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Rich Robben, physical plant executive director at the University of Michigan, discusses the school's training program for maintenance workers
Physical Plant Executive Director
University of Michigan
1. What were the reasons for starting the Plant Academy training program?
An increase in population, building complexity and square footage across our campus resulted in additional positions being created by the university's academic and research units to manage the buildings. Exemplary candidates were coming from corporations or municipalities and stepping into a very different mission, infrastructure, business model, and culture in higher education. It was this new type of facilities partner that motivated the idea, but our veteran facility managers have told us that the training program is equally useful to galvanize their knowledge and skills.
2. What experience or background do the program's instructors have?
Each instructor is a subject matter expert. Roughly half of them have public speaking and business presentation experience required by their university job. On the other hand, many of our maintenance experts experienced public speaking for the first time as a result of teaching in this program. It did not take us long to help them organize their thoughts and put them in writing on PowerPoint because they are so deeply knowledgeable. It was well worth our effort to hold a dress rehearsal, of sorts, and coach them on how to answer questions so that lay people can better understand technical things. It is a great pride for us that our maintenance experts are teachers of the most popular courses in this program.
3. What subjects does the certificate program cover?
Safety is examined throughout much of the subject matter - from life safety to emergency preparedness, security and occupational safety. A second component is technical, combining classroom and building tours to understand major components of systems, like HVAC to building envelope. We also teach these managers how to collaborate with us on monitoring IT systems for building automation, understand online utility data, and harvest a wealth of pertinent information about their work orders from our CMMS. We also have a couple classes on university budget, administrative programs such as space management, and policies like property and procurement, with direct correlation to facilities management.
4. What are some of the tasks and assignments participants must complete?
Some elect to complete a Capstone project during their year of participation. For example, we have had a team evaluate the effectiveness of our priority system for work orders. Another team developed an online website about every possible topic and contact number that a facilities manager could need in their job - from getting a phone hooked up to the removal of an abandoned bicycle. The ingenuity and commitment to continuous improvement in these projects has been phenomenal.
5. What are the benefits of the certificate program for the participants?
Most of these facility professionals work in isolation, and so the connections they make with others in their field has been outstanding. We have heard many accounts in which the networking has increased morale and effectiveness on the job. We also know that the familiarity that builds in these classes has built better bridges to call on each other for resources and ideas.
6. What are the benefits of the program for the department and for the university?
Maintenance achieves its objectives more efficiently when an informed customer is working with us and providing effective information about their needs. One of the instructional mantras is to break the material down in class by saying "here is what I am about to teach you and here is why you need to know it." When a building manager takes their education to heart and knows they can be better customers in the way they provide work orders and support our technical expertise in their buildings, we have a high return on our investment.