As a recent high school graduate and college student, I worked the summer and fall seasons as a sprinkler maintenance technician for a large university. When I took the job I had only a basic understanding of sprinkler systems, but I needed a paycheck and was willing to learn more. I was fairly paid and professionally treated. And although I had a fancy title, it meant little more than ‘grunt’ because that’s the way management had historically viewed the position.

When I began the job one early June day, I believe my manager saw my position like a revolving door. He needed someone willing to work a job that others wouldn’t. The hours were early and long, and the working conditions were uncomfortable and challenging. To him, I was a warm body that could operate a shovel.

Whenever there was a hole to be dug, I was the “shovel man.” I threw shovel strokes into many holes. Some were as tall as me, and others were only deep enough for my foot. My manager told me pushing a shovel would encourage me to finish college. While it accomplished that task, it also made me even more determined to make my position more than just ever-ready hole digger.

In between holes, I asked questions and watched over my manager’s shoulder. I wanted to know what to do before being told why it had to be done. Thankfully, my manager was a patient teacher. We both began to realize that teaching more than just how to operate a shovel would benefit us both. It made his job easier and my job more fulfilling. By my second season, I was digging fewer holes and problem solving more often.

How many ‘grunts’ do you have on your dairy? Are these employees still working the same task because someone hasn’t realized he or she wants to learn more?


Dairy management is about counting dollars per hundredweight, reducing the number of lameness cases and tracking other management benchmarks. This issue contains articles about setting and monitoring those goals. But behind these numbers there will always be the employees. Perhaps second only to a dairy’s cows, they are a top-priority asset.

I recently spoke with Jim Henion about a management project he’s been working on (see pg. 15). He shared with me one of the lasting lessons he learned from being a boss: The most important responsibility as a supervisor is to help your employees be successful.

While successful managers establish protocols, set goals and train their employees, they also help them grow and contribute more to the dairy. That process starts with respect. Showing that respect may be as simple as an occasional visit to work in their “hole,” or the milking pit.

I know I felt respected when my former sprinkler manager arrived at my hole and reached for his shovel. PD

Walt Cooley, PD Editor