Growing Turfgrass Graduates: Tools to Boost Green Industry Recruiting

Long range view of NC State's Turfgrass Field Laboratory

Ask any landscape professional about business; talent is usually the hot topic. Finding qualified and motivated candidates to work in this dynamic industry seems to be half the business battle. 

Yet surprisingly, college turfgrass programs are decreasing or folding across the country. Golf Course Management Online estimates a 75% decrease in college turfgrass enrollment since the peak of the 2000s, with three universities pausing or discontinuing their programs completely. 

Some turfgrass students may have migrated to community colleges, but high-skilled management positions demanding scientific understanding and decision-making often require greater depth of study. That need remains.

“The demand for turfgrass managers trained in turfgrass culture, pest/weed control, soil science, and irrigation management has grown in the last five years,” said Grady Miller, North Carolina State University turfgrass professor and extension specialist. “And while positions in the golf and sports turf industries are popular for graduates, there are many other turfgrass industries that are looking to hire our graduates.” 

So, as industry demand rises like summer weeds, who will do the work? Recruiting is an ongoing challenge, but many find the field isn’t even on students’ radar.

“I visited three high school classes in the last few months and asked if turfgrass is ever a career path suggested to the students,” Kurt Bland, president of Bland Landscaping, said. “Not one hand went up.”

North Carolina’s population grew 1.3% in 2022 (significantly more in some areas), making it the third fastest-growing state in the U.S., behind Florida and Texas. This business and resident influx is fueling demand for home and corporate landscape maintenance, athletic fields for team sports, as well as recreational golf and public green space. 

But with a limited workforce, it’s a rising tide raising boats with short anchor lines. 

Projected NC population growth by county for 2030
Projected NC population growth by county for 2030. Image from NC State Extension Community Development.

Here’s What NC State is Doing

North Carolina State University is proud to be the nation’s second-largest turfgrass program offering degrees at all levels: two-year associate, four-year bachelor, as well as master’s and doctoral degrees.

Increasing Turfgrass Students and Ensuring Career Placement

NC State’s bachelor of science focused on turfgrass is growing. Enrollment has risen from 19 in the fall of 2018 to 34 in the fall of 2023, a 79% increase. But even our graduates see that demand is outpacing supply.

”Recently, we had a graduating senior who received 31 job offers and never put out an application,” said David Crouse, director of undergraduate programs in NC State’s Department of Crop and Soil Sciences. “Needless to say, we are consistently placing 100% of our turfgrass graduates.”

With such strong demand, Crouse says his team is actively recruiting through every avenue, but their reach is limited.

“We attend major high school events, like the annual FFA convention, host students on campus through Spend a Day at State, and communicate with high school teachers and guidance counselors, but we can’t be everywhere. We definitely need help from our alumni and the entire turfgrass industry to spread the word about green career opportunities and the paths to get there.” 

Turfgrass students and advisor Brittany DesLauriers at the 2023 Turfgrass Field Day
Turfgrass students and advisor Brittany DesLauriers at the 2023 Turfgrass Field Day.

Expanding Two-Year Graduate Numbers

NC State’s Agricultural Institute (AGI) offers a two-year Associate of Applied Science degree in turfgrass management. Enrollment dipped in 2020 but recently has been holding steady at around 30 students and is rising. 

To improve application and enrollment numbers, AGI’s team is prioritizing in-person recruitment, social media presence and campus visit opportunities. They also added a dedicated recruiter in 2022. Lee Ivy is the director of NC State’s AGI.

“We are working to significantly increase recruitment, particularly in rural counties. Our message to potential students (and parents) highlights the hands-on, practical nature of AGI training and the availability of valuable internships that lead to career opportunities with lateral and upward mobility potential.”

Revitalizing Our Turfgrass Faculty

To energize and diversify our teaching capabilities, we’ve added several new faculty including assistant professor Qiyu Zhou, who teaches in both our two and four-year undergraduate turfgrass programs. 

Zhou advises the undergraduate Turf Club and quiz bowl competition team and looks forward to revitalizing NC State’s High School Turfgrass Academy, which has been paused since the COVID pandemic.

“I hosted an event at a previous university where students picked a prospective major to work with graduate students to learn about the science and research in different fields. I’d like to build on that idea,” Zhou said. “I hope we can make more students interested in turf careers or to be aware of the science behind turfgrass management.”

NC State's Qiyu Zhou and graduate student at NC State's Art Bruno Golf Tournament.
NC State Ph.D. student Susmita Gaire (left) and turfgrass assistant professor Qiyu Zhou (right) at NC State’s Art Bruneau Golf Tournament.

Increasing Our Turfgrass Program Visibility

turfgrass ebook coverSince 2020, we’ve developed mobile-friendly ebooks about our degree programs, including turfgrass, to show students the career paths and opportunities in the green industry. These materials are shared with 4-H, Cooperative Extension offices, and high school counselors across the state. 

We’ve also launched a deep-dive email series that introduces prospective students to our Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, our campus and the careers that await them. 

Expanding Student Horizons

From academic seminars to alumni speakers, NC State turfgrass students tap a vast network of industry professionals. Many alumni or affiliated businesses offer students internship opportunities or a career connection after graduation. 

To expose students to the diversity of career tracks, we share alumni spotlights in our ongoing career profile article series and regularly host industry speakers on campus. 

Requiring Hands-On Experience

All two and four-year turfgrass students must complete an internship before graduation. These industry connections are often fertile ground for future opportunities. 

Turfgrass lecturer Emily Erickson teaches AGI turfgrass classes and maintains a strong industry network for practical training and connections.

“We continually have alumni looking for student interns. Because our graduates work in every part of the turfgrass industry throughout the United States and abroad, students can find a fit with their interests. It’s fairly common for those connections to evolve into long-term opportunities.”

Danny Losito of the Carolina Panthers speaks to a group of NC State turfgrass students.
Danny Losito, NC State alumnus and Director of Sports Fields and Grounds for the Carolina Panthers, speaks to a group of NC State turfgrass students on campus.

Sharpening Competitive Skills

NC State is home to two turfgrass-related groups: our HortPack landscape competition team and the Turfgrass Quiz Bowl team. These hands-on group activities allow students to hone their knowledge and create community among similar-interested students.

HortPack students competing in irrigation troubleshooting
HortPack turfgrass students compete in irrigation troubleshooting at the National Collegiate Landscape Competition.

Together, We Can Do More

Despite great progress, there’s more to do. But we can’t be everywhere, and no one better knows the need for qualified job candidates than you in the industry. Here is how you can help.

Share Your Career Path

  • Visit classrooms and career days to positively represent the industry and the opportunities

Offer A Test Drive

  • Host field trip site visits for environmental science or other high school classes
  • Offer internships and register them with our database for students

Turfgrass Career Day Toolkit

We know that it’s tough to do all the things, so we’ve compiled resources to make the recruiting job easier.

Our new Turfgrass Career Day Toolkit gives you turnkey presentation materials, so you don’t have to recreate the wheel. Pick what works for you and your event.

  • Presentation deck (use all the slides or choose a few and add your own)
  • Industry recruiting videos (landscape and golf-specific)
  • A list of NC colleges offering turfgrass programs. We’re partial, of course, but understand that NC State is not the only option.
  • Industry background reading written for students (9 Reasons A Turfgrass Major Might Be For You)
  • Next steps for students to learn more or get started at NC State

“Recruiting is an essential component of our business,” Bland said. “We have three dedicated recruiters to share the bright opportunities of this industry and ensure our business longevity. Having turnkey recruiting materials, like these from NC State, strengthens our message.”

Together, we’re better. Let’s join efforts to spread the word about the growing opportunities in the green industry.

Want More Partnership?

Crop and Soil Sciences’ research impacts farmers, students, and NC citizens through innovations in food, feed, fuel, and fiber. Follow how our discoveries affect agriculture and environmental science by joining our weekly newsfeed.

If you are a student interested in agronomy or crop production, investigate our undergraduate and graduate degree programs. Then join us for a guided email tour of our department and university.  

Improving NC’s green economy through teaching and career connections is just part of how we are growing the future.

Lobo zoysiagrass logo on turf