Over the past decade or so, there has been a significant accumulation of research, writing, discussion and education on the subject of sustainability.

I think the volume of information is so great that most people in the golf course industry now have a pretty firm grip on the concept. Everything that I’ve seen and heard in recent discussions with superintendents shows they have a solid understanding of the need for long-term equilibrium among sustainability’s three pillars: people, planet and profit.

But I wanted concrete validation for my supposition. My mission was to seek out a professional who has seen and been engaged in the industry’s progression toward sustainable golf course management, so I called Joe McCleary. A multiple winner of golf course environmental awards, McCleary is now a storm water management superintendent with the City of Aurora, Colorado. He maintains close contact with his former golf course peers and currently serves as the president of the Colorado Golf Association. Heck, he’s even renewed his certification twice.

“I think superintendents are probably attuned to sustainability as much as any profession,” McCleary says. “They are coming out of school better educated on the subject, and the industry has a strong focus on it.”

Making a midlife career change

That being said, it was the rest of our conversation that gave me reason to pause. I was intrigued by McCleary’s career change, which came six years ago at the age of 46. He really wasn’t looking to leave the golf industry, but a job opportunity in Aurora’s water department was too good to pass up. His knowledge of golf course construction, drainage, and plant species selection – coupled with an MBA – provided the perfect background for his position.

“I was fortunate that I had an employer who exposed me to every part of the golf course and our operations,” McCleary said. “The MBA was something I did because I thought that if I ever wanted to be in a management position, it would be helpful.”

There are those who will say McCleary is lucky. I agree, because as the Roman philosopher Seneca once said, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” McCleary made the move on his terms.

Unfortunately for today’s workforce, we are seeing far too many instances where those who approach the magical age of 50 find themselves in career peril. It’s a hot topic among superintendents, but it’s also the reality for virtually everyone. The reasons for job loss are many – obsolescence, finances, politics, performance – and to be fair, sometimes they are justified.

Career sustainability was never much of an issue in my parent’s generation. Go to school, get a good job, work your way up, then retire with a 40-year service pin and a decent pension. Loyalty meant something. But times change, and the pace of change is increasing. What we learn today becomes obsolete next year. Experience simply does not provide the value it once did.

It’s time for golf course superintendents to focus on their own career sustainability. The questions must be asked:

  • What would you do if you lost your job today?
  • Do you possess the skills to get a good job?
  • Are you prepared to take advantage of a new opportunity when it arises?
  • Do you have an active network of individuals with whom you can connect?

This isn’t just an exercise for supers, by the way. People in all professions and trades should have this focus and be able to answer those questions.

To be clear, each of us has the responsibility to keep our skills current and diverse. Professional development not only benefits the worker, but the business as well. That is why it behooves us to have a conversation with our employers to create professional development plans and be afforded the resources to execute on them.

Sustainability has been defined as being able to serve the needs of today, without compromising the ability to meet the needs of the future. What are you doing to ensure that your career is sustainable?