How to attract new facilities talent on college campuses

Unfortunately for university leaders, the facilities workforce is proving ever more challenging to find.

The use of technology to supplement and even replace people in workplaces has, perhaps ironically, long been a defining characteristic of humans. From the tools of early man through the printing press, the industrial revolution, robotics and now the emerging presence of artificial intelligence, relieving people of the burden of work (or the company of workers) has been happening for a long time.

Yet as Anne Mulcahy, former CEO and chairwoman of Xerox Corporation, noted, “Employees are a company’s greatest asset—they’re your competitive advantage.” In few places does this remain more evident than in higher education facilities organizations, where the unique flexibility of people is needed to serve a complex combination of human, operational and building demands.

The problem

Unfortunately for university leaders, that facilities workforce is proving ever more challenging to find. Nick Jones, at Classet, confirms what facilities leaders experience daily—the average age of skilled trades workers is 55 while the national average for all workers is 45.

The pandemic and the related quiet quitting phenomenon have left us with a worker shortage and new workplace expectations across all industries. The question is how to address these challenges.

The context

Conversations with people on campuses across the country, where experimentation and innovation are happening real-time, reveals broad ways to think about the shortage and some promising techniques for finding and retaining talent.

In order to move forward, it is important to accept that the workforce paradigm has changed and we will not be returning. Here are some fundamental ideas university leaders should consider as a starting point for framing their approach to the campus facilities workforce challenge:

  • Embrace the idea of developing your own talent
  • Invest in cultural and social skills so employees want to stay and will continue to grow
  • Embrace looking farther, harder and in different places to find talent
  • Be prepared to commit more resources, both time and money

Specific actions

Developing your own talent takes different shapes. In markets where there are limited quantities of young talent, schools are exploring ways to connect with potential employees while they are still students. At the University of Mississippi, for example, trades students from local technical programs at schools are interning on campus, where the students can learn about the community and work more generally, while the school gets a chance to vet talent over a long period of time. A win-win.

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Developing talent isn’t just about technical skills. John Shenette, formerly at Wake Forest and now with CSL Consulting, notes that more and more, the critical talent isn’t technical, it is the capability to work in an educational environment. If you can find the right kind of people, you can give them the technical training over time. In order for people to stay, they have to want to work in these complicated communities.

APPA | Leadership in Educational Facilities has a new non-technical program, “Invest in Success,” designed to help line employees stay, focusing on the human skills needed in the workplace to interact, resolve conflict and bridge differences. Early implementation on several campuses has shown employees universally expressing appreciation for the learning experience and departments that clearly want to keep them around.

For Mark Helms at the University of Florida, employing technology like autonomous floor care and mowing equipment, battery powered devices and remote sensor technology isn’t about replacing people. He sees them as ways to augment, liberate and empower the people that are already there. Employees can be encouraged to use the freedom created by the tools to work with more agency themselves, providing greater value to the community and increasing their daily satisfaction by more directly impacting the community.

Back at the University of Mississippi, they are also exploring a look beyond their local area by tapping into regional firms who will find and place technical talent. Search firms aren’t just for executives anymore.


There is no doubt that taking on any of this work can take time and money. But investing in the facilities organization is requiring that already, and an understaffed, disengaged organization will be highly unproductive, even wasteful. These organizations are demonstrating creative levers leaders can pull to optimize their existing teams and most cost effectively tackle the challenges of finding new talent. We should be celebrating them.

Pete Zuraw
Pete Zuraw
Pete Zuraw is vice president of market strategy and development for Gordian.

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