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Like many maintenance and engineering departments at institutional and commercial facilities across the country, Kent State University has issues filling roles on its staff.
“We’re having a hard time hiring certain job descriptions, and one of the positions is a building maintenance mechanic,” says Doug Pearson, associate vice president, Facilities Planning and Operations at Kent State University in Ohio. “The sort of jack-of-all-trades that can handle trouble calls.”
The hiring crunch for maintenance jobs, whether it’s because of the Great Resignation in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, or longtime employees retiring with limited candidates in the pipeline to replace them, is encouraging managers to get creative to fill these spots.
To help alleviate this problem, Pearson looked in-house to fill vacancies.
“How do we grow our own?” Pearson asked. “Is there a way to put a program together where we can take unskilled labor like custodians or grounds laborers, and train them, with an opportunity for them to promote into the building maintenance mechanic position.”
Pearson’s idea morphed into reality. The school is currently in the middle of training its first set of 10 employees as part of a two-year accredited apprenticeship program designed to end with a full-time position as a maintenance mechanic. Ten employees from Kent State are currently in the program. The mix of trainees are full-time employees at the university as custodians or general laborers, for example.
Two mornings a week, the employees take part in a training program led by the Association of Building Contractors (ABC). ABC instructors teach the classes on campus from 8 a.m. to noon, and participants take part in the apprentice program during their regular work day.
“In order to incentivize employees to apply for those training positions, we let them do it on the clock,” Pearson says. “The ABC instructors are here and we let them use our shop. When they’re doing the carpentry module, they can use our carpentry shop. So far, it’s been very positive. We created 10 positions and they’ve all been very receptive. And we guaranteed them once they complete the program, they would automatically be promoted to maintenance mechanic.”
The internal response to the training program was popular, as more than 10 employees applied for the apprentice program. To sort out the best candidates, Kent administrated an aptitude test and a basic skills test. If a trainee leaves the program before completion, Kent will continue to fill those positions with internal candidates.
Plans are already under way to hire another 10 people into the program to start their two-year apprenticeship this year.
“We’ll have 20 people in the program at any one time,” Pearson says. “We are trying to encourage employees to keep trying because there will be future opportunities.”
The process can be challenging for both Pearson’s staff and the trainees.
“We find that people are completely devoid of skill sets,” he says. “They can log on to a computer, but don’t know how to run an electric drill.”
When the program is complete, the graduates will be trained across all the trades and able to complete such tasks as minor electrical jobs, change HVAC filters, and minor carpentry skills.
“The vast majority of what I would call trouble work orders or simple preventive maintenance like changing filters, checking greasing bearings, doing that simple stuff,” Pearson says. “It can be done by a general building maintenance mechanic. We don’t need a full-blown skills trades person to do some of that.”
The evolving workforce continues to be a challenge for maintenance managers at universities, who are losing prospective employees to other opportunities.
“There seems to be a shift in the employee market where benefits are not as valuable as the pay,” Pearson says. “We believe our total compensation package is competitive because of our health insurance, paid vacations, all the other benefits and free tuition at the university. But it seems like people just want the cash. We’re losing people to higher hourly paying jobs that have no benefits.
“The other thing, I've heard from recruiters and HR professionals that people just aren’t out there. There were big numbers thrown out about a couple million people that have long term disability from long-COVID and a huge number of people that are out of the job market because of substance abuse. There’s also a bunch of people that took early retirements and the available workforce is just down.”
Since managers often spend so much time putting out the occasional fires that flare up on campuses, training can take a backseat to those tasks. During this time when retaining and finding employees are so essential to keep operations running effectively, forgoing training is a critical mistake for managers.
“I think it’s getting more essential just to train,” Pearson says. “Grow your own skilled employees, because you’re not fighting to bring people in from off the street. Some studies out there show that part of retention is valuing your employees and offering them opportunities for growth. So, not only are we training somebody to help us, we’re also keeping that person invested in staying here.”
Dave Lubach is managing editor for the facilities market. He has seven years of experience covering facilities management and maintenance.