Facing and minimizing facilities staff shortages

4 ways to address the shortage of trades workers and other facilities employees on campus today (and tomorrow)
By: | Issue: October, 2019
September 17, 2019
On solid ground—Michigan State University’s landscape and grounds team is responsible for maintaining 1,500 acres of green space, 57 miles of roadways and 22,000 trees. Among the department’s many services is the installation of roadway and wayfinding signage.On solid ground—Michigan State University’s landscape and grounds team is responsible for maintaining 1,500 acres of green space, 57 miles of roadways and 22,000 trees. Among the department’s many services is the installation of roadway and wayfinding signage.

While open faculty positions pose big challenges for colleges trying to maintain (core) business as usual, staff-level employee shortages are a huge headache on some campuses. After all, problems with building basics like plumbing and HVAC systems typically require immediate attention.

Employee shortages at the staff level are acute in skilled trade positions such as carpenters, electricians and machinists, CUPA-HR research has found. Although these jobs comprise the smallest percentage of the higher education staff workforce, they’re “growing at nearly triple the rate of office/clerical and service/maintenance positions combined,” says Missy Kline, the organization’s spokesperson.

“It’s getting harder and harder to find people with the skills needed and who can hit the ground running, and it’s harder to retain them,” says Dan Bollman, who has spent 29 years at Michigan State University and is currently vice president for strategic infrastructure planning and facilities.

Higher ed institutions face multifaceted challenges in hiring and retaining workers in the skilled trades. Besides the lack of qualified job candidates, a retirement issue looms. CUPA-HR found that nearly half of the skilled trade staff on campuses around the country are age 55 or older. When they depart, they will take with them years of institutional knowledge and critical job skills that younger workers don’t necessarily have.

The nationwide college-prep push exacerbates the issue. High schoolers are regularly told that college is a must-have for a successful career, and choosing trade school over college often carries a stigma.

“It’s an interesting paradigm,” says Pete Strazdas, past international president for the organization APPA-Leadership in Educational Facilities. “Everyone goes to college and doesn’t go into the skilled trades. Should we say, ‘Don’t go to university?’ That’s our bread and butter,” adds Strazdas, who has served for nine years as associate vice president of facilities management at Western Michigan University.

While the shrinking labor pool is inevitable, he says, “we don’t sit around at meetings and cry into our milk.”
Following are four viable ideas for facing and minimizing trade and other facilities worker shortages. Campus leaders can choose the best routes to take based on their institution’s culture, location, needs and goals.

1. Sell the intangibles.

It can be difficult for colleges and universities to be competitive on wages, especially in Michigan, where the auto industry—though somewhat diminished from its heyday—remains a large employer of skilled trade workers.

Michigan State officials have gotten creative when trying to attract highly qualified candidates to open positions. Tuition reimbursement, growth opportunity and culture are benefits that make a university job stand out.

“We emphasize the nonsalary nature of the work, including a higher mission; being part of something special at Michigan State; and intangibles, such as it being nice to come to work on a college campus every day, an allegiance you can develop to your school, and educational opportunities,” says Bollman.

Strazdas echoes that. “Usually, we’re not going to double your salary,” he says of hiring at Western Michigan. “But we have a good culture; we take care of our people.”


Related: Case study: How Drexel addresses labor shortages through local partnerships


Instead of primarily relying on job postings, Strazdas counts on word-of-mouth to bring the right candidates. Staff are encouraged to talk with friends and family about the work at Western Michigan and the perks of the jobs there.

That strategy is proving successful. “Every time we have an opening, people want to come here,” Strazdas says. Recent postings for an electrician and carpenter, for example, brought in more than a dozen applicants each and many of them were qualified.

2. Play the long game.

Knowing that the skilled trade workforce won’t magically double, facilities hiring managers at Michigan State look to the future by reaching out to high school students via career fairs and school tours with the Regional Education Service Agencies (known as RESA) to help them understand the value of a career in the field. “It’s not your second choice because you couldn’t get into college. … It’s a valid career choice. For some, it’s a better choice,” Bollman says.

In Strazdas’ experience, rebranding skilled trade and facilities work is a solution many trade organizations are exploring—and one that could be applied to work on college campuses with a specific focus on the high-tech nature of the jobs. “People work hard and get things done, but we’re not digging ditches and doing heavy construction,” he says, adding that many facilities staff work in existing buildings on maintenance. “It’s a cleaner environment.” His team members’ reliance on iPads and similar devices on the job becomes a selling point for a younger, more tech-savvy generation.

“You can get a great job in skilled trades and not inherit four years of debt,” Strazdas tells people.

Many colleges also pursue apprenticeship programs. Some target staff in low-skilled facilities positions, such as custodians and grounds crew, in an attempt to teach them new skills or encourage them to enter an apprenticeship program and eventually take on higher-skilled campus jobs as they open up.

Michigan State’s facilities department is in the planning stage of an apprenticeship program that will create another pipeline to get individuals into the skilled trades. In addition, a pre-apprenticeship program for women gives them the skills they need to get into and be successful in an apprenticeship program.

“Then, ideally, they’d go into a career at MSU or somewhere else,” Bollman says. The first two cohorts of the women’s program had a total of 14 participants, nine of whom have gone on to apprenticeships in the skilled trades.

3. Turn to students.

A staff shortage may be addressed by looking to the largest candidate pool on campus: the student population. While one can’t count on them to connect electrical cables or weld, for example, students can be a crucial supplement to facilities teams. “They learn something; they’re paid,” Strazdas says. “I feel strongly about engaging students, even though it may be by mowing the grass or carrying two-by-fours.”


Also read: Op-ed: Don’t rule out hiring employees with criminal backgrounds


Bollman sees this as an opportunity not only to get help when resources are short, but also to evaluate talent and help students think about facilities careers, which they may not have otherwise considered. Bollman’s team actively recruits students for on-campus work in engineering, architecture and other disciplines.

Selling the culture to potential employees

Hiring to address staff-level shortages can’t rely on a one-size-fits-all approach. Younger staff may be more focused on the take-home pay than the robust healthcare and retirement packages. If you can’t compete on dollars, culture becomes an important selling point, especially for recent loyal graduates.

As potential candidates age, the perspective shifts. Certainly, the value of working on a college campus can’t be ignored, but institution-specific benefits may hold more weight. Tuition remission programs, especially for individuals with children nearing college age, are a bonus.

“For a young person, they want to talk take-home. An older person wants to talk about the whole package,” says Pete Strazdas, past international president for the organization APPA – Leadership in Educational Facilities. “And when you look at that, we are competitive, especially in the service sector,” adds Strazdas, who works in facilities management at Western Michigan University.

4. Minimize turnover.

Addressing a staff shortage also requires retaining workers. There’s no guarantee that they’ll stay, and in some cases, they take the training and new skills gained on campus and use them elsewhere. But it’s a gamble worth taking, Strazdas has found. “The majority end up staying and are better off because we provided that skill set they didn’t have,” he says.

Michigan State officials aim to get workers excited about their own success. For a year, they’ve been using a leadership assessment tool for anyone interested in a facilities career. “If we help them identify strengths and areas to improve on, and help them create that path, they are more likely to stick around,” Bollman says.

Drexel University in Philadelphia made addressing turnover part of its local hiring initiative. The Office of University and Community Partnerships worked closely with human resources and a local training organization to determine why turnover was high in the positions identified for the initiative. This provided the opportunity to address, through training, skills gaps that were driving turnover, as well as to ensure that any cultural or managerial issues weren’t being replicated.

“Data-informed decision-making led the conversation,” says Soneyet Muhammad, the director of workforce and economic inclusion programming at Drexel. “That’s certainly something that has continued to inspire new opportunities where there’s a layered win—with respect to hiring locally—and where there’s a business case for why this work continues to make sense because of that customized training to deliver a quality candidate.”

Heather Kerrigan is a Washington D.C.-based writer.