The In-House/Outsource Cleaning Quandary

Traditionally, school facilities have had their own custodial staff attend to cleaning tasks of their school locations. This is referred to as "in-house" cleaning and as we will discuss later, there can be very specific reasons why this is the best option for many schools and school districts. However, administrators should not discard hiring out their cleaning needs, referred to as "outsourcing." This also has its benefits including the potential for significant cost savings. So, let's take a look at both options with the goal of helping you select the option that would work best for you.

In-House Service
Scheduling: The days when cleaning was performed only after hours is slowly disappearing. Some schools like to have their facilities cleaned early in the morning, during the day or late afternoon, so that the entire building can be "shut down" at the end of the school day. In this case, an in-house service may offer the most flexibility.

Familiarity: In-house cleaning workers are likely to become very familiar with the teaching staff, the students and others using the location every day, along with the special needs of the school. While this can happen with an outsourced service, it must be acknowledged that outsourced companies typically have greater turnover than an in-house service

Team player: Related to this in-house cleaning, workers are part of the school "team." Essentially, they are part of the family and often many students and teachers prefer to have it this way.
Student conduct issues: As part of the team family, in-house cleaning workers are often kept updated, along with other staff members in the school, about student conduct issues such as bullying, violence, harassment, etc. While outsourced cleaning workers can certainly be updated as well, very often they are "out of the loop" on some of these issues.

Outsourced service
Cost Savings: Because we referenced it already, we should discuss potential cost savings right from the start. With in-house cleaning workers, the school or school district must pay all employment taxes, workmen's compensation and other expenses for these workers, just as they would any other person on staff; if outsourced, these costs are paid by the cleaning contractor along with insurance, healthcare and similar employee benefits.

Supply costs: If you use an outsourced service, all of the equipment, cleaning solutions and other products used for cleaning are purchased by the contractor; not the business owner. Further, if the contractor is a member of a group purchasing organization  (GPO), he or she will be able to purchase supplies at reduced prices; often these savings are worked into the contractor's charges, resulting in another cost savings.

Budgets: If budgets are reduced for cleaning services, the frequency of service or other service adjustments are in the hands of the outsourced cleaning contractor; with in-house service, this may require staff reductions, which can end up being costly and complicated.

Customer Contact: Many larger cleaning contractors have monthly service reviews. The goal here is to not only address cleaning issues, but to also develop a partnership between school district administrators and contractors that best serves the interest of the schools they clean.

Hiring and Firing: Related to this, when it comes to hiring and firing, most administrators prefer to focus on workers actually needed by the company to produce its products or perform its services; often they prefer not to be in charge of hiring or firing cleaning workers

Supervision and Training: With an in-house service, supervision and training must be tasked by school administrators, many of which may be uncomfortable — or unable — to perform this type of training. Also, with budget constraints, investments in custodial training are often put on the back burner. Typically larger cleaning contractors are very focused on training and cleaning "best practices," if for no other reason, it helps improve cleaning efficiency, helping to reduce costs. (See Sidebar: Other Thoughts on the Issue)

Which is Best?
As you can see, there are certainly worthy pros and cons on both sides of the in-house/outsourcing fence. So, let's see if we can narrow this down a bit. If you or your school district wants to actually hire custodial workers, it is best to go with an in-house service. While most cleaning contractors will provide necessary information about their staff to school administrators, including security checks, bonding and other information on their staff, the school actually will have little direct control over who is working in the buildings.

However, if costs are a key concern, the best option most likely will be to outsource and hire a contract cleaner. However, before going in this direction, there is one more thing administrators must be aware of: when outsourcing cleaning, selecting the best contract cleaner requires preparation, such as the following:

  • A "scope of cleaning services" must be prepared ensuring every cleaning task necessary in the school is put into writing
  • A request for proposals (RFPs) based on the "scope" must be prepared
  • Select five to ten contractors that are familiar with school cleaning, have the equipment necessary, provide proper training for their workers, and meet insurance requirements
  • Narrow your list to three contractors and then ask each to prepare a presentation before school administrators.

This is last step is very important. We are not looking for the contractor who gives the best "performance" in these presentations. Instead, we are looking for the contractor who administrators believe they can count on, work with and can address their schools cleaning needs most effectively.

Sidebar... Other Thoughts on the Issue:

  • Sometimes when a school district transfers from in-house to outsourced cleaning, in-coming contract cleaner may be required to hire some or all of the current custodial staff and then train them on processes and procedures deployed by their company.
  • In most cases, larger contract cleaners are bonded and provide schools and universities with assurance that theft and pilferage will be minimized, eliminated and/or will reimbursed should it takes place.

Tobi Colbert is business develop manager for the National Service Alliance, a group purchasing organization for the professional cleaning and other service related industries. She can be reach via her associations website at