UGA campus

The strategy of facility cleaning managers is evolving — analysis and reflection on the events of the last few years have opened the door to new schools of thought. There are significant long-term implications for planning and decision making, with a renewed emphasis on the ability to react quickly with attention to operational resilience.   

A vital piece of operational resilience is establishing and building a team of capable, responsive staff members who have the skills and training to adapt to situational needs. Those needs might be a return to pre-pandemic routine cleaning and maintenance, or a stepped-up program intended to minimize risk of infection with new processes and procedures focused on cleaning and disinfection. 
The key component to cleaning management success, however, is putting the best personnel in position to make an impact. 

Retention is Where It's At 

It's a common belief that gone are the days when workers started a job on the bottom rung of the ladder and stayed with that employer for the length of their careers, diligently working their way up to increased responsibilities and wages through dedication, hard work, and voluntarily learning new skills to enhance their value. The perception is that today's employees are “job hoppers,” — quick to search out and take on new positions with new employers, each one theoretically better than the position they left, especially in wages and benefits.  

Statistics from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) support this, indicating that the average person holds 12.4 jobs between the ages of 18 and 54. Younger workers reportedly switch jobs at a higher rate — BLS statistics indicate that people in the older 45-52 aged bracket typically hold an average of just 1.9 jobs.  

No matter the age, staff turnover puts a strain on any employer, including cleaning departments. Younger workers take their energy, endurance and strength while longer-tenure professionals leave and take critical on-the-job knowledge with them. Meanwhile, new workers must be supervised, trained, evaluated, and often certified in all aspects of the work from operation of tools and equipment to safety protocols, software, measuring and dispensing cleaning solutions, inventory, and more. Even with the most comprehensive training, it can take months before new employees reach the same productivity, engagement, and skill levels as those that went before them.  

There’s also a financial cost associated with turnover when factoring in average recruitment and training costs. Because of this, it’s well worth investing in strategies to retain facilities staff. 

Fortunately for managers, options exist for programs to recruit, train, and retain staff members. Some industry associations offer pathways to train and retain good employees. 

There are also online or downloadable commercial training software and programs which offer self-paced training and evaluation on all aspects of facilities management, providing continuous skills advancement, education, and certification.  

And yet another option exists; organizations can develop their own career development programs, tailoring training to their unique needs while keeping team members engaged as they advance through the ranks. This is the path the University of Georgia (UGA) took. Administered by the Facilities Management Division for the university, the Career Ladder Program is just one example of an in-house program that has been developed and is working to train and retain staff.  

What's Working at UGA 

The main campus of the University of Georgia is in Athens, located 60 miles northeast of downtown Atlanta. As part of the Facilities Management Division (FMD), the Building Services Department at UGA provides a valuable service to nearly 50,000 staff and students who study and work at the university: a clean, healthy, safe, and pleasant environment. The department is made up of more than 300 full-time custodians who work both day and night shifts every day of the week. They are responsible for cleaning and maintaining more than 10 million square feet of instructional and research space. 

Offering background for the new UGA Career Ladder program, Todd A. Kerzie, senior director of services, explains that in 2007 UGA initiated a green cleaning program to improve indoor air quality and reduce air contaminants when they were working towards certification. This resulted in the elimination of more than 300 products from the university’s overall chemical inventory. In addition to product evaluation, an important component of the certification program, Kerzie said, was the training and certification of workers. That eventually resulted in the development of UGA's Building Services Academy, a program that provided new building service workers with a weeklong orientation and training curriculum — half in the classroom, half hands-on practical application — prior to the individual’s assignment in the field. 

For employees who had been with the department for five years or more, “we provided a formal refresher or abbreviated version on the Building Services Academy,” Kerzie says. “Over time, as processes, chemicals, environments, equipment, and technology advanced, it was important for us to retrain or reground our employees to our standard cleaning process.”  

The Facilities Management Division at UGA has team members who have tenures stretching 20, 30 or even 50 years. With this longevity comes wisdom, but unfortunately, cleaning facilities is different than it was even 15 years ago.   

“We have found that refreshing training not only helps us be operationally consistent in the service we provide, but it also sends a message to our employees that we want to continue to invest in their professional training and development, which helps with retention,” says Kerzie. 

The program continued to thrive until 2020 when management began exploring the concept of career ladders. The goal was to continue offering comprehensive training, but also improve facilities operation staff retention and demonstrate a clear path for new hires. 

“Critical concerns surfaced just as COVID was in progress and our division experienced over 100 vacancies,” says Kimberly J. Thomas, MPA, CEFP, special projects advisor for the FMD associate vice president. “These were due to early retirement, employees transitioning to more private industry trades positions, and having fewer job applicants for our facilities positions than desired.” 

In 2021, a group of UGA FMD leaders — along with the university's Human Resources (HR) team — began conversations about implementing a clearer career pathway that would help recruit and retain facilities staff. The goal was to use the term “career ladder” as a metaphor for job promotion that describes the progression from entry-level positions to higher levels of pay, skill, responsibility, or authority.  

At UGA, there had been concerns about how to build a comprehensive staff identification and promotion system. But what came from those conversations was a program that would focus on the development of a more skills-based assessment tool for promotions and hiring for skilled trades and service-oriented positions. The program should minimize institutional knowledge gaps within entry-level and middle-management personnel, determine how to improve employee morale, and encourage buy-in from existing staff and higher administration. 

“The Career Ladder program strengthens training and career mobility for existing staff, builds a pathway for facilities operational trades professions, and encourages leadership development within the facilities professions,” Thomas says. 

The program, which is modeled on an existing campus-wide Career Progression program led by UGA's HR Division, gained university approval to proceed in early 2023 with the official kick-off scheduled for January 2024. It will launch with offerings for training in various technical areas of facilities operation and will grow from there. 

“Formal on-the-job training and industry-based training are defined for several technical areas of facilities operation,” says Thomas. “Employees are allowed to apply for these specific trades pathways, and there will be defined performance measures to determine successful outputs.”  

The goal is for the program to eventually cover all trades services. Additional trades will be added in the coming years, including grounds, waste/recycling management, central steam plant, and other facilities operation professions. 

To participate, existing staff members need to complete a placement form to evaluate their training and technical skills related to the program. There is also an external application process required by the university's HR Division. 

As the Career Ladder program is rolled out, Thomas explains the FMD is working closely with HR to ensure training, performance evaluations, and salary considerations are in place and appropriate for pathway advancement.  

She adds that, “Even though public government institutions continue to have salaries that may lag in comparison to the private sector, we are working to ensure that other incentives such as opportunities for leadership advancement, educational opportunities, and technical certification are in place to help our staff advance.” 

Although UGA's Career Ladder program is new and just now officially rolling out, Thomas reports that they have received positive feedback from both existing staff and administrators. The overall feeling is that the benefits the program offers will increase employee retention and skill development. 

For organizations considering developing their own training, recognition, and retention programs, Thomas suggests building a strong team of supporters to get it off the ground. This includes stakeholders from human resources, administration, and facilities departments, and members of the existing leadership team. 

“Gather a team of champions,” recommends Thomas. “You will need lots of support, the ability to clearly define your 'why' and 'how,' and have consistent listening sessions with your employees to ensure they can provide their feedback on the program intentions.” 

Thomas invites those interested in learning more about UGA's Career Ladder program to visit their website at She also recommends a Facilities Voices podcast with David Trask describing the program at 

Shannon O'Connor is a freelance writer from Mason, Ohio.