Business (Managing Higher Ed)

Are You In or Out?

outsourced school janitorial services


A professor at the University of New Mexico says that every year, professors and the university’s administrators need to go through the same ritual: waiting to see how much money the state will give the school. “Invariably, the university does not get all [it is] asking for,” says the professor, who prefers to remain anonymous. “Then [it has] to go item by item, looking for savings wherever [it] can find them.”

Typically, these item-by-item reviews try to weed out any costs that are not education-related, and one of the items that is particularly conspicuous, because it is usually one of the school’s biggest expenditures, is cleaning. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, as of January 2015, janitors working in educational facilities earn about $30,000 per year. (This is an average salary indicated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics and does not consider, for instance, how long a worker has been employed by a school or university.) But “the buck” does not stop there. Among the other expenses the school must shoulder are the following:

  • employer portion of Social Security tax
  • employer portion of Medicare tax
  • state unemployment tax
  • federal unemployment tax
  • workers’ compensation insurance
  • employer portion of health, dental, vision, life and disability insurance
  • employer-paid holidays, vacations and sick days
  • employer contribution to 401(k) plans, savings plans and profitsharing plans
  • employer contribution to pension plans
  • post-retirement health insurance

For a cleaning worker earning $30,000 per year, these added costs increase that amount for the school to about $33,500, possibly more. A school with 100 janitors is paying $3.3 million in wages for cleaning and likely another $335,000 or more for supplies. (While it can vary, the cost to purchase cleaning supplies and products is typically about 10 percent of the labor costs of cleaning.)

As you can assume, the next step school administrators take is to look for ways to reduce the cost of cleaning. Many have tried to reduce the size of their custodial staff — often with disappointing results — but another option is to outsource the work to an independent vendor, a building service contractor. Often, this reduces cleaning charges and improves cleaning effectiveness.

Dealing With the Emotions First

Before jumping on the outsourcing bandwagon, college and university administrators should know about some of the emotional issues that might arise with outsourcing. At the top of the list is the fact that many custodial workers with considerable tenure may lose their jobs. How do you tell someone who’s been working for the school for 20 years that he or she is no longer needed?

Letting employees go is never easy, and janitors are part of the university “family.” However, for Ron Segura, president of Segura Associates, which works with schools and universities to streamline their cleaning and building operations and help realize cost savings, “administrators must realize that [cleaning workers who have been around for a while] may be using outdated cleaning procedures and practices that are actually costing the school more than they have to pay.”

Another issue that often comes up when considering hiring a building service contractor is safety. A janitor who has been with the school for two decades may be seen as a family member and an exemplary employee; he or she often is trusted as much as liked. In addition, a school can do stringent background checks on all new custodial workers to ensure students and staff are safe with these workers as well.

“This is an understandable concern,” says Segura. “If preparing a request for proposal (RFP), ask the cleaning contractor about staff turnover and the background checks that are performed. If the turnover is high, this can be a troubling sign when it comes to school safety, as can a limited background check.”

The RFP Process

If the decision has been made to take bids for the university’s cleaning, the first step is to make sure the “scope of services” (scope) is up to date. The scope should list all the cleaning duties required to be performed at the school. It is important that this be as current and as precise as possible because it is the foundation of the request for proposal (RFP).

“I frequently work with schools using a scope that is 10 or more years old,” says Segura. “Very often there is nothing in it referencing green cleaning or sustainability, and floor refinishing and carpet cleaning schedules [may be set] far more frequently than they are today. That can be a very costly mistake.”

Once the scope has been prepared, it is time to prepare the RFP. Along with the scope, it should include such things as insurance requirements. Cleaning-related items that have been an ongoing concern at the school should be highlighted so that these issues are not repeated.

The RFP should clearly say when the bid package, as it is called, is due. This actually becomes the first step in the “weeding out” process. It’s often a bad sign if the contractor does not meet the deadline. Other things to look for include the following:

  • Was the bid package returned in the correct format (electronic or hard copy)?
  • Was it filled out completely?
  • Is the pricing clear?
  • Does it offer any suggestions?

If the bid package offers suggestions for how to improve cleaning efficiencies, offers cost-reduction strategies or addresses green and sustainability initiatives, this can be a “green flag” — an indication to take a very close look at this cleaning contractor.

Presentation of the Bids

Usually school administrators want to see 10 to 12 bids. Then they have to weed out those that — for whatever reasons — do not meet the needs of the institution. Once that is done, the cleaning contractors still being considered should be called in to present and discuss their bid before the major stakeholders.

Among the things to look for are the following:

  • The contractor should be punctual — once again, an important factor.
  • The contractor should wear business attire.
  • The presentation should look professional — in a PowerPoint or similar format.
  • The talk should be about 30 minutes and address all key points and concerns in the RFP along with further discussion of the “green flag” suggestions.
  • If a green cleaning strategy is requested, the presentation should acknowledge that green cleaning relates to more than just chemicals. It includes the equipment as well as worker certification (CIMS-GB or GS-42). CIMS-GB (Cleaning Industry Management Standards–Green Buildings) and GS-42, a similar program developed by Green Seal, teach green cleaning best practices and procedures.

Schedule all the presentations on the same day. What you are looking for now is how you “feel” about each contractor. Invariably, one contractor will rise to the top. Because all the technical requirements have been addressed, what remains is a gut reaction to who will be the best contractor for the school and to work with the administration. That person will be the right selection.

This article originally appeared in the issue of .

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