previous year (the median salary was $75,000). The footnote to the study, however, is that 45 percent of the respondents were employed at private facilities – ones that typically pay high salaries. Statistically, only 25 percent of courses in the U.S. are private. Comparatively, the CNN survey noted above that uses salaries from its PayScale database indicates a median salary of $54,000. No course breakdown among public-private-municipal was available from that survey.
The point is not to debate which survey is more accurate, rather the discrepancy in salaries that can be found in the industry for persons holding the same title. Superintendent interviewed several superintendents for this article, but given the sensitive nature of the subject, respondents were granted anonymity. Says one who felt he was underpaid: “I manage 36 holes on a smaller budget and at a lower salary than a few courses around me that are only 18 holes and have a larger budget. And I believe my conditions are just as good.”
Certified Golf Course Superintendent Mike Vogt, a consultant for the McMahon Group, says such comparisons are not necessarily inappropriate, but there might be other factors that make them less than “apples to apples.” He said that in the municipal setting for example, the salary might be lower, but the benefits and autonomy might more than compensate for salary. Another difference might lie in the expectations of management and clientele, he says. If more is expected, generally the compensation is greater.
Vogt, who consults primarily with the private club industry, does not see any comparative salary deficiencies for superintendents relative to their peers at a facility. He says the same challenges are faced by golf pros, banquet managers, general managers, etc., in regard to salaries and budgets.
Salary and the golf industry
Vogt encourages superintendents to study the macro and micro aspects of the golf economy when evaluating their salaries. The macro in the sense that the industry, though slightly improving the past year, is still contracting in terms of golf course development in the U.S. The micro in regards to the local market that includes disposable income of the residents, the number of golf courses, and the amount of playable days based on weather.
Says one superintendent who works in a more remote area of the country. “My job would probably pay much more in the East or in a big market. I am sure my costs are lower, but I don’t think that is as significant as the salary difference. I am below the national average, but believe the expectations are higher than what is faced by those who make more than me.”
One person who can empathize with the superintendent is Mark Woodward. The certified golf course superintendent had a 360-degree perspective of the situation as a superintendent, employer, GCSAA executive and now senior vice president for OB Sports. He says that except for a small percentage of courses, tight budgets do not leave facilities much room for salary growth.
“It’s changed a lot in the past 10 to 15 years. I see so much discounting going on out there,” Woodward says. “The revenues just aren’t there like they used to be, and yet expenses continue to grow. It certainly isn’t a reflection on the value of a superintendent. It’s just the state of the game right now.”
Vogt agrees with Woodward and points out the rapid growth of golf in the 1980s and 1990s had a significant effect on wages. Students would get out of school, get jobs as assistants and then become full-time superintendents in a year with high salaries.
“Today, we are closing down golf courses faster than we are building them,” Vogt says. “Yet, our turf schools are turning out turf students. It is taking longer to go from an assistant to a head superintendent. Head superintendents are holding on to their jobs longer. Times have changed in terms of career progression.
“Plus we are not growing the number of golfers appreciably,” Vogt adds. “Costs are going up, too. So when you step back and look at it on the whole, both as an industry and as an individual facility, the downward pressure on salaries is there. That’s no great revelation. Superintendents understand that, but it still doesn’t make it easier when you have not seen your salary grow over the years.”
University of Massachusetts professor of turfgrass entomology, Pat Vittum, Ph.D., does not profess to be an expert on labor issues, but she reasons there could be downward pressures on salaries, not so much because of recent graduates, but because of the large graduating classes 10 to 15 years ago.
“In the past few years we have seen a general decline in the number of turf students,” Vittum says. “It’s a reaction to the marketplace. It’s simple supply and demand. There were a large number of graduates when golf was growing, and most are still in the profession even though courses are closing.”
Tumlinson says research also shows satisfaction can correlate to salary when there is an extended period where compensation does not grow or is cut. She says many superintendents went through an extended period during and after the recession in the late 2000s where budget cuts created considered angst. She sympathizes with those who have not had raises for years and calls job dissatisfaction “completely understandable.”
Says one superintendent who took our survey: “I had my budget cut for five straight years and our salaries were either cut or frozen. You understand that times are tough and you accept it because you are a team player. But it doesn’t make it any easier to motivate and retain staff.”
Woodward, Vogt, Tumlinson and Vittum encourage superintendents to be introspective when evaluating what makes them happy, and to not fall into the trap of making it solely a salary issue. Factors such as the ability to work outside with the natural environment, to be associated with the game of golf, to provide recreation and socialization for others, and the camaraderie of the profession all make the superintendent position attractive.
“This can be a high stress job,” Tumlinson says. “Yet, when I talk to superintendents about their jobs, I see and hear a passion for what they do. Many professionals do not get to experience that. Sometimes we let the heat of the moment cloud our perspective. If salary is truly the issue, then that can be addressed (see sidebar), but I find there are often other factors at play. The question I ask is, ‘What is truly important?’ Being honest with yourself is vital.”
Vittum exposes her current students to graduates who have been in the marketplace for some time to give the prospective superintendents a taste of “real world” options.
“I teach a capstone class for students in the final year where they get to listen to alumni who have worked at different types of courses,” Vittum says. They get a chance to see what it is like and what superintendents deal with in each situation. It helps them weigh the pros and cons. They see that salary can be offset by other factors.”
Read more: Maybe Money Can Buy Happiness