Challenges facing Groundsmanship

A few thoughts on some issues that are challenging those involved in groundsmanship – in no particular order:

  1. Reducing local authority (as well as at private and volunteer clubs) budgets being made available to maintain amenity and sports surfaces. There is a minimum input required to maintain a surface to a suitable and safe standard, although wasting money and resources on ineffectively thought out and applied practices is not a helpful image when it occurs.
  2. Climate change – changing patterns of rainfall and intensity impacting on drainage design and pitch requirements; warmer temperatures increasing the range and period of potential harm from pests and diseases. Changing grass growth patterns and subsequent mowing and other maintenance practices is something that must be considered if good quality surfaces are continued to be produced.
  3. Reducing the availability in the range of pesticides to control weeds, pests and diseases. It is and will become more difficult to manage turfgrass surfaces to high standards with the limiting availability of pesticides. The need for improved cultural / physical practices will be essential. Directly linked to this is the need to ensure detailed technical knowledge is understood by groundstaff to allow good practice to be routinely applied, which is linked to item 4.
  4. Skills gap. There has, arguably, been a net skills drain within the industry ever since the introduction of CCT (Compulsory Competitive Tendering) in the late 1980s for the provision of local authority grounds maintenance services. Training departments were effectively eliminated and whilst the principles of getting good value for money for council tax payers was sound, the implementation was ineffective in that many specifications were poorly described and a low quality outcome was consequently priced by contractors and council work forces competing for the grounds maintenance contracts.
  5. Quality of available qualifications. This is quite a contentious issue, however, a well meaning qualifications framework to help rationalise the range of qualifications available has been available for some time. Unfortunately the achievement and assessment requirements of qualifications over the past 20-years have left room for a wide range of interpretations by training providers delivering the qualifications and this led to a ‘race to the bottom’ in which most horticulture based qualifications become a tick box exercise. Firstly there were NVQs, then Work-based diplomas, along with other qualifications within the mix, all being portfolio based which in principle can offer an excellent way of evidencing learning, however, implementation often does not meet original expectations. The actual challenge for learners was significantly reduced and the knowledge and skills gained supposedly made them ‘competent’ within a defined context, but limited their capability to think outside the box when unfamiliar situations arose. The present Conservative Government (no vested interested here for me) is attempting to address some of the problems by introducing new work place Apprenticeship standards  (these are not qualifications but are a standard), unlike the former Apprenticeship Framework (that did have a qualification) which will have learners assessed by a third party who has no relationship to the apprentice, employer, or training provider delivering the apprenticeship programme to the learner. This really does provide an ideal opportunity to raise the quality of new Apprenticeships. Hopefully similar principles will then be applied to regulated qualifications and this will act as a real means to filter out poor training providers.
  6. Keeping up to date and well informed with technological developments. There are many technological innovations within groundsmanship, new equipment and materials regularly coming onto the market, rapidly advancing (ubiquitous) web and mobile technology for communication, legislation and regulatory changes and changing work practices which make it essential for everyone in the groundsmanship industry to keep their knowledge and skills up-to-date to ensure they comply with the law and also make the best use of often limited resources.
  7. Changing social perceptions of turf surfaces. With the impact television has on sporting events it is becoming even more challenging for groundstaff to produce the pristine surfaces demanded by the media. High expectations have become the norm, with few people outside of the industry having an understanding of the resources and inputs needed to maintain surfaces to exacting standards. A good example of the challenges is that of reducing pesticide availability to control some weeds, pests and diseases which can seriously disfigure a grass surface.  This also links back to item one and with amateur clubs wanting to use local authority facilities that look like those that they see on television, yet are not happy to pay anywhere near a suitable cost for the provision of the surface. Clearly, the same inputs to those of professional surfaces cannot realistically be provided by local authorities, but appropriate budgets need to be provided to give groundstaff a chance of producing a safe and suitable quality surface.
  8. Engaging with sustainability; in particular, by what is meant by this term. It is banded around quite liberally and everything seems to be sustainable this and sustainable that but with little thought as to what it really means. Raising the debate will help to raise the professional image of groundsmanship.
  9. Raising the image of groundsmanship. Unfortunately a common societal perception (I don’t have any empirical evidence to support this assertion though) is that our industry is generally low skilled, with pockets of medium to very high skills, and the ‘classic’ image is that of a muddy grass surface with an older, white, male worker mowing the grass. Maybe a little stereotypical I’m afraid, but probably fairly representative of society’s image of our profession. This couldn’t actually be further from the truth as groundsmanship is essentially about the application of environmental science to create safe and appropriate amenity and sports surfaces which enhance the natural (and surrounding built) environment to provide enjoyment and pleasure to millions.
  10. Improve social diversity. The industry certainly needs to be more representative of society. It really is unacceptable that barriers are still preventing or encouraging more young people, females, people with disabilities and people from ethnic minorities and more into the industry. I think it is quite spurious to say that the physical demands and working conditions are unsuitable for many people, when other industries have identified and reduced barriers to entry into their industry so that it better reflects society as a whole. This isn’t political correctness or the like, and is probably an unpopular challenge which is not accepted by many in the industry, but it needs to be realised that if the industry is to move forward in greater steps then  has occurred over the past 30-years then this challenge needs to be positively addressed.


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