My eyes were opened to a whole new view of the cleaning industry recently, when I tried to place an American facilities management student into a cleaning internship in Germany.

There are a few universities in the United States that offer degrees in facilities management, and nearby Brigham Young University is one of those locations. A facility management curriculum there centers on construction, design and maintenance. Building service contractors may be interested in noting that cleaning is an important but secondary subject involved with this degree.

To enhance the collegiate experience of these nearby facilities management students, I’ve been inviting the facility management seniors at nearby Brigham Young University to attend a day of our Janitor University course. It gives them a taste of what they will need to know when it comes to the cleaning side of managing facilities.

Instructing these bright, hardworking students has been delightful. As a result, I’ve also made it a project of mine to place them in internships around the country to continue their education in the importance of cleaning in any type of facility.

When a European facility colleague of mine was in Salt Lake City, I decided to ask him about the possibility of establishing an internship with his company. I thought it would give some lucky student a great background in the international side of the business.

My German friend’s response was surprising. U.S. university students probably wouldn’t have skills to qualify for an internship in Germany, he said. Why?

"We have all kinds of laws and prohibitions regulating apprenticeships," he said.

Not just anyone can pick up a mop and call himself or herself a custodian. In other words, the Germans, and other Europeans who have similar requirements, consider cleaning a skilled profession that requires much more than a few hours of training before letting workers loose in a customer’s facility.

Cleaning is a craft
When I went to the INTERCLEAN European show in Amsterdam this spring, I had the opportunity to visit a cleaning school in Germany to find out more about their stringent requirements. If you want to be a custodian there you must attend cleaning school and serve an apprenticeship for an additional three years. This first level of training is called “Practical Cleaning.”

If you want to be a building service contractor, you must add on two more years to become what is called a Master Cleaner. The two additional years of training is called the “Theoretical Cleaning” course.

Finally, after all that training, you must have a letter of recommendation from another BSC certifying that you are competent and would be an asset to the industry. Cleaning is a carefully planned career. Sadly, the equivalent training course in the U.S. is offered at only one school — the School of Hard Knocks.

The cleaning academy I visited was housed in an old Krupp Steel facility that had been taken over in the 1950s. It is comprised of several different buildings with a variety of floor, wall and window surfaces. In addition to teaching cleaning procedures there, the school also researches cleaning methods as part of an ongoing commitment to developing and using best practices.

I was astounded to see apprentices in the school with notebooks and pencils in hand, taking careful notes on how to lay out a room for refinishing and patterns to use when mopping. Coming from a background where two of the main components of custodial training are resistance and opposition, it was refreshing to observe the skill and passion involved in learning to clean.

In 30 years of conducting training sessions in this country, I have never seen anything like it. A young student’s whole future depends how well he or she learns the lessons in school and on the job. The master in charge of the practical training class told me that the final examination at the end of three years is to perform a complex cleaning function. The student is graded on both procedure and results. Last year only two students out of 29 passed the final examination.

What is clean?
Combined with the different approach to training is a different definition of what Europeans consider to be “clean.” A satin-look floor is perfectly acceptable in commercial buildings, airports, convention halls, schools and hotels. It doesn’t have to look shiny.

On the other hand, in North America, our tendency is to judge clean by shine. We like shine. Even if we are maintaining dirty, shiny floors, we go for the gloss. The master, however, explained to me that Germans don’t spend a lot of time installing, repairing or restoring shine. In fact, the only reason why he teaches his students how to care for shiny floors is because they may someday work for an American company.

Because the Europeans worry less about shine and more about cleanliness, they seem to have smaller, lighter and more user-friendly tools and equipment. This emphasis on ergonomics goes hand-in-hand with cleaning processes that minimize the handling and use of water.

The first time I went to the European INTERCLEAN show an American manufacturer told me he thought the cleaning equipment looked flimsy and too weak for heavy professional cleaning. I agreed with him.

Now I have seen how Europeans train, without heavy buckets, machines and other tools. American equipment now looks somewhat heavy and awkward.

The lesson contractors can learn from this knowledge is that the way you are doing business isn’t the only way cleaning can, or should be, done. Your customers may be willing to buy a different cleaning product. They may want something better. If only you and they knew that there was a different, better product.

You don’t have to attend INTERCLEAN in Amsterdam or cleaning school in Germany to learn about new and better processes and products. You can do it by attending the ISSA/INTERCLEAN show in Las Vegas this October 16-18. Contractors who look at what’s going on in the rest of the world will be more able to outrun their competition and set the standards the rest of our industry will have to follow.

John Walker is a regular Contracting Profits columnist. He is a veteran building service contractor; owner of ManageMen consulting services, Salt Lake City; and founder of Janitor University, a hands-on cleaning management training program.