A tale of two programs

While employee turnover adds another challenge to sports field management programs, handling it effectively can increase productivity. The key is developing a strategy that fits the circumstances while achieving your goals.

Cross training allows student workers to tag team tasks such as mowing while working around their academic schedules.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Yeiser.

For Matthew Carl, supervisor of Prairie Ridge Sports Complex for the city of Ankeny, Iowa, parks and recreation department, that strategy is continual training combined with interactive communication. Carl is responsible for the buildings on-site along with the 35 fields within the complex and three more fields at the city’s Hawkeye Park.

Student workers at Lebanon Valley College are 60 to 70 percent of the summer workforce, tackling tasks involving equipment use, such as topdressing.

Carl has a full-time, year-round assistant; all other positions run eight, nine or 10 months, with start dates staggered February, March and April, and staggered end dates with some extending through November or into December. There’s activity on-site seven days a week for much of that 10-month stretch.

Carl says, “I typically get about 50 applicants for these positions. I start hiring in January or February, but won’t know the total number I’ll be able to hire until just prior to the playing season. Some of those I’d hoped to hire may have taken other jobs by then. Since we terminate and rehire each year, the entire employment is probationary, but they are eligible for unemployment benefits.”

While about three-quarters of the staff come back each year, some of those work for two years, some for three or four or, occasionally, more, so there’s always a mix of experience levels. There’s nearly always some turnover during the year, too. Carl keeps applications on file as potential fill-ins, arranged in order with his first choice at the front. Only occasionally has he needed to place an in-season ad for personnel.

Carl says, “We never have a new employee work alone until they’ve reached an adequate level of training to perform a task. We’ll spend a short time working with them on it one on one, and then team them with an experienced employee to sharpen their skills. Some people pick up new skills right away; others take more training time. We have a sign-off sheet on the equipment training. Safety training is ongoing to keep them up to speed. After a few months, when they demonstrate competency, we give them more responsibility and expect them to perform to that level.”

He’s found through experience that local college students, even those not in turfgrass programs, are willing to take on the demanding physical labor and level of responsibility.

Carl lists the tasks for the week on a big erasable board in the maintenance building. He may post the initials of the staff member scheduled for a task as the master schedule is developed or wait to assign tasks as work unfolds. He says, “We have three short, informal staff meetings a day. We start the morning with assignments; review task status during the break at 9:30; then update that status just before noon, when the staff comes into the maintenance building for lunch.”

With cross training across the staff, Carl can experiment with assignments to find where people perform best, which pairings of employees are most effective and which groups of working styles mesh as a team. Through observation, discussion with his assistant and feedback from the employees, he can then make adjustments to get the best overall productivity.

Carl says, “On the downside, it seems we’re always training someone on something. On the pro side, we’re continually finding better ways to do things. To train employees and answer their questions about why we perform a task a specific way, prompts greater analysis of all aspects that lead to that decision. With some of our personnel always seeing a task for the first time, they’ll view it from a different perspective that can generate ideas for improvement. We welcome that input and what it brings to our program. These strategies have allowed us to complete all the field preparation and get the games in. The only cancellations or delays we’ve had are weather issues, like rain or lighting, at the time of the event.”

Summer scheduling includes field renovation, such as sod replacement in worn areas.

For Kevin Yeiser, director of grounds and athletic facilities for Lebanon Valley College (LVC), that strategy combines training with flexibility to develop a highly functioning team concept. LVC is a four-year, private liberal arts school in Annville, Pa. Undergraduate enrollment ranges from 1,500 to 1,600 students. Outdoor athletic venues include Arnold Field, which hosts football and the men’s and women’s lacrosse and track and field teams, McGill Field for baseball, Herbert Field for soccer, the LVC Softball Park, a field hockey stadium, and a field hockey practice field. All of these fields have natural grass playing surfaces.

Yeiser says, “We have an experienced full-time staff that teams with the student workers in our work-study program. We rely on these students quite a bit during both the spring and winter semesters, and they make up between 60 and 70 percent of our workforce in the summer.”

Student workers learn field layout as part of their cross training.

During the semester, Yeiser will have a roster of 12 to 15 students who work from 10 to 20 hours per week. He says, “The freshmen’s adjustment to college itself is so rigorous that we suggest they start at 10 hours, occasionally allowing them to increase that if they prove they can handle more. The upper classmen determine their maximum hour commitment. We’ll use all of the allotted hours if the workload warrants it. About 60 percent of our students are athletics in the outdoor sports, so they understand what the fields should look like and how it should play. We don’t have a turf program, but do bring in turfgrass science interns from other colleges when we can.”

From the first Monday after commencement through August, work-study students are allowed to work a 40-hour week. Yeiser says, “Those extra hours are key to accomplishing all the renovations needed to prepare for fall play while working around clinics and other summer field use.”

Yeiser is upfront about his expectations during the interview process, explaining that the work is physically demanding, takes place outdoors in all types of weather, and requires learning a wide range of skills and taking the responsibility of performing them well consistently.

Training is constant for Yeiser and his full-time staff, too. Except for chemical applications, the students are cross trained in the full spectrum of sports field management, including equipment operation. Yeiser says, “Cross training is essential to handle the multiple tasks involved. There are times they’ll need to tag team a task, with one person or group starting it and another completing it, because of the timing of their class schedules.”

The combination of training and teamwork leads to new ideas on methods and procedures that result in continual fine-tuning and increased productivity. Yeiser says, “The students are also a good conduit for what’s happening within the college community, giving our staff greater insight about those who use our fields and facilities.”

While there are challenges in balancing academic schedules with work schedules, Yeiser says, “The majority of the time it works very well, benefiting the students, our program and the playing fields.” Multiple awards for field excellence over the years prove the truth of that statement.

The author is a contributing editor for SportsField Management.