Nestled among 2,200 scenic acres within the Allegheny Mountains and picturesque Laurel Highlands region of Pennsylvania, the five-star Nemacolin is known as one of the top golf resorts in the US, with two scenic courses, Mystic Rock and Shepherd’s Rock, both designed by the legendary Pete Dye. Keeping the courses well maintained is of utmost importance, which is where Kayla Kipp comes in, serving as the equipment manager in the Turfgrass Management Department. In this role, Kayla has become one of only 15 people in the world to earn the Certified Turf Equipment Manager (CTEM) accreditation, and is, notably, the first woman to do so. We chat with Kayla to hear herstory, how she got into golf course maintenance after a stint in the Air Force and why she hopes other women will follow her lead.
You began your career in the Air Force, what inspired you to get into mechanics and then the service?
My initial interest in mechanics goes to my father who is a jack of all trades. He taught me a lot as far as repairing instead of replacing. I love tearing things apart to see how they work and then maneuvering them back together. The service appealed to me as a career where I could embrace my love of mechanics. Military service is very high-paced, yet precise with lots of moving pieces. It suited me as I am detail-oriented and I loved the family atmosphere of the military. A large majority of my professional knowledge came from six months of dedicated tech school in Port Hueneme, California, where the Air Force 2T35X career paths and Navy Seabees team up to learn all of the basics.
Once I finished there, I was stationed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, to begin my 2T352C (Specialized Material Handling Equipment) hands-on training and next-level learning. We had to demonstrate every task, and it was very "by-the-book". While there, I also took external classes on clutch installation and repair, air brake diagnosis and repair, public speaking, and formal college composition, among other courses. I was a staff sergeant with two airmen on my watch to train and educate, just as someone educated me. I left the service in 2012, but while there I worked with a lot of heavy material including cargo loaders, forklifts, baggage conveyors, lavatory service trucks, fire trucks, and container movers.
How did you get interested in turf management?
When I finished my enlistment with the Air Force, I needed a job, noticed the opportunity to work on a golf course at a job fair, and was quickly hooked on the idea of manual labor, outside, early mornings, and free golf. After working as part of a course grounds crew, I joined GCSAA [Golf Course Superintendents Association of America]. I learned that equipment management was a viable career option and one that I loved as it tapped into my mechanical skills!
Have you always been handy, as it seems you are looking after quite a lot of equipment? Tell me a bit about how many machines you look after etc.
I have been handy for a very long time. For example, I was installing car stereos for my friends and even my mother before I made it to high school. I installed bathroom light fixtures, worked on her car, and did the landscaping around the house.
On the job, the chief mechanic and I team up to look after many machines. off the top of my head––three chainsaws, fourteen weed eaters, two generators, two air compressors, two pressure washers, five rollers, six utility vehicles, four Ventracs with multiple attachments, two sprayers, six rough mowers, six zero-turn mowers, four stand-on mowers, one mulcher/mower, six triplex greens/tee mowers, five fairway units, four tow-behind blowers, two excavators, three skid steers, two trenchers, six aerifiers, four top dresser/material handlers, six tractors, eight backpack blowers, three edgers, one debris vacuum, three water buffalos, 10 walking greens mowers, 10 walking miscellaneous mowers, 13 push mowers, eight utility trailers, two haul trailers, two seeders, a lot of hand tools, and two maintenance carts.
Of course, when anyone stops by with a piece of equipment, we try to assist in the diagnosis and repair of their item, as well. I probably missed some things, but this list is close.
WOW. That is quite a list. Please tell me a bit more about your new CTEM accreditation, why do only 15 people in the world have it?
The Certified Turf Equipment Managers program (CTEM) is new and just made available in the Spring of 2022, so I was in the first cohort and the only woman. I have been in the maintenance industry for 15 years, and my experience is a large part of the Level 2 Equipment Manager Certificate Program. Level 1 is eight exams, and you could purchase study guides; Level 2 is also eight exams, but there are no study guides, it was all self-paced, voluntary learning. I had to hold myself to a higher standard to complete all of this, as none of it was or is required. The GCSAA was very motivating and acted as my cheering squad through the entire process.
How many people are on your team? Are they all men?
There are about 30 people on the turfgrass team, depending on the season. On the maintenance team, it’s just one other person and me. I am the only female in the Golf Maintenance Department. Though, Grounds Maintenance has two ladies.
Any tips for working with a bunch of guys?
The men on my team are very routine-oriented. If you wish to change their routine, do so in increments, as too much change too quickly can be overwhelming. Have repetition and reminders about safety, cleaning, and training. Allow them to be themselves around you (within reason). Sometimes men can be uncomfortable in the presence of women, and if you can be relatable, it makes it a much easier partnership. Set the example. There will always be people looking for you to fail, so when you do, own up to it. If you admit your shortfall or mistake up front, it goes a long way with trust and teamwork.
Sometimes men can be uncomfortable in the presence of women, and if you can be relatable, it makes it a much easier partnership.
Does your military background help with being around men?
Absolutely! The military is roughly 18% female, and I had two other female technicians in my flight. The turfgrass profession is approximately 2% women and female equipment managers (that are members), are only two-hundredths of a percent, hardly any. I have been surrounded by men, the good and the bad, for my entire professional career.
The men I have encountered in turfgrass have been the best—which might have to do with knowing golf etiquette! I have always seen myself as one of the guys. We can talk about cars, trucks, tractors, hunting, fishing, golf, football, carpentry, brainstorming fabrication, military service, family, and anything, really.
In today's world, it's becoming widely known that there is a way you can — and a way you can't — act around women. I don't tolerate repeated mistakes, as far as knowing your audience, but I'm also sensitive to them knowing that they are going through a change of culture, and we can talk about it, grow, and progress.
In today's world, it's becoming widely known that there is a way you can — and a way you can't — act around women. I don't tolerate repeated mistakes, as far as knowing your audience, but I'm also sensitive to them knowing that they are going through a change of culture, and we can talk about it, grow, and progress. My feelings are not easily rattled. The military does not care about your feelings, it is about standards 100% of the time. It's hard to explain, but there is unspoken respect and operating procedure for everything.
Has it been hard for you as a woman to get ahead in turf management?
For me personally, some aspects have been hard. Pay equality has been an issue previously. For example, the gentleman that took my last position, started at my rate, with limited knowledge, and zero experience. Mechanical repair is "typically" a man's job, just like welding, truck driving, and mining. I just love to do it and hope more people, especially women, get in and love it too. As far as respect, after I take the reins and make things happen and move some heavy things around (some pun intended), I fit right in.
As I am now the first woman to attain the title of CTEM, and as I’ve participated in three Women in Turf events while serving on the inaugural Women’s Task Group, I feel as though I have absolutely cleared a path for others to succeed in this industry. I’m ready for what’s next
It all sounds very impressive, and you are clearly very driven to succeed, what are your next professional goals?
Personal: a welding certification. For those around me: To be better every day. In particular, I want to help my Director of Turfgrass Management, Chris Anderson, attain Certified Golf Course Superintendent status through GCSAA.
For the industry, GCSAA CEO Rhett Evans is always the first to remind us to ‘lead out,’ be the first to cut tracks for the next individual, and to put the work in to benefit the future. As I am now the first woman to attain the title of CTEM, and as I’ve participated in three Women in Turf events while serving on the inaugural Women’s Task Group, I feel as though I have absolutely cleared a path for others to succeed in this industry. I’m ready for what’s next!
Nemacolin President Maggie Hardy Knox says of Kayla, “This is monumental, and we are proud to have her motivation, determination, and spirit on the associate team at Nemacolin. She’s a shining example to all that nothing is impossible, and she is an encouragement to other women who are determined to achieve success in any business or industry.”
Quickfire with Kayla:
Do you play golf? If so, what is your handicap?
I play occasionally. Perhaps next year, since I won't be prepping for CTEM, I can golf more. It can be a double bogey day for me (every hole), or I might have to forfeit after 14 holes as my arms are worn out. I need more practice!
What is your morning routine? What time do you get up?
I get up between 3:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m., depending on the preparations needed for that day.
My morning routine: get ready for work, make sure my fur baby is taken care of for the day, stop for some sugar-free Monster, jam to some tunes, and start mental preparations for my day during the commute.
We check any mowers that were out the day before if they hadn't been in the shop the day prior, we discuss a plan for the day, we have an entire crew morning huddle, plans get shifted and changed, I start the fuel pump and fill everyone up (I really like this part, I get to talk to the whole crew and build working relationships).
After that, we attempt to follow the plan as discussed. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it changes every 10 minutes. No two days are the same, ever. I love it!
What do you do for self-care / exercise?
This summer I had a goal of losing 30 lbs. I got to 28, and things in life just got a little crazy. Typically, I work out with weights and an elliptical three times a week. I drink a meal replacement shake in the morning around 9 a.m., to discourage snacking before lunchtime, then I walk. I'll walk the dog, and hike through the woods looking for mushrooms, deer, grouse, squirrels, etc. My big self-care is hunting. There aren't many times I get to sit still and unplug in life, but that one is always a constant. I love the fall and winter for the downtime and extra rest.
What is something only a person that works in golf course management knows?
Superintendents work far more hours than anyone would ever think in order to provide a great playing surface for the players. Stress, long workdays, burnout, and exhaustion are common. Keep an eye on your supers!
What is the best advice you ever got? From my father: "If you want something in life, you better go get it your damn self; ain't no one going to give it to you.”
What is the worst advice you ever took?
That WD-40 would keep my tools from rusting over the winter.