Inspiring the Next Generation

We frequently ask industry pros, “what are the biggest obstacles you face on the field season after season?”

We’ve increasingly heard from turf professionals across the nation that staffing has become one of their biggest challenges. Some of you say it’s because you’ve failed to keep the new generation engaged throughout the long seasons, or that the industry has failed to effectively attract them to the profession.

What strategies can we all implement in order to successfully inspire the next generation and how can we adapt to the changing industry? We sat down with Tim Van Loo, Director of Facility and Grounds at Iowa State University, to discuss what’s been successful when mentoring his student crew. Van Loo leads a crew of six to 10 students every season. About 80% of the students are turfgrass majors and the remaining 20% are horticulture or agriculture students.

How do you keep students engaged throughout the season, especially when classes and other interests are pulling them away?

TV: We try and make this a place they want to be. We try to achieve an efficient, fun workplace. It may sound cheesy, but we want to create a family culture for the crew. So, when the days are long, the students want to be here and enjoy being here. Some of the best discoveries have come from students who are here with a fresh set of eyes and perspective.

What adaptions have you had to make to accommodate the generational shift?

TV: When I was a student, things were definitely different. If you were late you’d get chewed out or if you made a mistake you’d feel the wrath. I’ve had to adapt and meet my student crew in the middle. When I first started ten years ago, the phone frustrated me. I didn’t want to feel like work was a second priority to them. Something I had to learn was that the younger generation can multi-task a lot better than I can. I needed to change my perspective on technology. If my students are listening to music while on the field, it doesn’t mean they don’t care. We have to adjust in order to make the industry more approachable for the next generation.

How do you empower the younger generation to be successful?

TV: This may sound bad, but we constantly put them in the position to fail. We can’t always hold their hand, so we let them make mistakes on practice fields. So, come game day, they know what needs to be done without us having to hover over their shoulders. Another way we empower them is by embracing their ideas or innovations they might suggest.

How do you handle mistakes on the field?

TV: My biggest advice is to remember the times when you made mistakes on the field before reacting with anger. At ISU we allow failures to happen and celebrate successes. If you approach failure with anger, you’re taking away an opportunity for that student to learn. With this generation I have also found that it’s important to build a relationship with them before criticizing or reprimanding them. We like to find out what makes someone tick, and then try and connect with that so our advice or criticism is coming from a place of trust and respect.

Work-life balance, is it achievable?

TV: It’s an evolving balance for us here. We are spoiled in Iowa because a lot of these students grew up with hard-working blue-collar parents. So, they know what it takes to be successful. I think the best I can do as a mentor is share my experiences and help them manage their expectations. I’m always willing to talk through an opportunity they may have to determine if it’s going to be the right fit. At the end of the day, I encourage all our students to love what they do and to be an active part of the culture so that they do enjoy those long days.

Do you think the industry needs to adjust for the next generation?

TV: I do think the industry needs to be more flexible as things continue to evolve. I also think there is a mindset shift that we as groundskeepers need to make as well. Nobody expects us to be here all the time, that’s an expectation I think we bring on ourselves. I think it starts with letting go of that control and establishing trust with employees so we can empower them to be successful even when we’re not present. I’m really hoping that the next generation can teach us about balance as they become more and more ingrained in the industry.

How do you advocate for this industry?

TV: I look to hire what I call the “city farmer.” They’re the kids here in Iowa that want a career in farming but aren’t in line to inherit a family farm. They love being outside and want a career that will give them the chance to explore that passion. I love to help show them what opportunities are available to them. I feed into the younger generation by sharing my passion and experiences, that’s how I advocate for the profession and the multiple opportunities.

Best advice you’ve been given?

TV: Always keep everything in perspective. When you chase perfection you can find greatness on the way. Perfection is fleeting but greatness is achievable.