Managing Custodial and Maintenance Staffs

Most school districts manage and staff their own custodial and maintenance work. In fact, industry statistics suggest that only eight percent of all school districts outsource these tasks.

Those eight percent offer a cautionary tale to school district custodial and maintenance managers, however. According to industry observers, school districts usually opt to outsource only after losing control of their budgets in these categories.

Most school district executives take a dim view of outsourcing, fearing community reaction to the loss of jobs or wage and benefit cuts such a move might entail. But budgets are budgets, and poor management can overrun budgets to the point where outsourcing becomes necessary.

Then again, good management can meet budgets, preserve staffing levels, meet productivity needs and sustain quality services. Outsourcing companies prove this every day. “It’s a matter of doing simple, straightforward things consistently well,” says Burton Streicher, senior vice president for facility management for schools with Sodexho Marriott Services, a maintenance and custodial outsourcing firm based in Gaithersburg, Md. Here’s a look at some basic management techniques that promote such consistency.

Recruiting Staff

At Sodexho Marriott, Streicher uses different techniques to recruit maintenance and custodial workers. “On the custodial side, we do a lot of recruiting through referrals,” he says. “We try to become part of the community by joining civic groups and meeting community leaders. When we need people, we make announcements through these groups. We also let our employees know that we’re looking, and pay referral bonuses of perhaps $25 when an employee referral works out.”

Sodexho Marriott also uses classified newspaper advertising, but in a time of short labor supply, Streicher says that referrals produce the most reliable supply of custodial candidates.

Maintenance recruiting proves easier, given the higher compensation rates in that category. “Mostly we use advertising to hire maintenance people,” Streicher says.

Training Staff

Once a new employee comes on board, he or she must receive adequate training. “It’s often difficult to pull people out of a crew for training,” Streicher says. “So how do you train folks while they are working?”

Sodexho Marriott addresses this problem with the Internet. The company installs dedicated training computers at all of its work sites and places Web-based training programs on its central office servers. The computers provide basic training for new people, refresher training for experienced staff and training in new techniques for everyone.

Refresher training, for example, comes in the form of short courses called “The Method of the Week.” “Suppose that we find that high dusting isn’t being done right,” Streicher says. “We’ll develop a short training program on the proper technique and ask everyone to review the material. We also do mandatory safety training with this system, offering courses on blood-borne pathogens, for example.”

Supervisors find ways to work sessions at the training computers into the schedules of their staff. Because the system trains workers individually, little productivity is lost during the training sessions, and quality rises once people are properly trained.

While Sodexho Marriott uses this technique primarily to train custodial staff, maintenance managers might find it useful as well.

Retaining Staff

While recruiting and training techniques are necessary to ensure a qualified staff, it takes retention management to keep those people on the job.

Outsourcing companies typically compensate employees at lower rates than school districts, both in terms of wages and benefits. Hence, one would expect that districts that handle their own maintenance and custodial work would find it easier to retain employees.

That is not always the case. “If you read management surveys about worker satisfaction, money usually ranks near the bottom of the list,” says Marcus Knight, director of research and development for Jani-King International, Inc., in Addiston, Tex., the world’s largest commercial cleaning franchisor.

According to Knight, providing training, a sense of the future and a feeling of community can affect retention rates more significantly than compensation.

“We send out a regular newsletter to our people, with stories about people’s lives,” Knight says. “Suppose someone’s child or grandchild has done something special -- we write about it.

“Once a supervisor told me that I spend so much time dealing with troubled employees that I take good employees for granted. So I bought some thank-you cards, and once a week write to several employees, saying that I haven’t had a chance to say hello because so much of my time is devoted to solving problems. I tell them that I appreciate their hard work.

“I have gotten more positive comments from those cards than from anything else I do. I can’t overemphasize how important it is to tell employees that you appreciate their work,” Knight says.

Jani-King also favors a somewhat controversial approach to custodial work, called team cleaning. “Team cleaning makes cleaning into a kind of assembly line process, where everyone has specific tasks,” Knight explains. “Instead of assigning one person to clean an entire area, we have one person vacuum, someone else dust, another person empty trash and still another worker mop.”

School districts often resist team cleaning and favor conventional zone cleaning, where one person is responsible for all the cleaning in a particular area or zone. Concerns about team cleaning include the fear that the idea places too much emphasis on productivity. While that may be true in some cases, it is also true that zone cleaning managers can make heavy productivity demands.

Knight contends that Jani-King crews have developed a sense of community that not only improves the quality and productivity of their work, but also helps reduce employee turnover.

Given two tasks, say dusting and vacuuming, one person will tend to do a better job at one or the other. Why not let people specialize in preferred tasks, asks Knight. People working at tasks they prefer will do better jobs than those working at tasks they dislike.

Just as important, team cleaning promotes a sense of community, which can contribute to employee retention goals. If that sounds corny, consider the Jani-King experience. Eight years ago, the company switched from zone cleaning to team cleaning. At the time of the switch, many of the company’s cleaning crews were experiencing turnover rates near the industry average of 300 percent.

Since moving to team cleaning, Knight reports dramatic decreases in turnover. In some buildings, cleaning crew turnover has fallen to under 50 percent.

In addition, Knight says that Jani-King’s approach to team cleaning offers a 25-percent improvement in productivity.

What maintenance or custodial manager wouldn’t like to find a management technique that will save 25 percent of a budget?

Michael Fickes is a Baltimore-based freelance writer with experience in education issues.