June 22, 2004

New specialization focuses on 'green industry'

by K.C. Jaehnig

Turf is the color of money.

"If you take every bushel of soybeans sold in this state and sell it to a grain elevator, you will get something like $3 billion, but the annual gate value of sales and services in 'the green industry' -- turf -- is over $4 billion," said John S. Russin, associate dean in Southern Illinois University Carbondale's College of Agricultural Sciences.

"Last year, that industry had 10,000 openings at all levels -- everything from groundskeeper to project manager -- that went unfilled. The opportunity is there, the market is there, and the salaries are there." To make sure its graduates can cash in on this bonanza, SIUC's plant, soil and agricultural systems department has ratcheted up its "green"-related coursework to create a new turf specialization. Though it won't officially be on the books until next fall, students already are enrolling in the 120 credit-hour program.

"Our aim is to produce a graduate who is a cut or two above what we have produced in the past," said Interim Department Chair Brian P. Klubek.

"It's one of the most rigorous programs we have in this department. If you come through this curriculum, you will graduate with a degree that will rival any in the country."

In addition to 43 hours of core University courses, aspiring turf specialists must take 54 hours of required courses in the major, between 11 and 14 hours of elective courses related to the major and between nine and 12 hours of general electives. They also must complete internships, a requirement that will add an additional semester to the time it takes to graduate.

"All the best programs have internships, many of them lasting 12 continuous months -- it's a key component of the specialization," said Russin, who spent time researching and visiting schools with turf programs before launching the one at SIUC.

The extra semester will pay off in the end.

"Most employers in this industry would rather hire undergraduates whose degrees say 'turf' rather than 'plant and soil science' because the training has been more specific," Klubek said. "The best positions will go to those with this as their specialization."

Up until now, most of the department's turf-oriented graduates have gone on to jobs at golf courses. The new specialization, with course options in landscaping, tourism and soil science, will widen that career path.

"You can get into park management, go work for the Boston Red Sox, and, while you can still work for a golf course, you'll be more marketable at one with ties to, say, Augusta or Pebble Beach instead of a more local course," Russin said.

A number of the state's community colleges offer two-year turf programs, making SIUC's new specialization a logical next step for those wanting a bachelor's degree in the field.

"Because our program is so highly structured, transfer students will need to choose community college courses carefully to make sure they can finish in four and a half years," Klubek said. "With this particular program, there is no 'capstone' (a guarantee that community college graduates can earn bachelor's degrees by completing 60 additional hours at SIUC)."

Between 25 and 30 students have signed on with the program so far, and Russin expects that number to double in the next four to five years.

"Once we graduate a few and they start getting those jobs with the great potential, word will filter back down the food chain," he said.