Workforce Development e-newsletter, January 2020

Student-to-industry spotlight

Zack Olinger began his story with the Irrigation Association in 2017 as an E3 winner. Since then he graduated from Iowa State University and began his career in the industry. We caught up with Olinger to learn more about him, his path to entering the irrigation industry and his career thus far. 

Where did your interest in the green industry begin?  

I learned to love being outdoors by living in a small town in Iowa, growing up mowing lawns and weed-wacking ditches, hunting, fishing, and riding trails on ATVs. My love of the outdoors continued throughout my time in high school participating in 4-H and Future Farmers of America and eventually into my college days. I started out at another university studying business but quickly learned that I wanted more out of my degree, so I transferred to Iowa State University to gain my bachelor's degree in horticulture, turfgrass management under Dr. Nick Christians. 

What did you learn from your experience as an E3 winner in 2017, and how did it shape your future in the irrigation industry? 

Being an E3 winner allowed me to visit my first Irrigation Show and Education Conference, exposed me to members of the Irrigation Association and connected me to hundreds of professional contacts in the industry. I was able to use these connections to help guide me into my current position, and I continue to use IA resources and currently sit on the IA Expo Advisory Committee. 

Tell us a little bit about your career so far in the irrigation industry. What has been your path to your present position? 

While at Iowa State I was able to be involved in many organizations and complete internships at top golf, sports turf and entertainment venues. But, the experience that sparked my love for irrigation was with Iowa State University at the Horticulture and Turfgrass Research Station. While there, I was involved in a construction project that encompassed design, construction, irrigation installation, drainage installation, seeding and grow-in on a three-field sports turf research complex. After my time at Iowa State, I found a position with a national landscape distributor as an irrigation department manager learning sales, inventory, relationship and vendor management skills. Quickly I transferred departments and worked with the project services team to become an irrigation designer, where I designed and managed irrigation projects across the Mid-west. This brought me to my current position with Munro Companies in Grand Junction, Colorado, as the central region account manager. In my position, I am able to work on projects with our extensive team of distributors, service providers and contractors across the United States. 

Any advice to students trying to enter the irrigation industry workforce? 

I have three huge pieces of advice for students trying to enter the irrigation industry workforce.
  1. Find a mentor. Find someone who has "been there and done that," who is willing to take you under their wing and take chances on you, and who can help guide your future career choices by their past experiences. I cannot thank Lynda Wightman, Hunter Industries; Dan Strey, United Seed; and Steve Lindner, Hunter Industries, enough for their continued support of me and my career and for being some of my first mentors in this industry.
  2. Get involved. Join a committee, serve on a board, volunteer or just be willing to lend a helpful hand. I have met so many people by being involved on different committees and by helping with events thus far in my career. You can use these contacts and relationships in ways that you may have never foreseen just by getting to know the people around you.
  3. Take the leap. The irrigation industry has many sides to it, and it would be impossible to be an expert in all of these segments. But don’t be afraid to jump in and get your hands dirty. Be willing to try the many sides and roll with the punches. You will find your niche in the industry and be a more well-rounded individual by just taking the leap. 

Plans for the future? 

My plans for the future include getting married to my fiancé this fall and continuing in the manufacturing side of the irrigation industry. I have found a passion for working for a company that is producing the goods that irrigation professionals use every day to create amazing landscapes, conserve our most important natural resource and help to shape the very future of the irrigation industry. At this point, I cannot imagine myself working in another industry; my love for irrigation will continue throughout my career, and I hope to be one of the individuals who can continue to help build, shape and take our industry far into the future. I hope to eventually join the IA Board of Directors.