Business (Managing Higher Ed)

Educating Custodial Workers



Many education administrators have never heard of CIRI, the Cleaning Industry Research Institute ( Their credo—”Only Science Can See”—provides some insight into who they are and what they are all about.

The goal of CIRI is to bring more science into professional cleaning: to introduce more scientific ways to evaluate cleaning, develop cleaning standards, and help the cleaning industry find more effective and long-lasting ways to teach workers state-of-the-art cleaning methods that would be more effective, faster, and safer.

In July 2019, the organization held a symposium in Oxford, OH, where the topic of education was the focal point. The presentation was delivered by Bob Robinson, Sr., a 30-year veteran of the industry and president of Kaivac, a leading manufacturer in the professional cleaning industry.

The Development of Custodial Worker Training

Before discussing this presentation, let’s first discuss what we know of custodial worker training. For decades, there was only very informal training of cleaning workers… if there was any training at all. Typically, workers were trained by the company or institution they were working for at the time, and told how that company wanted specific cleaning tasks performed. However, if they moved on to work with another cleaning contractor or institution, the new employer often had entirely different ways of performing those very same tasks, and so the worker would need to be trained all over again.

“There were no standards when it came to training,” says Robinson. “In many ways, one of the most essential things in professional cleaning—custodial training—was a free-for-all: you just did it the way whomever you worked for did it.”

Slowly, that view started changing. By the 1980s, new and more advanced cleaning tools and equipment were introduced. Distributors and cleaning equipment manufacturers started training workers on how to best use their new equipment, and in the process, they improved their overall cleaning skills.

While this was a significant step forward, it was the introduction of green cleaning in the 1990s and 2000s that most strongly impacted the professional cleaning industry and highlighted the importance of training. It’s important to note that in order to perform correctly, green cleaning solutions and products had to be used differently than traditional products used in the past.

Further, green cleaning required, in some cases, that entirely new cleaning methods and procedures needed to be learned. To address this major development, ISSA, the worldwide cleaning association, and GreenSeal introduced training programs to help educate cleaning workers in environmentally preferable cleaning methodologies.


WATCH AND LEARN. Common learning styles include visual (learn by seeing), auditory (learn by listening), and tactile (learn by doing). If your custodial training doesn’t address all three, some of your employees may not fully grasp the subject matter. The use of videos can reinforce visual and auditory learning styles, and also allows employees to review material as needed, enhancing their training.

The Cone of Learning

Because such detailed training was somewhat new to the professional cleaning industry, many employers and their employees were in for a surprise. After cleaning workers had attended formal classroomstyle training or even informal training sessions, it was soon discovered much of what had been taught was forgotten within a few hours, and certainly within a few days.

It’s possible, if the industry had known more about the “Cone of Learning,” this would not have been such a surprise. In 1946, American educator Edgar Dale studied how much people retain under different types of learning experiences. While there is some controversy today as to his precise findings, for the most part, Dale concluded that after about two weeks, people retain the following amounts using the following training methods:

  • Reading: About 10 percent of what is read.
  • Hearing: Attending a seminar or lecture, about 20 percent.
  • Watching: Watching a video or a demonstration of a technique, 50 percent.
  • Doing: Performing a task that has just been taught, as much as a 90 percent retention rate.

However, according to Robinson, “there can be other issues that come into play when cleaning workers are taught new cleaning procedures.” Among those he pointed out in his presentation are the following:

  • Lack of motivation. Sometimes cleaning workers do not “feel” they need to be trained or re-trained on how to perform certain familiar cleaning procedures.
  • Resistance. Among all types of workers, there is often a resistance to learning new techniques. In some cases, it even causes fear and distrust, which, in turn, can block learning.
  • Negative experiences. Sometimes cleaning workers were trained on new cleaning methods that resulted in accidents, produced poor results, or garnered complaints from customers or supervisors. These negative experiences make them reluctant to learn new techniques, reasonably concerned that the same thing could happen again.

Focus on What Works

At CIRI, Robinson presented a strong argument that to advance custodial training. “We have to focus on what works. If videos are effective and if ‘doing’ what was just presented in a video is very effective, then a combination of the two could potentially enhance custodial training considerably.”

Robinson advises that certain caveats must be considered, the most important of which is having ready access to the training materials.

“If a cleaning worker has been shown how to use a machine, but they have forgotten some key points, they are unlikely to go online and find that specific video that discusses it. They don’t have the time. The training technology must be part of the cleaning equipment. Quick and easy access is key.”

Robinson points out that having “onboard tutors,” which at least one manufacturer now puts on their equipment, is essential. For instance, he said some cleaning workers are embarrassed to ask their supervisors more than once how to perform specific tasks. “If the video is right on the equipment and handy, they can watch [the video] and not feel any awkwardness.”

In his experience, he also mentioned that this quick and easy access boosts confidence levels and enhances overall satisfaction, since cleaning workers are performing their work correctly and in the most effective way possible.

“It can also increase worker retention,” Robinson adds. “Turnover in the professional cleaning industry, whether in-house custodians or with private contractors, is very high. Some studies indicate that employee retention (staying on the job) can jump as high as 50 percent with effective and ongoing training programs.”

School Cleaning and Education Administrators

As nearly all education administrators know, properly and effectively cleaned schools are crucial for many reasons. “Custodians are the first line of defense of public health in our schools,” says Pat Nicholson, a custodial worker with the Brownsville Elementary School in Bremerton, WA.

“The way we clean can largely determine the level of health for students. “[Further], custodians become an integral part of not only a healthy school, but also the academic success of students.”

However, none of this is possible if cleaning workers are not taught how to clean properly. “I view proper cleaning as both a science and an art,” adds Robinson. “Today, the professional cleaning industry’s biggest challenge is proper training. It’s the key to healthy schools.”

If what Robinson has suggested proves to be correct, this is one challenge the industry can and should now be able to address.

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management September 2019 issue of Spaces4Learning.