The sky is still black as he opens the gate to Benson Quarry. Dawn is more than an hour off, but the day that lies ahead will be busy.
He trudges through his email – the most tedious of his many tasks – before turning his full attention toward thoughts of safety. Are there any special jobs going on today? Are there extra precautions needed? Is there any rain in the forecast? What should be the theme of the morning’s tailgate meeting?
The sun is still fixing on the horizon when he heads down to the employee building at 6:45 a.m.
“I like to be down here just to make sure all the guys get in all right,” says Foreman Jerry Johnson. “We go through our stretching routine. When the tailgate meeting starts, I like to give them the chance to discuss whatever topics may come to their minds. It’s important to get everyone involved.”
Johnson possesses a particular set of skills and has unique responsibilities, but visit almost any Martin Marietta site and you’ll find a foreman just like him doing a similar job. Part utility infielder, part instructor, part buddy, part manager; it’s not just anyone who can fill the role.
At times, a foreman quite literally keeps the wheels from coming off the operation. In other instances, he’s a supporting character in another employee’s tale. Balance is among the most important aspects of the job, says Johnson, a Navy veteran who grew up on a farm in central North Carolina.
He’s held several titles across Martin Marietta since joining the Company as a utility man more than 30 years ago. In 1998, he settled into the foreman’s hard hat. The sun finally rises as the operation roars to life. The noise begins – the shifting of conveyors and the colliding and crushing of granite. The echoes are constant and linger into the early evening.
“My favorite parts of the job are working with my hands and working with the people. When you’re working with a good group of people, it makes the day that much better,” Johnson says as his pickup truck descends into the pit. “I spend much of my time keeping an eye on things. It doesn’t take much for a day to turn bad. It can happen pretty quickly.”
When matters do turn for the worse – or when they progress exactly as planned, for that matter – it’s often the foreman who helps bridge whatever communication gaps may exist between the team in the field and management.
The foreman’s view of the operation is one of the clearest. He’s in a position to know which longtime employees are adapting to new systems and what elements of the job new workers are struggling with most. The challenges employees face are many and have changed with the times, Johnson says.
“It seems like people are more about the technological aspects of life now and less about hands-on work,” he says. “On the farm, fixing stuff was just part of life and you got good at it. Nowadays, not so much. There are a few like that, but most are forced to adapt. Like anything else, it just takes time to learn.”
It’s in such cases that Johnson thrives as a mentor. Not content to just perform a task himself or just provide an employee with instruction, Johnson typically addresses issues with the patience of a teacher.
“I’m a firm believer that you have to have a hand in something in order to learn it, so I try to teach guys how it is we want things done and demonstrate how to do things safely,” he says. “We always stress that you shouldn’t do anything you’re not familiar with or anything you’re unsure about.”
The sky is crystal blue and cloudless. At 71 degrees, the temperature is far above normal for December – even in North Carolina. Conditions are great, particularly for quarry work. It’s a perfect day for Johnson to perform another of his favorite parts of the job: watching the operation.
Benson isn’t a large quarry, but in an average week, Johnson’s steel-toed boots log several miles just walking the plant. He’s constantly checking conditions in the pit, monitoring machinery or stopping to talk shop with other employees. Doing so allows the team to troubleshoot problems early, making the entire operation more efficient.
When not engaged directly, Johnson is often found in the cab of his pickup, watching as the mining process unfolds before him.
“I enjoy just getting out, walking around and seeing how the plant operates,” he says, grabbing for a sample of rock to test. “I enjoy seeing how everything just works together.”
Though he understands the gravity of his role and the importance his leadership plays in overall production, Johnson is quick to admit that he’s learned much from his peers, regardless of their tenure with the Company or experience in the industry.
“I listen to each and every one of these guys because what they’ve got to say is important,” he says. “We all want to go home the way we came in, so we’ve got to keep every part of this operation safe. One person can’t do that. We’re all part of a team.”