Ben Walker

Cleaning work — whether done in a K-12 school, a university campus, food service area, retail chain, hotel or hospital — is a foundational skill that introduced almost all of us to the socio-economic food chain. Just stop and think about it for a moment. Cleaning is one of the first skills that most people learn during early childhood.

It’s safe to say that most of us have memories of being told to “clean up” at the end of playtime. And for many, our first jobs included tidying up our bedrooms, taking out the trash, or for some of us who had persnickety parents, cleaning the bathroom.

Although these are often considered unpleasant chores, they taught us about infection control, hygiene and to care for the environment in which we exist. These lessons we learned carry us through life.

For example, cleaning up is among the first duties we learn when we enter any job. Just about everyone has a cleaning responsibility in the workplace, even if it means simply taking care of their immediate working area.

In the context of a career path that is often marginalized and misunderstood, it’s a great reminder that we’re all connected by a straightforward truth — we all have a responsibility to clean. Whether it’s in our own homes, workspaces, or cars, the way we maintain our spaces as we inhabit them sends an unambiguous message about our character.

About a decade ago, an independent documentary came out that featured the lives of custodial workers at college campuses across the United States. It was called “The Philosopher Kings.” If you can find a copy, I encourage you to watch it, as it is the embodiment of this essential concept.

Not only was it the first film that I’d ever seen that portrayed custodial workers in a non-patronizing way, but it also dug deeper into the lives of the people who do the daily work. One gentleman was working as a janitor to make a living, while also pursuing his dream of being an artist. Another was working two jobs — one as a cab driver and the other as a janitor at Princeton. He was doing this to help support his family in Haiti and bring potable water to the community.

When I apply this to my own life, cleaning has been a vital part of every job, service or activity in which I’ve been a participant. When I was 15, my first job was as a sweeper at a local high school. The summer after that, I cleaned up restrooms at a large outdoor concert venue. I was a baker at a bagel bakery, which required me to clean the kitchen for the opening shift. I was a radio DJ at a community radio station, where if you didn’t clean up after your show, you didn’t have a show anymore. I worked as a front desk clerk at a hotel, and when the housekeeping staff was short, I was helping turn rooms. My first office job was in a cubicle farm, where it was made very clear to us that, except for trash removal, we were responsible for our “personal” spaces.

As schools plan to officially reopen in the fall, and as restaurants, retail shops, hotels, airports and venues start to fill up again, my only hope is that the enthusiasm about cleaning up after ourselves doesn’t get lost in the excitement to return to a sense of normalcy. I know that I’ll be doing my part to help keep my spaces clean, not only because it’s the right thing to do but also because it’s part of my job as a building occupant.

Ben Walker is COO at ManageMen, Inc., a leading cleaning industry consultancy specializing in training, transitions, auditing and educational materials. He can be reached at