Facilities Managers Discuss Major Challenge: an Aging Work Force

Denver — To be sure, there was plenty of gray hair in a Sheraton Hotel ballroom here on Tuesday, where college facilities managers gathered to talk about the most pressing issues during APPA 2012, the annual conference for the college-facilities organization. But when Ted Weidner took the stage, he offered some hard numbers that illustrated the crisis college-facilities organizations face with their aging employees.

Mr. Weidner, assistant vice chancellor for facilities at the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, put up a chart indicating that nearly half of the facilities employees at Lincoln were over 50. The biggest proportion of all Lincoln’s facilities employees—about 35 percent—are age 50 to 59.

“Look at that number from 50 to 59, and how big that is,” Mr. Weidner said. “Where are we going to be in five to 10 years?” He noted that he has one employee who is over 80. And a growing number of his employees—now up to 30 percent—speak English as a second language.

An aging work force in facilities continues to be a quiet but pressing challenge for colleges. Many of these older employees hold valuable and idiosyncratic knowledge about college buildings and systems—knowledge that isn’t recorded in any training manual or facilities plan.

To make matters more difficult, these aging workers and their skills are hard to adequately replace, as employment trends indicate that younger people don’t stay in jobs as long as older generations did. Mr. Weidner cited U.S. Department of Labor statistics indicating that workers today will have had 10 to 14 employers by age 38, and that one in four workers has been in a job for less than a year.

“That’s a challenge for how to maintain the knowledge base,” he said. “In one of our surveys we found that once we keep an employee for five years, we can keep them for 30. Our challenge is keeping them that five years.”

Mr. Weidner was joined onstage by Brooks Baker, associate vice president for facilities at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. “When I look at the mirror, I don’t think that’s the future—and most of my staff says, Praise the Lord,” he quipped.

Mr. Baker outlined another challenge with a younger generation of workers: “Gen X and Gen Y don’t embrace craft and trade positions as a lofty goal,” he said. When he was getting out of high school, half of his class went into the trades—and were proud to do that work. “We have a problem—we have a gap here with pride in being a craftsperson or tradesperson.”

Both Mr. Baker and Mr. Weidner said they had gone to the local trade schools and other training centers to try to recruit employees and support training programs for facilities positions. Mr. Baker said his university sometimes found it easier to hire someone with no experience and train that person on the job.

Some in the audience suggested seeking out returning military-service members as employees. A colleague of Mr. Baker’s said that he was advertising jobs at a U.S. Navy placement center.

Someone from American University’s sustainability office asked whether sustainability programs, which are often run out of facilities departments, had spurred young people’s interest in working for those departments. Mr. Weidner said that much of that interest was coming from nontechnical students, who were particularly helpful in communicating his department’s efforts to green the campus—getting the achievements posted on Facebook or broadcast to the campus in other ways.

Communication has “always been a challenge for the techies that predominantly exist in facilities operations,” he said.

Another audience member, who came from a public college, wondered whether potential future employees might be scared off by widespread antipathy for public-service employees and the pensions and other benefits they have traditionally received. Mr. Baker sympathized with those concerns.

“When I went to work for the university, I came out of industry,” he said. The people who recruited him said, “We can’t pay you what you are making now, but look at the benefits and look at the retirement and all these things that go with it.”

“That was a selling point—it has been for years—but those benefits are under attack,” he said. “It makes it even more difficult to recruit and retain.”

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