An ode to building maintenance workers

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If a building was an NFL team, the maintenance workers would be the offensive lineman. Maintenance workers are not glamorous, they are rarely in the spotlight, their jobs can be dangerous and for the importance of what they do, they are very little appreciated. Just as a good offensive line is the foundation of a great football team, maintenance workers are the glue that holds commercial buildings together. They do the dirty work, keep construction issues from getting worse, and sometimes receive very little in return.

It is also increasingly difficult for facility managers nationwide to find maintenance personnel. Much has been written about the labor shortage in the United States over the past year or so, but for maintenance technicians, the skilled labor shortage predates the pandemic. The skilled trades have fallen out of favor for many young people in recent decades. And now, many baby boomer maintenance workers are reaching retirement age. The median age of a skilled worker in America is 43, which is 10% older than the general population, according to a recent report by Angi Homeservices, an online directory of contractors.

Darin Rose is the director of administration and facilities at Credit Union of Colorado in Littleton, Colorado, and he said finding suitable service technicians has been difficult, even in a large metro market like Denver. “During the pandemic, many maintenance technicians were already on the verge of retirement, and they went ahead and pulled the trigger,” Rose said. “We had a technician who retired about four months ago, and it wasn’t until last week that we were able to hire a replacement. “

What Rose has seen in her establishment is happening across the country. In a recent Adecco survey, 62% of companies said they were struggling to fill skilled and technical jobs like electricians, plumbers, pipe fitters and welders. The shortage of skilled tradespeople persists, but is reaching critical mass. Companies in almost every industry sector compete for reliable maintenance technologies. Not having this type of professional help is not an option for most properties. “In facility management, these workers perform preventive maintenance that prevents disasters and larger issues from happening,” Rose said. “And when there’s some kind of fire or emergency, they’re the ones who run into the building while everyone evacuates.”

For FMs and building owners, finding and hiring strong maintenance technicians to replace their retirees is more critical than ever. Decades of experience and institutional knowledge about buildings are increasingly leaving the workforce, leaving a void that is difficult to replicate. The importance of maintenance workers in our facilities is difficult to overestimate. They keep lights on, improve safety, reduce equipment downtime, and preserve valuable building assets. And they often do it behind the scenes and without the appreciation reserved for other professions.

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Maintenance work can be a demanding job, you certainly don’t have to sit at a desk all day. While most technicians can get a job with just a high school diploma, there is a wide range of skills that make up a good maintenance worker. More and more, maintenance workers must adapt to the evolution of technology in buildings, particularly the use of computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) that systematize work orders. But Rose told us that the most important skill he looks for when hiring technicians is problem solving. Each building system can have several reasons why it malfunctions, and technicians need these problem-solving skills to determine the exact causes of failure.

“If the worker has good technical skills, it’s right after,” Rose said. “Beyond technical skills, I’m looking for workers who have a broader understanding of facility management. They need to understand as a whole why they are doing repairs and how it helps improve the quality of the organization.

Working in maintenance can also be dangerous, so it is essential to follow safety practices. A recent study by business insurance provider AdvisorSmith said maintenance work ranks 21st among the 25 most dangerous occupations. In 2019, maintenance workers had a fatality rate of 13 per 100,000 workers, according to BLS statistics. This is four times higher than the national average work fatality rate of 3.4 per 100,000 workers. The most common cause of workplace death for maintenance technicians is contact with construction objects and systems, such as electrocution. In maintenance jobs, you can also expect muscle strains and sprains, as technicians spend most of their days standing, repairing equipment in awkward positions, and lifting heavy objects.

And most maintenance workers, like those offensive NFL linemen, do all this dirty work with very little appreciation. It can be a thankless job, that’s for sure. “I’ll put it bluntly: people are self-centered and focus on what’s important to them in their work and their lives,” Rose said. “For example, our bank tellers are focused on what they’re doing, and that’s great. People don’t necessarily focus on clean buildings unless it becomes an issue. People don’t really see how building maintenance issues are resolved and resolved, they just see the end result.

At his company, Rose said he does a few things to recognize the hard work of his maintenance technicians and make sure they get a few pat on the back. Last year, during protests and social unrest, some of his company’s facilities suffered property damage and graffiti, and his maintenance technicians were the ones cleaning up. While most of the rest of the business worked from home during the height of the pandemic, maintenance technicians were the “essential workers” performing the unpleasant tasks and protecting the building’s assets.

Rose walked around the facility, took photos, and shared them with senior executives and others at the company. “We wanted to let people know that everyone is working remotely right now, but we’re here to take care of our buildings,” he said. “Our service technicians have added value to the business and have shown great initiative. We wanted other members of the company to see what they accomplished and be recognized. “

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Pats on the back help, but a pay raise for maintenance workers would help a lot more. The average annual salary for a U.S. maintenance technician in 2020 was $ 40,850, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Maintenance workers can earn more as they work their way up to supervisors, managers, or facility managers, but why not learn a slightly more lucrative trade like becoming an electrician or HVAC technician? For example, electricians are also in high demand right now, and the BLS reports that their median annual salary in 2020 was almost $ 57,000. Despite all the support given to essential workers during the pandemic, a pay rise for those deemed essential like maintenance technicians would help them much more.

Solutions to labor shortages

As for the wave of retirements among building maintenance workers, many in the field of facilities management have developed practical solutions. The most important of these may be succession planning. Identifying and working with older employees who are approaching retirement age is crucial right now, as more baby boomers are leaving the workforce. One strategy used by some FMs is to combine older workers with younger ones in a mentoring relationship to ensure the transmission of institutional knowledge and skills. Building management experts say it is good to fight the “knowledge is job security” mentality. At the very least, companies should have a process in place to document maintenance best practices before older employees leave. A better solution is to help connect veterans with newcomers. Mentoring relationships can also be a two-way street, younger maintenance workers can help their older peers with newer construction technology that “old-timers” may struggle with.

Bringing new blood into the industry has not been easy. Angi Homeservices’ report on the skills shortage suggests that FMs and building owners should consider fine-tuning their recruiting practices when posting advertisements for vacant positions. Word-of-mouth recruitment is widely used in the skilled trades, so companies may not be building a wide enough net to attract qualified candidates. In addition to the more frequent use of online job sites to post job vacancies, Angi’s report suggests that FMs may want to contact technical schools and professional organizations more often, posting job vacancies. jobs on social media, advertise their business and positions at local high schools and military organizations, and attend more local job fairs. Again, an increase in wages might be the most direct way to alleviate this problem.

If managers are unable to find good enough candidates, another option is to outsource. “In my company, we could probably get by with a more hybrid model by outsourcing the plumbing and electrical work and then letting our employees focus more on routine maintenance,” Rose said. We already subcontract the mechanical work and we have a third party that does preventive maintenance.

The skills shortage has been happening for some time, but the pandemic and the resulting “big resignation” of American workers could make matters worse. Managers and building owners can now be proactive and tap into their proverbial toolbox to find qualified candidates and replace the wave of retirements of their maintenance staff. Housekeepers, just like janitorial and cleaning staff, are the lifeblood of commercial buildings, they do the job that many of us don’t want to do or think about until ‘there is a problem. As a rugged and unrecognized offensive lineman in commercial buildings, maintenance technicians are truly essential. They don’t get the same attention as executives and higher-ranking employees, but you can’t run a building without them.

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