staff engagement concept

Being a facility management executive in 2023 is no easy task. The modern facility executive must maintain a delicate balance; from providing excellent customer service, being responsive to building users and the staff, and ensuring that supply chain issues are minimized to maintain operational success — all while juggling these issues within mostly slim operational budgets. Tied to these challenges, facility executives continue to combat strong market competition when attempting to attract and retain key technical staff members, skilled trade professionals and the larger cleaning workforce. 

While there is no specific answer to how to resolve these issues in the same way, there are some options that have proven to have positive results for many facility organizations. Insight can be gained from what the University of Georgia Facilities Management Division (FMD) has done to curtail some of these facility executive hardships recently.  

As a backdrop, the University of Georgia was founded in 1785 as the first land/sea grant institution in the U.S. and is currently ranked in the top 50 National Universities by U.S. News & World Reports for the fourth consecutive year. There are nearly 700 acres holding more than 300 resident instruction facilities that are maintained by the 870 employees of FMD. The vast majority of these buildings are considered historic and there are newly constructed buildings that meet LEED Gold standards. Even with past accomplishments from the FMD services department for national recognition of green cleaning standards, there have been challenges when it comes to managing and retaining employees.  

In 2021, a group of FMD leaders along with the human resources team began holding conversations about the implementation of a career ladder pathway as a way to help recruit and retain valuable facilities staff. Granted, there were concerns about how to build a comprehensive staff identification and promotion system that would focus on (1) development of a more skills-based assessment tool for promotions and hiring, (2) minimize institutional knowledge gaps within  entry-level and middle-management personnel, (3) determine how to improve employee morale, and (4) encourage buy-in from existing staff and higher administration.  

The internal working group worked hard to gather information and review all position descriptions across the operations/service-oriented departments. In many cases, the employee daily tasks and performance guided standards were rewritten to be less subjective but more focused around industry acceptable standards. Other higher education institutions, private facility executives in healthcare and manufacturing operations were also consulted to gather information.  

The team had several conversations with the human resources staff to conduct job market analysis with both the educational and the private sector to obtain permission to increase salary levels for entry positions, change position descriptions, and to develop a three-tiered position classification with targeted skilled trade and service-oriented positions. For example, the titles in the program equate to Level I-entry position (Building Services I), Level II-intermediate skill (Building Services II), and Level III-unit leader position (Building Service Lead). This is a critical and necessary step to develop a professional career track that can attract and retain entry-level and management-level staff.  

The internal working group felt that it was imperative to utilize a multi-faceted approach to train and engage staff as part of improving the workforce. The planned use of industry approved certification standards, online training portals, vocational training, apprenticeship programs and random assessment of work are several tools which are incorporated into the career ladder program.  

Previous employee training engaged staff in small group settings or a classroom to “watch-perform-discuss". While this method of staff training can be sufficient, the internal team wanted to ensure the focus was on adult learning models, the use of technology and job-task software. The goal was to place a higher emphasis on a culture of industry-certified training.  

With assistance from the human resources department, the first step was to communicating with a few departments to explain the program’s purpose and career mobility plan, discuss salary options that cross the multiple tiers within the department, and provide a random on-site assessment review by several subject matter experts within the department. There is a required professional development component that must be approved by the department trainer and unit head. 

There was positive employee feedback that indicated the use of less subjective performance reviews provides a more equitable opportunity for career advancement. Additionally, senior leadership has provided outstanding support for this project. The plan is to implement a pilot program with a few targeted positions in the coming months. 

Kimberly Thomas is the special projects advisor to the associate vice president of facility management at the University of Georgia. She also serves on the Steering Committee for Healthy Green Schools & Colleges.