The contract cleaning industry has been struggling with record-setting unemployment levels for some time now, yet there still are a few contractors who wish they could have that higher turnover to help weed out less productive workers. In response to these troubles, the industry has produced enough articles, speeches and training sessions to create quite an arsenal for BSCs battling typical work force woes.

Contracting Profits surveyed 185 commercial cleaning companies to determine how much of that advice contractors are taking to heart.

Results revealed turnover rates different from those typically seen in the industry. It also discovered that some contractors are using a wide range of tactics to develop a productive work force, with much success; others, however, might need to head back to boot camp.

High turnover rates in the cleaning industry make it extremely hard to create a cohesive and highly productive staff — the crux of any successful business. However, there has been a lack of existing studies documenting just how high turnover is in this industry, leaving many BSCs working with ballpark figures gleaned from anecdotal reports. The average turnover rate most often used in industry conversation is around 300 percent, but the reader survey found a much lower industry average of 73 percent. (See chart)

At first glance, this turnover rate may seem too far from the 300 percent most people are familiar with, but multiple tests of the data reveal that the number is statistically valid. And while many people interviewed had a hard time digesting the lower rate, some admitted that it is possible.

“Often, you have people who don’t even show up for their first day of work, after you’ve spent the money to interview and hire them, so most people talk about a range of 200 to 300 percent when discussing turnover,” says William R. Griffin, an industry consultant. “But perhaps we’ve just been conditioned to think it’s that high, when it actually is lower.”

But Griffin is quick to point out that a turnover rate of 73 percent still leaves much to be desired.

One explanation for respondents’ low turnover could be that more contractors are hiring full-time cleaning staff instead of part-timers, who typically leave jobs much sooner, says Sandy Hammers, president of Sparkling Klean Inc., Omaha. Her turnover rate dropped drastically to 75 percent when the company changed from almost all part-time cleaning workers to almost all full-timers. She also credits a strong training program, better benefits, paid holidays and other incentives for adding to her staff’s stability.

Hammers’ example brings up another point contractors should consider when determining turnover rates — how turnover in various job categories affects the overall rate, says Joe Fairley, executive vice president of business development for Building One Service Solutions, an Encompass Services Corp. company.

“You track turnover rates in order to find ways to lower them, so you must break them out into specific job titles since different jobs — cleaner vs. supervisors — require different employee retention programs,” says Fairley.

The formula contractors then should use to calculate turnover rates is: the number of workers lost each month divided by the number of workers employed for that month, averaging those totals to gain a true annual picture. Anything beyond that only skews the company’s situation, making it harder to pinpoint solutions, he adds.

Fairley has found that using this formula can easily cut turnover rates in half, because the numbers are more accurate, reducing previous errors that bloat the numbers. Then he is able to use the new numbers to pinpoint exactly where to direct specific programming, making it easier to further lower the true turnover rates.

Basic training
One area of programming Fairley and many others in the industry tout as highly effective is training.

“In other industries, such as hospitality, they’re ahead of us in this area,” he says. “They’ve already accepted the fact that if you invest $1 in education, you can get as much as $10 back.”

And it seems that some contractors are making that investment. Most respondents (87 percent) said they use on-site demos to train employees, with videos (66 percent) and supplier demonstrations rounding out the top three training tools. On average, respondents combined about four training techniques or tools to help workers understand their jobs.

As for where contractors get their training materials, the most popular source was the Building Service Contractors Association International (BSCAI), which 74 percent of respondents said they utilize. Fifty-nine percent of respondents use manufacturer-supplied training and 49 percent use distributor-supplied training.

Other associations contractors tapped into included: The Association of Specialists in Cleaning and Restoration (28 percent); The International Sanitary Supply Association (25 percent); Building Owners and Managers Association (24 percent); The Institute of Inspection Cleaning and Restoration Certification (18 percent) and the Cleaning Management Institute (18 percent).

One thing contractors must remember when using these resources is that they still may need to create their own materials to provide complete training for workers, says James Matthews, president of United States Service Industries, Washington, and a past president of BSCAI.

“You have to have your own philosophy, in terms of the way you want people to behave in a building,” he says. “While videos are useful and can help teach your people things, you can’t subcontract employee education to these various companies because they won’t account for your own philosophy of doing business or your company’s priorities.”

For instance, one video on hard floor care didn’t emphasis the need to rope off the work area as much as Matthews preferred, so he made sure the trainer played the video and then made a point to ask workers what the information missed. This made sure employees knew what the company felt was most important about such tasks, he explains.
Properly using tools is another consideration. For example, some respondents said all they offered was on-site training. The vast majority of those contractors probably are taking people to a building their first night, showing them where the janitor closet is, and not much else, says consultant John Walker.

Instead, on-site training should involve actual hands-on demonstrations and practice with a supervisor taking an employee through every step of each cleaning task in the proper order of execution, he says.

And every employee should go through repeat training on a regular basis to keep workers fresh and provide what Griffin calls “a light at the end of the tunnel.”

“People get sick of sticking their hand in a toilet every night, so you have to provide opportunities for them to do new things, move on to new tasks,” he says. “There has to be a clear career path letting employees realize that, if they do this well, they soon could be a lead, supervisor or manager.”

From the top down
Another tactic that helps reduce turnover is providing management-level training, so the people hiring, training and managing cleaning employees can do their jobs properly.

“As far as retention goes, our management training speaks volumes,” says Paul Lindenberger, president of Maintenance of Austin Inc., Austin, Texas. “Without that, you’ve got the root of your turnover, because bad management leads to disgruntled workers.” And Lindenberger should know, since his company has whittled turnover down to only 30 percent.

Lindenberger learned the importance of training as he rose up through the ranks from a night supervisor position. What he has found most useful is to pair up supervisors for at least a month so they have time to encounter a variety of situations they will face on their own.

“This type of hands-on training works best to help managers get a feel for what their employees will need and the best way to train them one-on-one,” he adds.

Unfortunately, not as many contractors feel the same way as Lindenberger does. While respondents selected an average of five management topics from a list of 9 as areas in which they provide supervisory training, only 43 percent said they offered classes in how to train workers. More surprisingly, only 38 percent of respondents said they offered their cleaning supervisors and managers regulatory training.

“When it comes to viewing ourselves as a professional industry, I’m glad that at least 38 percent are offering training-specific education for their managers,” says Michael Diamond, CBSE, president of Premier Maintenance Inc., Milford, Conn., and a member of BSCAI’s training committee. “I think that’s the critical aspect of any training program, because what good does that do if the middle man doesn’t know how to train a new person.”

As for the low percentage offering regulatory training, most people interviewed were appalled at how few contractors educate supervisors on this topic since failure to do so can lead to serious safety risks and government fines.

“It reflects very negatively on our industry as a whole, ” says Diamond. “I’m surprised so many people would even admit that they aren’t doing it.”

Team cleaning
One topic that often surfaces when discussing solid training programs is team cleaning. Seventy-one percent of respondents said they utilize team cleaning; half of those contractors said they still use zone cleaning when team cleaning isn’t appropriate.

Team cleaning involves assigning cleaners to a specific task done throughout an account, along with other “teammates” rather than having a person do all tasks necessary in a specific area. The difference is a change of pace that makes workers more inclined to stay at a company, says Paul Oliveira, president of LP&D Inc., Woburn, Mass. which has a turnover rate of only 20 percent.

His company has used team cleaning almost since its inception in 1997, rotating the tasks a worker will cover on a monthly basis to provide variety, but with enough time at each task to make sure they do it properly. Oliveira even makes sure cleaners receive work scheduling training, not because they will be in charge of scheduling, but to help them better understand why people ask them to do certain tasks in a certain order or at a given time.

“Just like with the other basic training on chemicals, tools and techniques, this just makes sense because it gives them the bigger picture,” he says. “It helps them understand their jobs and feel competent — something that will definitely increase their desire to stick around.”

Average Turnover
Mean: Median:
Overall 73% 40%
West Coast 50% 25%
South Central 66% 33%
South East 90% 50%
North East 75% 35%
North Central 89% 60%

Companies with more than 25 employees 89%
(60% of surveys)
Companies with more than 100 employees 111%
(36% of surveys)
Companies with more than 300 employees 129%
(16% of surveys)
Union Companies 85%
(14% of surveys)
Non-Union Companies 78%
(86% of surveys)

** The mean is the average of all turnover rates reported in that category. The median is the actual rate reported by the respondent who falls in the center of all responses collected, when ranked by turnover rate.


Percentage of contractors using
each training tactic
Videos 66%
Workbooks 28%
Job cards 19%
Pictorial instructions 28%
Lectures 31%
On-site demos 87%
Suppliers demonstrations 44%
In-house labs with actual surfaces 10%
Instructional wall charts/posters 29%

Note: does not add up to 100% because respondents could check more than one.

Percentage of respondents who conduct
the following management training
Conflict resolution 43%
Leadership skills 59%
Budgeting/cost analysis
Sales/marketing 21%
Regulatory compliance 38%
Training the trainer 43%
Team building 59%
Project management 41%
Time management 52%
No training 14%

Note: does not add up to 100% because respondents could check more than one.

Attracting New Recruits
While training may be the glue that holds an organization together, building service contractors still must compete with other entry-level industries to attract potential workers. The two most effective forms of recruitment are employee referrals and newspaper advertisements, according to a recent reader survey of commercial cleaners.

Other popular ways respondents use to find workers include: recruiting at local churches and community groups, 39 percent; recruiting at local colleges/universities, 23 percent; and utilizing local groups for people with disabilities, 20 percent.

Regardless of where they look for workers, about a third of respondents said they constantly advertise to attract applicants, often using more than one method of recruitment to get the best results. Almost 50 percent of respondents, however, said they only advertised when they need workers. Most likely, people who sporadically advertise do so when word-of-mouth doesn’t draw prospects, says industry consultant, John Walker. But considering that the average employee turnover rate from the survey was almost 75 percent, contractors are almost constantly replacing workers, which makes on-going advertising a better choice.

“If you have a steady stream of applicants who you’ve pre-qualified, then you might be able to call on them to fill new vacancies rather than being short-staffed until your ad is placed and you generate new applications,” Walker adds.

Of the 20 percent of respondents who said they never advertise, the majority were medium or large, non-union companies that said they prefer to rely on word of mouth. That is despite having an average turnover rate of about 60 percent.

Contractors from across the country offer a range of starting wages for entry level cleaning workers of between $5.15 and $9 per hour, with a small number of companies offering as much as $10 to $12 per hour. The average wage for the country was $6.75.

The majority of respondents said they either train separate staff for specialty project work (43 percent) or cross-train general staff to handle multiple projects (30 percent). Seventeen percent used both groups for cleaning projects. The average specialty cleaner wage was $9 an hour, an average of 33 percent more than what regular cleaning crews received.

All respondents provided a wage increase within the employee’s first year at the company. The average increase was about 6 percent, though amounts ranged depending on when the increase was given.

Almost 60 percent of respondents said they also offered referral bonuses, which most often were paid within the first three months a new employee worked with the company. Twenty-one percent of respondents said they offered a hiring bonus, and 17 percent of respondents offered both types of bonuses to attract new workers.

Average probationary period
for first wage increase

Average starting wages and first increase
for non-union companies
starting wage
for “entry level
cleaning workers”
percentage of
first increase
starting wage
for specialty
cleaning workers
South Central
South East
North East
North Central

Survey Note: Respondents were all primary contractors or companies that provided a mix of primary and subcontracted work. While 14 percent of respondents employed all or some union workers, these respondents were removed from wage results to provide a more accurate picture of the majority of the industry. Each of five geographical regions received ample responses to represent their areas, though a slightly higher number of responses came from the North Central Region and a slightly lower response came from the West Coast.

Regions were as follows:

  • West Coast — Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii, California, Nevada.
  • South Central — Utah, Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Texas, Arkansas, Louisiana.
  • Southeast — District of Columbia, West Virginia, Virginia, Kentucky, Tennessee, North Carolina, South Carolina, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida.
  • Northeast — Main, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, Connecticut, New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland.
  • North Central — Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, Missouri, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Ohio.