Turf Futures?

With the future of the UK uncertain come a post-Brexit world, maybe a few thoughts as to what the future holds for the turf care industry are needed here:

Jobs: With around 30,000 people employed as grounds operatives / groundsman and greenskeepers (source: ONS) and with an ageing workforce, this relatively niche jobs market will continue to offer good opportunities. If the labour pool is to become more limited, with workers migrating back to continental Europe, prospects for employees could look quite promising – on the whole. So, relatively good job security looks likely.

Education and Skills: Investing in the right education and skills is sought after by employers. Employees wishing to strengthen their career can do no harm by making sure they actually have relevant educational qualifications and skills from appropriate training courses, so education and training is key, and this strengthens ones position in the jobs market. Businesses are concerned about finding enough people with the right skills, with skills gaps seen by nearly two-thirds as a threat to the UK’s competitiveness”. (Source: http://go.international.ac.uk/cbipearson-education-and-skills-survey-2017-helping-uk-thrive)

Knowledge and understanding: Awareness of what activities are needed to be carried out on turfgrass surfaces is widespread, which is certainly a good thing. The next stage though is to ensure that this is matched by a more widespread understanding of why these activities are carried out and why certain resources are needed, or not. With the skilled workforce being relatively niche and with a potential reduction in workers available to carryout essential maintenance tasks the need to ensure resources are used as effectively and efficiently as possible will become even more pressing. This isn’t to say that this is something which should not already be practiced, it’s just that the pressures to do so in the future will be even more demanding. This is all interconnected with the jobs market as well as education and skills.

Critical thinking skills: This will come to the fore for all grounds managers. Challenging assumptions, existing practices and often dubious supplier marketing information (in some cases but not all), to determine how valid they (still) are and the accuracy and relevance to their particular context and application will be skills essential for future grounds managers. Identifying issues that are not quite right is one thing, but a critical thinker will explore the issues in depth and identify alternative outlooks. This will lead to critical reflection and learning as a way to continue to improve and optimise the use of resources in a sustainable manner.

Continuous learning: To keep up with societal changes, working practices, as well as technical developments and innovations there will be an even stronger need to have an ethic of continuous learning. This make take the form of formal learning, informal, or non-formal, but a planned approach to keeping aware of changes as well as understanding the implications of the changes will be a key requirement for any worker within the industry.

What about technical aspects?

Regulatory changes: This has been a continuous process for many years, so arguably isn’t going to change much in the future as we will always have to adapt to the regulatory requirements as needed.

Reducing pesticide availability:  This will be an interesting challenge for grounds managers. Reducing the harmful pesticide load within the environment is a positive step, however, this brings a range of challenges. Some pests, such as earthworms, can be difficult to control using cultural and physical means. It doesn’t mean that it is not possible, but the users and viewers of some events may need to appreciate that nature is not pristine and that some blemishes to a turf surface are an acceptable face of nature. The drive, which could be called unhealthy in some respects, to product a ‘perfect’ turf surface is actually an unsustainable approach as it does not work with nature. Grounds managers in particular have been led down this path through false promises from suppliers of using x product to achieve the perfect surface, and team managers who are unable to accept the concept of sportsmanship, and may actually lose some games, so end up blaming and otherwise excellent playing surface, as well as television companies pressuring organisations into having ‘pristine’ surfaces: All this requires an unhealthy input of not just time and effort but also artificial chemicals and materials.  This is just not sustainable. There will be a greater undertake practice well informed and understood cultural and physical activities in maintaining turf surfaces.

Sustainability: Greenwash is what is mostly practiced at the moment, although the rhetoric says otherwise because it is a good marketing spin; this though makes a bit of a mockery of some elements of the industry when viewed by outsiders. A reappraisal of how this term is used, in the correct sense, will take place in the near future and false usage will be called out by the more well informed grounds managers. These will be the people who will continue to develop practices which are more in line with the concept of sustainability.

Climate change: This will continue to have an even greater effect on playing surfaces throughout the year. There may even be requirements from the Governing Bodies to consider changing part of a traditional playing season to adapt to the changing climate to allow pitches to maintain a desirable carrying capacity. A warming Britain will also offer opportunities to pest species and disease infestations not seen here, in any significant way, before: How will turf managers cope with this?

Societal Risk Perceptions: This is an area society as a whole will need to address as many issues do not have a right or wrong answer; it is the value that society places on the issue which will determine if it is an acceptable risk or not. One of the most prominent issues at the moment is that of the use of certain rubber crumb as an infill in 3G artificial carpets. Evidence to date indicates that whilst a range of toxic chemicals exist within the composition of the rubber crumb very little empirical evidence (in contrast to anecdotes, which is not evidence) indicates it causes harm. We hear of the term ‘safe’ quite a lot, but what does it mean?  What cost is society prepared to pay for ‘safe’ surfaces with limited resources, especially when we  don’t live in a utopian world? This is where society needs to engage with such issues and discuss what is meant by safe and the value we all place on a safe space to play in or on. What is realistic and reasonable? Nothing is actually ‘safe’ (whatever that actually means in practice) and we need to move away from populist and self-interest groups trying to hijack an agenda. So, certainly future challenges lie ahead.

Turfgrass standards and active stakeholder engagement: A wide range of standards can be readily achieved for turf surfaces, however, the future will require stakeholders to be much more actively involved in the decision making process of facility provision and management.  Effective negotiation and presentation skills will be a key requirement for all good turf managers.

Supplementing natural environmental conditions: For some situations the use of artificial light; enhanced CO2 input; supplementary UV light; and increased air circulation through mechanical means will all become more common place. Technology is certainly helping to maintain high class surfaces. How effective and efficient they are is another matter. How are they being measured and does this consider how their use fits within a wider holistic approach to turf management, rather than focusing on the effects of a single outcome. For example, additional lighting will typically increase grass growth. However, what impact is this having on the thickness of the leaf epidermis?, does it encourage a harder wearing surface? how is root growth affected? why do some highly maintained pitches actually have grass plants fairly easily dislodged through divoting? Has independent research been carried out into whether the carrying capacity of a surface is actually increased? Are other maintenance practices not being carried out as effectively as they could and this results in relying on other means to address a problem, when in some cases looking closer to home, which would also be much cheaper, solve many problems. Education is key to this as grounds managers will become much more of a ‘questioning and challenging’ person on the use of new technology. What is the real tangible benefit gain? How do these all fit within the sustainability agenda? Does enhanced UV light actually kill of beneficial organisms causing a build-up of problems for the future?

Machinery innovations: Manufacturers continue to create and develop innovative machinery. In response to environmental concerns, as well as regulations, we now have a much wider range of ‘green’ machines. These use battery power, have low noise emissions, zero fuel emissions at usage (although depending upon where the power from the recharged batteries have come from – solar, or gas etc. the emissions may still be arising at source, rather than the sink of usage). More effective and efficient machinery will continue to be manufactured. If workforce availability becomes very limited then the wider use of robotically controlled machinery will become evident.

There are plenty of drivers changing the way the turf care industry operates and having a good handle on these and understanding the implications of these as they arise in particular will be one of the keys to navigating a future pathway to a successful career within the industry.

Chris Gray, 21st April 2018