Grounds Care - From the ground up

Maintaining sports pitches is just the start for grounds staff - there are plenty of other opportunities, says Jack Shamash.

Around 40,000 people are employed in the grounds care industry - image: HW
Around 40,000 people are employed in the grounds care industry - image: HW

Groundsmanship or groundskeeping is still feeling the effects of the recession, but parts of the industry offer good rewards.

According to the Institute of Groundsmanship (IoG) there are around 40,000 people working on various football, hockey, cricket and rugby pitches and race courses. Unfortunately, 10,000 of these people are unpaid, working because of a commitment to community clubs. Many of the others are on relatively low wages. However, at the top of the profession some head groundsmen make up to £45,000 a year.

There are also around 2,700 golf clubs, each employing an average of five grounds staff. Although there have been cutbacks because of the recession, the clubs still have to keep the greens in top condition. The top grounds staff will often become estates managers, responsible for every aspect of the course, licensed bars and any leisure or health club facilities. At this level, some top staff earn more than £100,000.

International angle

British-trained ground staff have long been in demand abroad, and Bulgaria and Turkey are currently recruiting British managers for new golf club grounds. British ground staff have also been recruited for football pitches in Holland and Sweden.

Once thought of as consisting mainly of mowing, groundsmanship now involves a growing number of skills. Golf courses are planting new types of grasses, to reduce the need for watering and pesticides. Football pitches are now using UV light to boost growth and sub-air systems to suck air into the ground.

IoG head of professional services Ian Lacy explains: "Things are moving very quickly. Three years ago, it was only one or two Premiership clubs that had sub-air systems. Now these systems are being used in the Third Division."

And, while synthetic surfaces become more widespread in a range of situations, these are not maintenance-free.

Groundskeepers are increasingly expected to know how to maintain the artificial versions too.

Getting in

Most starters in the industry get in through an apprenticeship. They are paid a minimum of £90 a week and get leave to study. David Golding, executive director of the Greenkeeping Training Committee of BIGGA (British and International Golf Greenkeepers Association) explains: "This is by far the most popular way in, and gives students the best of all worlds. They learn the theoretical knowledge together with the practical skills."

Teaching has traditionally been done on the basis of day-release to colleges, but courses are increasingly being taught online.

Apprenticeships will usually last around 18 months, by which time most students will have taken NVQ Level 2 qualifications. Over the next year, they generally do a Level 3 qualification and take a greater supervisory and management role.

Some people enter the industry through college-based courses. There is the national certificate, the High National Certificate and the Foundation Degree (the equivalent of the old HND). Armed with a Foundation Degree, some students will go on to take a BSc.

Chard Spicer, horticulture course manager at Reaseheath College in Cheshire, and also a professional grounds maintenance manager, points out that most people with a qualification in sports turf management are getting jobs fairly easily. The industry is attracting many career-changers who are swapping office jobs for more physically challenging outdoor work.

Getting on

People are unlikely to be lured into the sector with the promise of vast wealth. They join for other reasons. As Lacy says: "It's a great job, but the financial rewards are not wonderful. You have to really love it."

However, there is a clear career path for grounds staff which offers the prospect of greater earnings. After a couple of years in the industry, staff should be earning between £14,000 and £18,000 as skilled groundskeepers. After a few more years they can become assistant head groundsmen or supervisors, earning up to £25,000. Thereafter, they can become head groundsmen earning up to £45,000 a year.

Some established areas of employment are now less promising. Although football clubs continue to pay millions for players, some of them are suffering financially and are making cutbacks on ground staff. "Recession is hitting the industry, but it's not as bad as people thought it would be," says Lacy.

Many employers encourage continuing professional development and will pay for courses. An increasing number of people are doing MSc and PhD courses, in order to consolidate their skills or because they want to get work in the lucrative field of sports turf consultancy.

More recently, groundskeepers have been finding work with domestic lawn care firms such as Green Thumb or Countrywide Lawn Doctor. These firms operate on a franchise system but the cost of starting up the franchise is hefty.

Countrywide Lawn Doctor estimates that entrants need to make a £35,000 investment - and the returns are not guaranteed. However, the combination of some degree of independence combined with backing from a big firm is appealing to many.

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