Seeing the Forest and the Trees

It’s midday in sunny Irvine and students are eager to get out of class. Crowds emerge on Ring Road outside of the engineering plaza, as people cram onto the narrow pathways. Suddenly, an oncoming golf cart makes a wide turn to avoid a student and instead knocks over several of the ropes that section off newly planted bushes. A few moments later, a skateboarder loses control and falls. The board shoots off, snapping a major branch on a bush. After ten minutes, everyone is back inside and all that is left behind are tire marks imprinted in the earth and scattered leaves of Texas Privet on the pathway.

The Texas Privet bushes were once nice and full, but now there are chunks missing. As an urban forest, UCI has a certain image to uphold when it comes to its landscape. Students, faculty and facilities staff members report damaged bushes or fallen tree branches to the service desk where they process a work order. Soon after, the printed version is added to one of the many stacks on Kay Yoshino’s office desk. As the assistant superintendent of Grounds and Irrigation, Yoshino reads the work order and sends out a team to survey the area and determine the degree of damage.

“Our battles include students crossing lines that are drawn that we put up,” said Yoshino. “Once the ropes are down, someone else won’t realize that they’re walking over a newly planted section. Some plants are really small, so they walk right over them. One person does it, then another and another and after the plant is walked on three of four times it dies.”

As an administrator, Yoshino oversees reports from workers in Grounds and Irrigation. He occasionally ventures out to the scene to help workers, but normally he takes care of the daily processes, like work orders, tasks, projects, repairs, preventative maintenance and regular maintenance.

Yoshino worked at UCI for two years before he transferred to UCLA, where he worked for two years as the facilities management grounds supervisor. In October 2013, he left UCLA to return to UCI because he saw the challenges that were there and he wanted to be a part of the movement to beautify the campus.

Yoshino developed a green thumb after the family business, a landscape and construction business that took off in 1950. In 1982, he took over his father’s company and still runs the business today.

“My dad was a good teacher and he was pretty skilled, pretty knowledgeable,” said Yoshino. “I picked it up from him and now I’m here to pass on the knowledge to the staff here at UCI.”

Of all the aspects about Grounds and Irrigations, Yoshino feels proudest when he sees how much the workers complete each day. Several years back, a cutback in funding resulted in layoffs and a hiring freeze for their department. They have never returned to having a large staff so the workers have had to evolve into the “new worker,” one that has to be more knowledgeable, better trained, more efficient and more conscious of health and safety.

“That’s what I’m really proud of,” said Yoshino. “These guys have really been able to step up on this challenge and still maintain an acceptable appearance.”

From behind his office desk, Yoshino points to three color-coded maps of the campus tacked neatly onto a corkboard. “See the school there — Biological Sciences, Humanities, Admin, Social Sciences, Engineering, Physical Sciences, School of Medicine, Athletics, Fine Arts — these are all schools that teams of workers used to just go into and work in. Now, each major campus zone has an assigned groundskeeper whose primary duty is to oversee that whole area, which is huge. So the guys are doing a tremendous amount of work.”

Yoshino walks over to the piles of papers stacked on top of a filing cabinet, and pulls out even more work orders tucked away in folders. On the desk, work orders are overflowing the top. There are over a hundred that will be orchestrated and completed to solve campus appearance issues. In total, there are 36 workers and supervisors in Grounds and Irrigation tending to these concentrated areas of work.

For all of the people he oversees, Yoshino believes in training, educating and simplifying processes that can apply to their work and regular life. In the mornings, he likes to deliver words of encouragement to smaller groups of workers. Yoshino wants to make sure they never stop growing as individuals and helps them understand that by working here and learning everything that they can possibly learn, that they can move forward and better their lives.

“I want my people to thrive and be happier for themselves,” said Yoshino. “I can always make a new person as good as the person who just got promoted to someplace else. That’s where, philosophically, I am a different manager. We have within our department the American philosophy at work — to better yourself, to earn more, to learn more — because when you learn more you work harder and you should be compensated for that. That opportunity exists here in America.”