The Unseen Challenges Grounds Managers Face

Unveiling the essential work of grounds managers in facilities upkeep.

By Mackenna Moralez, Associate Editor  

People cast judgement on institutional and commercial facilities from the moment they first see them. Sure, an unsightly building can put people off, but oftentimes they are beautiful on the inside. It’s when the grounds surrounding the building appear to be lackluster that people assume that the property isn’t being taken care of in the way that it should be. 

“Grounds management is the front porch to facilities management,” says Nickolas McKenna, assistant athletics director, sports fields at Texas A&M University. “They are the first things that people see, and we want to be representative of what people see.” 

Despite playing an essential role in maintenance and engineering management, grounds managers are often overlooked in that role. The lack of praise doesn’t prevent managers from performing their duties every day. Whether it’s snowing, raining or a sunny day, grounds managers ensure that the grounds remain safe, attractive and functional for all users.  

Though, that may all be easier said than done for some. 

Faced with the ongoing budget constraints, labor shortage, generational differences and inclement weather, grounds managers are rising above the challenges and doing all that they can with the often-limited resources that they are given.  

“We really have to prioritize work orders, whether that be a playground or a field renovation that needs to be done,” says Noel Harryman, director-site maintenance at Jefferson County Public Schools. “We go through what we receive from all of our sites and determine which ones we need to get on right away to prevent any injuries or future problems.” 

However, some decisions are made with the budget in mind. Priorities for any grounds managers include inspecting worksites for safety hazards and eliminating trash and debris; reporting mechanical problems on maintenance equipment and trucks to the mechanic in a timely manner; and turn in daily documentation regarding time spent on different types of tasks within given sites in the landscape.  

“The biggest strategy we have is always making our team aware that we’re responsible to the public,” Harryman says. “Per work order, we’re making sure that we have an adequate amount of time spent at all sites, making sure that touch points are secure, and we do as much preventive maintenance as our budget and limited staff allows. We know that we’re responsible to the taxpayer and having that in the back of our minds allows the team to be with their time and all of the resources we have.” 

Welcoming new talent 

Contrary to popular belief, grounds crews are relatively small. For example, McKenna explains that his team at Texas A&M University consists of six full-time staff members, with an additional handful of part-time student workers throughout the year.  

“There’s a lot of places that are probably doing more with less staff than us, but there’s plenty of places that are doing more with more than us,” McKenna says. “That’s a continuing evaluation and conversation about how we’re doing with what we have as we continue to build and expand. It helps us be able to have those conversations and advocate for more equipment or staff in the future.” 

Recruiting and retaining talent is no easy feat, either. Gerald S. Dobbs, grounds manager for the University of Texas at El Paso, explains that reviewing and adjusting salaries to be as competitive as surrounding outside organizations has helped bring in new employees. 

More than this though, something that has been beneficial for Dobbs has been creating a work environment where people feel free to speak their minds and be honest about their current positions. 

“Whenever I assume the responsibility of a new management position, I introduce myself and take the time to interview each employee to determine their knowledge, skills and abilities,” says Dobbs. “In many cases, I find that several employees have been placed in daily work assignments that do not best match their knowledge, skills and abilities. In many cases, I usually shift staff into positions where they really tap into those skill sets they enjoy using. Our staff are primary ambassadors to the public. Their excitement about where they work is an important factor in the public enjoying their visit with them.” 

McKenna also taps into employees’ skillsets in different ways. Working for a university, most of his student employees range anywhere between the ages of 18-24. While a generational difference can often create strain between employees, he has relied on their knowledge of social media to help gain interest in the job. 

“I’ve got a crew of millennials and thy work differently than I did when I first came in the industry,” McKenna says. “So, I started to understand their work and figured out how to talk to them and relate to them. I have a guy on my crew who's really good with TikTok, so I gave him the go ahead to make videos and compilations, and they are awesome. He's tapping into that market on our behalf, and it’s a tool that we have and it’s not something I’m comfortable doing, so we use his strengths and something he enjoys to help us out.” 

Weathering the storm 

While many people label themselves as “outdoorsy,” it’s not always enough to get them to enjoy working full-time outdoors in potentially inclement weather.  

Harryman explains that the cost of having a subcontractor take care of the grounds during a weather event could potentially wipe out someone’s entire budget for the year.  

“We have about 330 acres of paved surfaces, so that needs to be cleared in one night,” Harryman says. “My staff could work anywhere from midnight to 6 a.m. to make sure that schools are open for staff and students on any type of weather event. It’s a big deal for team members to be well trained and efficient on inclement weather.”  

When it comes down to it, being proactive to inclement weather is better than being reactive. One way that Dobbs prepares for potential weather events is by assigning each person equipment to use and maintain. Each week the staff ensures that their trucks, utility vehicles and fuel cans are full prior to the weekend. 

“They are assigned equipment to use and to maintain,” says Dobbs. “They know it is their responsibility to maintain and to sharpen their equipment just in case they are needed to perform emergency work.” 

While managers aren’t meteorologists by any means, they are attuned to watching the weather and preparing for any type of event that may come their way. However, it is important to remain flexible and adaptable as weather patterns can change in the blink of an eye.  

“It’s one of those things we have zero control over,” McKenna says. “We have to learn to manage with and around it, so we naturally have to adapt and be versatile for what we do. The first thing I do every single day when I wake up is check the weather because it’s that big of a component of what we do – and I don’t just check today’s weather. I’m looking at tomorrow’s weather and next week’s just because those impact what you’re dealing with, which is a living, breathing organism. The decisions I make now impact the field two weeks from now.” 

Finding balance 

It is part of a grounds manager’s job to be a service provider of choice to ensure that the facility remains successful and that the grounds remain usable. Communicating with stakeholders about potential events early on in the year can prevent any maintenance overlap that could be planned down the road.  

“At the beginning of each year, I present a calendar with the ideal times for turf maintenance activities to the events team for the campus turf maintenance program,” Dobbs says. “There are a lot of compromises and schedule adjustments that are made to accommodate both groups.” 

Meanwhile, working with the facilities maintenance teams on work orders also allows for occupants and stakeholders to remain satisfied with what is being presented. Of course, there are a lot of compromises and adjustments made so that each department can succeed with the resources they have. Still, it is essential that they continue to work together and not be so siloed.  

“It’s all a balancing act,” McKenna says. “Sometimes you have to be a little selfish to get what you need to get done, but ultimately, it’s really about being a team player and finding out the best ways to support my colleagues and my athletic departments. We all want the same thing.” 

Mackenna Moralez is the associate editor for the facilities market.  

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  posted on 1/12/2024   Article Use Policy

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