The intense, wet weather experienced across the UK during the start of 2014 was not good news for sports turf. Messages such as "football cancelled due to poor pitch conditions" and "course closed due to flooding" were a common sight throughout January.
Fortunately, the groundsmen and greenkeepers whose responsibility it is to look after this sodden grass were able to inform their turf's users of the state of the surface before people began lacing up their football boots or loading their golf bags into their cars.
This was achieved by posting messages on sports clubs' websites or on their own blogs as well as through the use of social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter. The fact that there is an expectation on groundsmen and greenkeepers to inform their customers of the state of the turf is just one example of why, these days, it is essential for them to be good communicators.
Rob Sandilands, head greenkeeper at Grange-over-Sands Golf Club in Cumbria, says: "Fifteen to 20 per cent of your time (as a head greenkeeper) is spent on greenkeeping, while the rest is about communication, people skills, negotiating and dealing with politics."
He adds that the challenging economic environment over the past few years is one of the reasons why communication skills are so important. "Proper communication is essential because margins for error are small," he says. "Competition is fierce and so we have to think on our feet. Our budgets are being cut but the standards of the game and the service standards that our customers expect keep going up."
Sandilands regularly uses his blog, which is linked to the Grange-over-Sands website (www.grangegolfclub.co.uk), to communicate his work to his customers as well as to his colleagues and managers. "It's free and it's a good publicity tool," he points out. "I now need to go to fewer meetings because when people read the blog they have no burning questions to ask me."
He continues: "You have to look after your membership - the members want to know where their money is going. In this sort of weather the consensus can be that we are not doing anything, but we are actually doing all sorts of things, such as digging out ditches."
Sandilands adds that good communication skills are particularly important for people who are looking to step up into a managerial role, such as head or deputy greenkeeper. "Your greenkeeping knowledge has to be completely sound because when you step into a managerial role this needs to be second nature," he says.
Chris Gray, head of education at the Institute of Groundsmanship (IoG), emphasises that managing budgets is another new but essential skill that sports turf staff should have. "It's about making the best use of the money that's available by buying the most appropriate materials," he explains.
"In the past it was more of a free for all. People were buying expensive materials that weren't really needed without really looking at the needs of the turf. Local authorities are selling off and farming out facilities for sports clubs to look after themselves - and so the clubs are realising how much turf costs to maintain."
Gray adds that environmental sustainability has also come to the fore a lot more. "There is a greater emphasis on IPM (integrated pest management) now," he points out. "We no longer use chemicals as our first tool."
He also notes that, after November 2015 and because of Europe's new Sustainable Use of Pesticides legislation, anyone who previously used grandfather rights to apply pesticides will have to get a certificate of competence for spraying.
Paul Larsen, head greenkeeper at Royal St George Golf Club in Kent, adds that nowadays contractors are being used less frequently as clubs count their pennies. "You need DIY skills for doing jobs like painting fences and electronic work - anything rather than getting outside contractors in," he says.
Continuing professional development
Institutes representing the turf sector all recognise the requirement for their members to regularly update their skills and knowledge. Both the IoG and the British & International Golf Greenkeepers Association (BIGGA) therefore offer their own continuing professional development (CPD) programmes.
IoG members gain CPD member status by completing at least 35 hours of CPD each year. BIGGA's new CPD programme, launched last year (2013), has been designed to better fit in with greenkeepers' changing requirements.
The programme has switched from a one-year to a three-year cycle, giving BIGGA members more time to get the 60 credits they need to gain BIGGA CPD approved status. Greenkeeping staff can also monitor their own progress online and use the internet to register each credit they earn.
BIGGA learning and development executive Stuart Green says: "Everyone thinks that the new system is fantastic because they can control their own CPD. Before it was a case of them having to post us a certificate of what they had done, but now our members can manage and monitor their own learning."
He adds that BIGGA has found ways of making it easier for greenkeepers to fit CPD into their daily routine. "Every other month in our magazine you can read an article that has a QR code included at the end of it," says Green. "A smartphone scans this code that provides a link to a website containing a quiz on the magazine article. If you finish the quiz, you get a CPD credit."
Institutes like BIGGA and the IoG hold CPD short training courses and seminars across the UK that their members can attend to gain the training hours and credits they need. The IoG has also introduced its own online "campus", which offers sports turf maintenance and management NVQ levels 2 and 3 as well as a range of short courses.
Judging by the fact that attendance figures for the annual BIGGA Turf Management Exhibition (BTME) education programme were the highest on record this year, an increasing number of turf grass professionals are clearly keen to "upskill".
Some 2,700 people took part in BTME's 2014 education programme, which contained 20 new seminars. Nearly half of these were on management and communication issues, such as how to better deal with people, be a better manager and manage time more effectively.
Green says: "There's been a gap in the training area. Some of the NVQ training includes these management-related issues, but you only got that once you became a manager. But how do you get the skills and training to become a manager? So we listened to our members and are filling that gap."
Breaking into turf care
Like the sector's CPD programmes, the number of routes into turf care is increasing and becoming more flexible. Students can choose to either learn online or by going to college - and they can choose either partor full-time study.
Sandilands says: "The resources available to people are better than ever. The colleges are moving with the times, as we are. Those who don't move with the times will get left behind." The range of qualifications includes induction "level 1" certificates, such as the IoG's nationwide National Practical Certificate, for which students as young as 14 can study.
Gray reveals that the IoG is currently trying to push its vocational skills-training programme for 14-16-year-olds to address the impending skills gap the sector is facing as the older generation retires. "These qualifications fit in nicely with the school curriculum and are an ideal way to attract people into the industry before they leave school," he says.
"Another route is traineeships (pre-apprenticeships). Employees do not have to pay anyone. They get unpaid experience, a qualification and then a person can grow into their post." Apprenticeships, available to people aged 16 onwards, are another popular way into the industry - not least because they are Government-funded.
Dr Andy Owen, a sports turf and agronomy lecturer at Myerscough College in Preston, Lancashire, says: "Apprenticeships are being pushed by the Government to get more young people into the industry. You can get an apprenticeship through a range of colleges - and the colleges deal with the employer on your behalf and help them to set up your apprenticeship."
He adds: "The more traditional route sees young people come to the college and do a full-time course, such as a level 2 or level 3 horticulture diploma or certificate with sports turf. Most colleges will help the students get seasonal work - there are a lot of summer jobs. Some of this work leads to full-time jobs."
Owen points out that students who have completed A levels can do a two-year foundation degree. "We would give them the skills needed to go out and work in the industry and they would also look to get seasonal work after year one. They would almost have their pick of places."
Senior managers, agronomists, head groundsmen and greenkeepers usually have foundation degrees or a BSc in turf maintenance. Students can top up their foundation degree by staying on at college and doing a full BSc. Others decide to do a full BSc straight from A levels.
Owen adds: "We also get people who have been out in the industry for a few years who decide to do a degree part-time or online. We have had greenkeepers from some very high-profile sites choose that route."