That’s the bad news. The good news is savvy custodial managers can keep the human element of the cleaning machine in working order by embracing these challenges and seeking new ways to address them, long before staffing becomes an issue.

Keeping the custodial candidate pool full requires due diligence on the part of the custodial manager, admits Robert Hamm, deputy director of maintenance and operations for the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD), Calif. Here, recruiting is an ongoing process.

“We are very proactive,” he explains. “Due to limited budget resources, we are already under-staffed by industry standards. When vacancies arise, we need to fill them as quickly as possible.”

This can be easier said than done when the district requires individuals to be able to read, comprehend and communicate in English in a state where many people cannot. Then there are required background checks to hurdle through and a proficiency test to pass. Prospective custodians also must have one year of documented custodial experience, preferably in a school, hospital or hotel setting, or take pre-employment training through a vocational school or the district.

Hamm regularly attends job fairs to unearth potential employees, and senior custodians teach the district’s two-week, 80-hour “Fast Track” course to prospective hires in an effort to ready them for employment. The district also expedites the hiring process by having “Fast Track” students take the California proficiency exam at the end of the course so they don’t have to wait for it. Hamm emphasizes that these efforts have dramatically decreased the district’s vacancy rate, which is less than 2 percent.

Not Always Perfect

Hiring is not an exact science — custodial managers can do everything right and still wind up hiring a problem employee.

“It’s hard to find good people in general nowadays,” notes Ruben Lopez, custodial supervisor for Memorial Sloan Kettering CC, in N.Y.

Lopez admits that his operation experiences a lot of turnover, but adds it is for positive reasons — as employees retire, transfer or move up. He keeps the candidate pipeline full by pulling new custodians from the temporary employees hired every fall to staff the center’s flu program. He vets these candidates carefully to uncover specific qualities, looking for a strong work ethic and a desire to learn.

“We’ll teach them to do the job,” he says. “If a candidate has these basics, it will transfer to any work they do.”

Kathy Edlund, manager of custodial services for Ohio’s Cedarville University, agrees. She doesn’t require experience, but does insist on hiring employees who have demonstrated loyalty and dedication in previous positions. In other words, she prefers applicants who have remained with their prior employer for some time before moving on.

“It indicates they will likely stay with us for awhile,” Edlund says.

At LAUSD, principals hire custodial workers, so Hamm provides a list of interview questions to facilitate good hiring decisions. The district looks for candidates with custodial knowledge, who communicate well and seem flexible.

“Flexibility is key because of the volume of work that needs to be done,” Hamm says. “Priorities may change if someone is absent and you need to get the highest priority work done first.”

However, the No. 1 quality sought by Custodial Supervisor Douglas Toms from Lancaster, Calif.-based Antelope Valley College is custodial knowledge. It is so important to him that he will not interview anyone without at least one year’s experience in a hospital or school setting. The human resources department then tests qualified applicants on their custodial knowledge with a 65-question exam that studies their know-how on topics such as floor stripping, restroom cleaning and material safety data sheets (MSDS).

A handful of candidates passing muster are called in for an interview, but even nabbing an interview doesn’t ensure them the job. They need to communicate their knowledge to the college’s hiring panel, which consists of Toms’ two classified custodial positions and a representative from human resources.

“Do they know MSDS issues? Do they know the equipment? Do they know the supplies?” Toms asks. “We interviewed a couple years ago and wondered why none of the candidates knew what an MSDS was. They’d been in the business for years, but when we asked them what it was, they told us everything but the right answer.”

He also expects candidates to use appropriate names for equipment and procedures, recalling one interviewee’s reference to a “soup sucker.” While he referred to it as a soup sucker because stripper can look like soup, the proper name is wet vac and that’s the term Toms expects applicants to use.

“They’ll say, ‘I know how to polish the floors’ or ‘I know how to shampoo carpets,’” he says, “but if they do not use the appropriate terminology, they do not look professional.”

Generation Gaps

A real predicament arises when generational differences are factored into existing staffing woes, says Edlund, who explains it can be especially difficult to entice younger employees to custodial positions.

“They seem to lack the commitment and are often interested in doing as little as possible, in exchange for more experience and a paycheck,” she says.

Hamm agrees, stating today’s candidates seem to expect more from employers.

“Managers may hear, ‘What’s in it for me?’ or ‘Why am I here?’” he says. “We try to emphasize that without the students, there would be no need for us, so we need to make sure we’re providing them with the safest and cleanest facilities possible.”

Lopez employs many Generation Y custodians and finds this generation typically wants more supervision, instantaneous feedback, constant skill assessments and ongoing training. Sloan Kettering Memorial addressed these issues by educating custodial supervisors about generational differences and the supervision each generation requires. And, when it was discovered that 35 percent of Generation Y employees sought more interaction with supervisors, this operation found ways to ensure they got it through regular meetings where all employees give input on processes and procedures.

“Employees appreciate that, especially when they see their suggestions become a reality,” says Lopez. “This provides immediate gratification for Generations X and Y.”

Another aspect that seems to attract younger employees is the equipment used. The more high-tech an operation, the more it seems to appeal to them.

“The equipment you have can really help or hurt you,” Edlund says.

Toms agrees that technology draws younger generations to custodial work, but admits new technology may create problems with older workers. When he added pre-diluted systems, veteran employees punched holes in the bottles and poured the liquid into their mop buckets. When he purchased vacuums with HEPA filters, they resisted using them. When he banned bleach, they kept using it until he stopped buying it.

Beyond training, Toms says he found he had to educate workers on why the changes were needed and how employees could benefit from them.

“The younger crowd is into technology; they like equipment and they’ll use the machines,” he says. “Older generations are set in their ways; it’s like trying to teach old dogs new tricks. We have to stick to our guns and make them keep with it.”

Whistle While You Work

An unhappy employee is one that often leaves for greener pastures. Retaining employees requires custodial managers to foster an environment designed to promote job satisfaction. This comes in many forms, from the benefits offered to the training and growth opportunities workers receive.

Hamm organized a training unit four years ago where senior custodians receive education on various policies and procedures then train the rest of the staff. This train-the-trainer program covers how to’s for equipment and supplies and task sequences.

Every employee receives training and written instructions in both. On the equipment side, they learn how to assemble a tool, how to use it, how to clean it, and how to store it. In a task sequence, they learn the steps to follow when cleaning a restroom, classroom or floor, for example. Hamm recently produced training videos of each how to and task sequence and plans to incorporate them into his regular training sessions.

“We’re doing this to ensure everyone is on the same page as to how we do things,” Hamm says. “You can boost job satisfaction by providing ongoing staff development because employees see we’re trying to help them do their jobs correctly and attain new skills.”

Today’s employees also seek benefits that include a fair salary, insurance, 401K programs and more. Toms recommends custodial supervisors compare their salaries to other comparable facilities nearby.

“If someone is making $32,000 a year and you’re only offering $25,000, why would anyone want to work for you?” he asks. His organization pays well for the area; offers health, vision and dental benefits for the employee’s entire family; and is locally based.

“When we have an opening, we have no problem getting it filled,” he says. “Our problem is getting an opening.”

Making work fun also boosts employee retention, says Edlund. Yes, its work, but a negative environment can greatly damage morale and increase turnover.

“It’s not just about cleaning,” she says. “We need to show employees that we value them as people. That makes a huge impact.”

Leigh Hunt is a freelance writer based in the Milwaukee area.


Too often in the interview process, the questions asked are things like: What are your strengths? What are your weaknesses? Why are you qualified for this job? But Robert Hamm, deputy director of maintenance and operations for the Los Angeles Unified School District, says these questions do little to get to the heart of a person’s character and job skills. He recommends asking the following to get a better sense of what a prospective employee is all about.

• Are you looking for permanent or temporary work?

• What are the major responsibilities in your current job?

• What are some of the challenges you have encountered in your current job?

• What has frustrated you the most in previous positions and what did you do about it?

• Are there certain aspects about your current job that you feel more confident in than others? What are they? Why do you feel that way?

• What supervision did you receive in previous jobs?

• What areas would you like to receive additional training in?

• Give an example of a time when you felt you needed to improve your skills.

• What are some techniques you use to organize your time on the job?

• What do you feel is satisfactory attendance in a job?

• What is the worst communication problem you’ve ever experienced at work? How did you deal with it?

• Give an example of an important goal you reached and how you reached it.

• Give a situation where you felt it was justified to modify standard policies

and procedures.

• What are your weaknesses in the area of custodial technical knowledge?