Wanted: The Next Generation of Technicians
Maintenance and engineering management industry looks to high school students to replace retiring employees.
Due to changing trends in a technology-centered job market, it has become increasingly harder to entice the younger generation to consider a career in maintenance and engineering management. With a growing number of front-line maintenance technicians at institutional and commercial facilities reaching retirement age within the next 10-15 years, managers are looking for the next generation of employees.
High schools may be a good place for managers to find aspiring technicians among students looking for a career while pursuing them by offering internships, training and other programs to get them interested in the profession.
Jim Zirbel, the co-director of Facilithon, a program that teaches high school students about the facilities management (FM) industry, says when Facilithon tried to reach out to high schools many years ago, they had a difficult time figuring out how to connect with students and encourage them to pursue careers in facility management.
"We were adults, trying to be relevant to students who live in a tech-advanced culture wildly dissimilar to that we grew up in," Zirbel says of trying to connect with current students. "Our message often followed the old self-validating 'FM tough guy' narratives of talking about overcoming obstacles. Students heard too many other stories already from other industries already doing the same thing. We were just part of the noise."
Zirbel says Facilithon also tried offering liaison programs, including tours and free memberships to the program, but what worked was partnering with an organization that was successful in moving students to careers. It partnered with SkillsUSA to help capture the attention of students already being led by a technical education teacher.
Another way to connect with students is establishing a pipeline through relationships with school districts, says Machion Jackson, Detroit Public Schools Community District assistant superintendent of operations. Contacting the Career and Technical Education (CTE), Adult Education and Counseling departments in central offices can bring connections to industry leaders and companies that can offer fairs, career pathway programs and internships to pique student interest and give them access to job experience.
"Our CTE programs graduate some of our city's best talent," Jackson says. "Major corporations have hired our students who now work as painters, carpenters, boiler operators and construction project managers."
Once managers connect with students, they should share their experiences in the profession and tell them the benefits of working in facility maintenance.
"Share (with students) that this is an awesome profession, where you get paid pretty well to do something different every day and get to be someone's hero, a lot," Zirbel says. “If you want to feel worthy, engaged and have fun doing it, facility management is really cool."
Setting a path
Alishia K. Jolivette Webber, an executive officer of facilities, maintenance and operations in the Houston Independent School District, says tradespersons and facility management leaders should inform students of the growing career opportunities in facilities.
"Facilities is more than building a building, unclogging a toilet, painting a room or repairing an HVAC unit," she says. "It's about making a difference and providing a safe, healthy and secure environment."
When informing students about the industry, managers should also include what the career path looks like so students know what to expect.
Jolivette Webber says career paths in facilities can start before graduation, and the foundation could start in elementary school and continue in the middle/junior high grades. Internships should begin in high school, and apprenticeships should begin during the junior/senior year of high school, she says.
Through Facilithon, Zirbel says a high school student's career path to FM begins through the SkillsUSA program. In the program, students participate in activities such as quizzes and conduct role-playing scenarios about facilities. The program encourages students to think like managers and technicians and gets students excited about the industry.
"Adjunct to that are the FM Pipeline Team's FaciliTopics video series and Wellhead job-shadow snapshot programs, where one can see, get mentored, visit and intern with an FM organization during one's further education," Zirbel says. "This is valid whether they head off to college or the trades, where your employer pays for your post-secondary education."
Another example of an FM program for students is College Kickstart, an inner-city school organization for at-risk students in Toronto, Canada. The organization began its Facilithon relationship in 2022 as a pathway to a high-level career that underrepresented populations rarely have access to, Zirbel says.
"An FM career means, not only a better future for the candidate, but it also carries siblings, parents and the entire neighborhood's aspirations with it, a game-changer in high-impact neighborhoods," he says.
While a career in facilities may be overlooked by students, Webber says she had the opportunity to participate in her district’s "When I Grow Up" campaign where students and families learned about the Facilities, Maintenance and Operations department. Through the program, high school students participated in summer internships and learned about what takes place "behind the scenes" of their learning.
Students who find their own way to the profession are extremely rare. Students don't always ask questions about the industry, unless they already know about it.
"If you find a student not in our program that's on fire about FM, it's an amazing gift for which direct mentoring with someone they can relate to is extremely important," Zirbel says.
Ashley Haley is a freelance writer with Advantage Informatics.