Managers discuss staffing strategies and tactics to meet challenge of expanding and evolving facilities

By Dan Hounsell, Editor  

Tim Woodley
Tim Woodley,
Department of Operations Director, West Linn-Wilsonville School District, Tualatin, Ore.

Chris Miller
Chris Miller,
Director of Facilities Services, Georgia Regents Medical Center, Augusta, Ga.

Dan Durham
Dan Durham,
Director of Facilities Operations, University of North Carolina-Greensboro

If institutional and commercial facilities and their core functions never changed, it still would be difficult for maintenance and engineering managers to ensure effective staffing levels in all areas of operations. But facilities do change — constantly. Throw in complications created by tight budgets and shrinking labor pools, and the responsibility of staffing can seem overwhelming. These three managers discuss their situations and successes.

Q: What is your role in determining effective staffing?

MILLER: My role is to determine if we have the appropriate number of staff to balance the workload and demand. We compare to previous years' budgets, and we look at different benchmarks. One tool I've used to help my case in terms of staffing is the Operations and Maintenance Benchmarks for Health Care Facilities that was put out by ASHE. We also use some data from the University Healthcare Consortium to validate staffing numbers. I'll show what national staffing benchmarks are and try to get as close as I can to those. But there are a lot of medical centers across the country that can't financially afford to be at ideal staffing levels. We are not where we'd like to be, but we're definitely a lean and competent department.

DURHAM: As director, along with my management staff, I determine the effective staffing levels for all the functions we're responsible for in order to meet the expectations of customers.

WOODLEY: As a public entity, we don't have a whole lot to say about staffing levels. It is simply brought forward from previous general-fund budgets. Occasionally, we will make a case for an addition or a detraction or some combination. Sometimes, we're successful. Usually, we're not. Recently, we did add two schools, but we didn't add any staff. The focus here has been on teachers. For us, it occurs early in the budget season, which is in the spring. There is a school-board-appointed budget committee that has primary staff support from our business manager. When that process starts to ramp up, if there's a case to be made, I present it to him, and through him it would get to the superintendent. There would be a certain amount of data behind it. In the general-fund budget, there's all kinds of pressure for other things, so often, we don't fare that well.

Q: How do you determine staffing strategies for various areas and trades?

MILLER: Everything revolves around our budget cycle, and even though it's an annual process, if I want to make a staffing increase with the existing budget, I would be gathering that data throughout the year — building my case, so to speak. I would get my benchmark numbers compared to square footage compared to existing staff. When we go into our budgeting cycle, then I would start putting that information into our system and saying, "Our staffing levels are at this point. We'd like to go to this number based on these benchmarks and this square footage." Sometimes, we've been successful, and in other cases, we haven't been successful. Since we've had to be lean and efficient in our staff as well as funding, we've erred on the side of caution with the mechanical and electrical systems. For example, I had to make some staffing changes this year. So instead of having four full-time painters, we only have two full-time painters now, and I have transitioned those other two gentlemen into different roles that will better support the infrastructure. Unfortunately, when we make sacrifices, we're going to make them on the aesthetic side of the department.

DURHAM: I use a variety of methods for existing staffing levels. I use benchmarking with similar universities to see how we compare with our peers. I also use departmental metrics to assess staffing levels. We have several metrics, such as corrective work order response time and percentage of preventive maintenance versus percentage of corrective maintenance. They give us an indication of whether we're staffed right in different areas. I also talk with the managers and supervisors to be aware of overall operations.

For new positions, they typically come along with new facilities, although that's not the only way. For new construction and major renovations, the university system uses a spreadsheet called the building reserve model to calculate the staffing levels for different types of buildings based on square footage. It's a good tool, but not all buildings fit neatly into its categories. So I still have to verify that the staffing levels that it indicates are what's needed. I also ask the managers in various areas to estimate and assess their existing staffing levels and the resources they need to accommodate the new construction or renovation because ultimately, they're going to be responsible for it. They've got to have input into the process. They're also the experts in that area, so no matter what the model says, it needs their stamp of approval. Using my experience and the experience of the management staff is also important in vetting the information, both the information the model may calculate and the information managers get from their supervisors and information I get from managers. The only other way to get new positions is to reallocate resources to address strategic objectives. Sometimes, we need to reconfigure or combine positions to provide better service the areas we want to go. In some cases, that results in new positions but just using existing resources.

WOODLEY: For custodial, they are assigned to buildings. And there are two shifts during the day. Primary schools have one custodian. Middle schools can have two, and our high schools have more, up to maybe seven. We have substitutes, which are new, and that was the thing I took to the budget committee this year. Prior to that we had no one to go to. The other group is maintenance. If custodial is down, the only place we can draw from is maintenance. So whatever tasks they might have had that day would be interrupted because they would be stationed out in the school. There's quite a bit of juggling every single day because when you have staff of this size, there are always a certain number of people who are out on vacation or sick or something. It has helped this year to have four staff positions that are temporary or substitute. We do look at other organizations, but that is balanced against what we've had before. Our community and our administrators believe our buildings are well kept, so it's hard for them to say you could use another staff person. You walk through, and they look clean and well-maintained, but the reality is that they're slowly degrading. We do look at other school districts. That always comes up. What do the other area districts have in terms of square footage per custodian? How do we compare to industry standards?

Q: What resources do you use to set those levels?

MILLER: Networking at various functions and talking with the university system here in Georgia and those directors of facilities and comparing their staffing levels and square footages. We also talk about what services they're providing in-house and what services they are outsourcing. We're really having to look at whether we can provide a service better with an outside vendor, or would it make more sense to bring that service in-house?

DURHAM: We use the APPA Facilities Performance Indicators survey to help us benchmark. We also use the APPA Operational Guidelines for Educational Facilities as a resource.

Q: What are your major challenges in ensuring effective staffing? How have you addressed each of these challenges?

MILLER: In terms of recruiting, it has become increasingly difficult to find competent HVAC mechanics. Part of it is our wage. I don't think that we are competitive when it comes to HVAC and controls technicians. We look for somebody with basic experience in those fields, then see if they're competent and trainable. That is an area that we are really struggling with. We've had to offset our lack of knowledge and skills in the HVAC area by bringing in outside providers to help us support some of those systems because their technicians have the better skills sets. We seem to find general mechanics, but it is surprising working in a medical center that not many new employees come to us with healthcare experience. That's a challenge because bringing in someone who has worked in a commercial building and putting them in a healthcare setting is a challenge for them. We've been fortunate to have pretty good retention up until the last five years. About 50 percent of the people we have lost — folks who have been here for 15 or 20 years — have been due to retirement. In the last four months, I've had four people retire. We have had some new employees that worked out really good that have left only after a year or two, and some of that could have been due to the workload. It's a bit stressful because we are asking everybody to do more with less.

DURHAM: The major challenge, especially for the last six years or so, is the financial challenges due to state budget reductions. That affects a lot of areas, including staffing. Universities and state government have been viewed as one of the most stable places someone could work, but that's not as true as it used to be, though it still is true to a certain extent. The budget reductions mean we have fewer resources to cover the same or even greater square footage or acreage. It means burnout is also a concern. The increased workloads and increased stress is more of a concern now than in the past. If we don't manage that well, it definitely has the potential to increase stress and result in burnout.

WOODLEY: All of our employees are under a classified union contract, and one of the biggest challenges is that they're entitled to (take) leave. Our staffing level doesn't align with the need for real people in real places. So on any given day, the facility managers really struggle, sometimes to even keep a building open. That is a significant staffing issue. I don't think retention is real difficult. But there is a certain amount of churn and a certain amount of burnout. When you have a standard in mind and you can't achieve it, it becomes demoralizing at a point. And I think there is a little burnout in that and probably some loss of productivity at times.

Q: How have you addressed each of these challenges?

DURHAM: As far as recruiting, even with the budget reductions, I've been able to work closely with human resources to make sure that whenever we fill a position, that position is classified correctly — especially in more critical positions — to make sure we've done surveys of competitors as far as salaries and benefits to see how we're stacking up. We also try to stress the positives of working in a university to potential employees, even in trades where we might not be competitive as far as salary. There are other things, as far as benefits or the work environment or stability — knowing where you're going to report to work every day — that are attractive to a lot of people. As far as burnout, communication is very important. Now more than ever, we have to make sure our staff maintains or enhances their skill sets so they can be as productive and efficient as they can be. We also want to provide a positive experience for our employees because it helps morale. We really put emphasis on employee recognition.

WOODLEY: One step was to get those four substitutes. That helped a lot. Retention isn't too hard. I think the union contract helps that. And they're reliable jobs. If you're qualified and like working in a public school, it's a pretty good place to work. I think the people enjoy working with and benefiting kids. And through the school year, there's different activities, whether it's school start or winter break or spring break or graduation. All those things help it be less mundane. Our industry compared to others probably has a bit of an advantage there. We have some all-group events that make it more enjoyable for them and get them out of their buildings. We have a custodial supervisor who's out and about all the time.

Q: How have staffing challenges in your department changed in recent years?

MILLER: I've been in facilities for 26 years, and we are getting a much younger workforce and folks with not as much trade experience. That's been a big change. We have to start looking at how many employees we have that are on the verge of retirement and who can we start training. People have certain things that they know intimately about facilities, and we want to make sure we capture all that knowledge before people leave here so we can share it with new and existing employees. We've had to plan differently because of the age of the employees and bringing in a newer and younger workforce and gelling those together to make sure we're still maintaining a good team atmosphere.

DURHAM: It has been difficult for facilities management to attract younger employees to work in operations and maintenance. That has resulted in us having an older work force. In fact, the average age in my department is 53 years old, and I think that's fairly typical. One of the most difficult trades to recruit is in the area of controls technicians. Typically, the salaries for controls technicians at state universities are one of the least competitive salaries that we're able to offer, compared to what controls companies pay. We really haven't found an answer for that because it's a very specialized trade.

WOODLEY: At the journeyman level in the trades, we have one carpenter and one plumber and one electrician. Their work has become very complex and technical with mechanical systems, such as HVAC systems that use DDC controls. When you have just one person in an area, he needs to be really good. He's got to know how to navigate around and through occupied buildings. We've had some people retire from those really, really key positions. We went looking for replacements with the salaries that we offer, and we couldn't get anybody. So we created a new classification for that journeyman level that could compete with the private side. That was a significant help to us. It produced an excellent carpenter. We selected four trades, and even though we had four existing employees in those positions, we raised them to that elevated level. That was a great incentive for them and recognition of the work they do, and it gives them the strength to remain technically proficient and confident and capable of taking care of these very sophisticated buildings.

Q: What long-term steps are you taking to ensure effective staffing levels?

MILLER: We've developed a strategic operating plan that addresses our staffing, our operating budget, our capital budget, our utility management, and our sustainability efforts. We've outlined the level of service we provide now, categorizing it as a C using an A-B-C system. Then we included charts to give leadership an idea of a B level of service and an A level of service. For example, our existing staffing is at 44. If we want to achieve a B level of service, we would need to move the staffing level to 55. Then we also looked at what services we'd increase. Right now, we don't have a flooring replacement plan, due to (a lack of) funding. But if we went to a B level of service, we'd have a flooring replacement plan of every seven years. If we went to an A level, we'd replace it every five years. Right now, we're staffed to paint every patient room every four years. If we went to a B level of service, we would increase that frequency to every two years. If we went to an A level, we would increase it to every year. We want leadership to understand what they're going to get with that increased level of staffing.

DURHAM: As far as effective levels, providing training opportunities is very important, as is good communication. As far as staffing levels and getting the resources we need, the most important long-term strategy is to be a good value to the university and to be able to prove it and communicate it to the various stakeholders and decision makers as far as us being critical to their success. It goes back to the metrics and the benchmarking and using them to show we're a good value.

WOODLEY: It's just a matter of taking and being given the opportunity to tell our story to the school board and the superintendent's office about the work we do, the importance of it. Nothing moves without the right people. You can have great tools and fabulous buildings, but if there aren't qualified people to work in them and keep them up, it won't happen. There are ways to gracefully bring that forward without screaming that the dam is broke.

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  posted on 11/16/2014   Article Use Policy

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