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An Ode to Building Maintenance Workers

These unsung heroes are now in very high demand

If a building was an NFL team, the maintenance workers would be the offensive lineman. Maintenance workers aren’t glamorous, they’re rarely in the spotlight, their work can be dangerous, and for the importance of what they do, they are vastly unappreciated. Just like a good offensive line is the foundation of a great football team, maintenance workers are the glue that keeps commercial buildings together. They do the dirty work, prevent building problems from getting worse, and sometimes get very little in return.

Facilities managers nationwide are increasingly finding it more difficult to find maintenance workers, too. Much has been written about the labor shortage in the U.S. over the past year or so, but for maintenance technicians, the skilled labor shortage pre-dates the pandemic. Skilled trades jobs have fallen out of favor for many younger people over the past few decades. And now, many Baby Boomer maintenance workers are reaching retirement age. The median age of a skilled trades worker in America is 43 years old, which is 10 percent older than the general population, according to a recent report by Angi, an online directory of contractors.

Darin Rose is the Director of Administration and Facilities at Credit Union of Colorado in Littleton, Colorado, and he said finding suitable maintenance technicians has been challenging, even in a large metro market like Denver. “During the pandemic, there were a lot of maintenance techs who were already close to retiring, and they went ahead and pulled the trigger,” Rose said. “We had a technician who retired about four months ago, and it wasn’t until this last week that we were able to hire a replacement.”

What Rose has seen at his facility is going on all over the country. Sixty-two percent of companies said in a recent Adecco survey they’re struggling to fill skilled and technical trades jobs like electricians, plumbers, pipefitters, and welders. The shortage of skilled tradespeople has been ongoing, but it’s reaching a critical mass. Companies in nearly every industry sector are competing for reliable maintenance techs. Not having this type of professional help isn’t an option for most properties. “In facilities management, these workers do preventive maintenance that prevents catastrophes and bigger issues from happening,” Rose said. “And when there’s a type of fire or emergency, they’re the ones running into the building while everyone else evacuates.”

For FMs and building owners, finding and hiring solid maintenance techs to replace their retirees is more critical than ever. Decades of experience and institutional knowledge about buildings are increasingly leaving the workforce, leaving a void that’s hard to replicate. The importance of maintenance workers in our facilities is hard to overstate. They keep the lights on, improve safety, decrease equipment downtime, and conserve valuable building assets. And they do it all often behind the scenes and without the appreciation reserved for other professions.

Showing appreciation

Maintenance work can be a demanding job, you’re certainly not sitting at a desk all day. While most techs can get a job with just a high school diploma, there’s a wide array of skills that make up a good maintenance worker. Increasingly, maintenance workers need to adapt to changing technology in buildings, including the use of computerized maintenance management systems (CMMS) that systematize work orders. But Rose told us that the most important skill he looks for when hiring techs is problem-solving. Every building system can have several reasons for why it malfunctions, and techs need those problem-solving skills to figure out the exact causes of failure.

“If the worker has good technical abilities, that’s a close second,” Rose said. “Beyond technical skills, I look for workers who have a broader facilities management understanding. They should understand the bigger picture of why they’re making repairs and how it’s helping bring better quality to the organization.”

Working in maintenance can also be dangerous, so following safety practices is essential. A recent study by business insurance provider AdvisorSmith said maintenance work ranks number 21 among the top 25 most dangerous professions. In 2019, maintenance workers had a fatality injury rate of 13 per 100,000 workers, according to BLS statistics. That’s four times higher than the national average job fatality rate of 3.4 per 100,000 workers. The most common cause of workplace death for maintenance techs is contact with objects and building systems, such as electrocution. In maintenance work, you can also expect muscle strains and sprains, as techs spend most of their days on their feet, fixing equipment in awkward positions, and lifting heavy objects.

And most maintenance workers, like those NFL offensive linemen, do all this dirty work with very little appreciation. It can be a thankless job, for sure. “I’ll say it bluntly: people are self-centered, and they’re focused on what’s important to them in their own jobs and life,” Rose said. “For example, our bank tellers are focused on what they’re doing, and that’s fine. People aren’t necessarily focused on the cleanliness of buildings unless it becomes a problem. People don’t really see how building maintenance issues get resolved and fixed, they just see the end result.”

At his company, Rose said he does a few things to point out the hard work of his maintenance techs and make sure they get a few pats on the back. Last year during the protests and social unrest, some of his company’s facilities suffered property damage and were tagged with graffiti, and his maintenance techs were the ones out there cleaning up. While most of the rest of the company was working from home during the height of the pandemic, the maintenance techs were the ‘essential workers’ doing the unpleasant tasks and protecting building assets.

Rose went out to the facilities, took pictures, and shared them with senior managers and others at the company. “We wanted to let people know that everyone’s remote working right now, but we’re out here taking care of our buildings,” he said. “Our maintenance techs added value to the company and showed tremendous initiative. We wanted others at the company to see what they accomplished and for them to be recognized.”

Pats on the back help, but an increase in pay for maintenance workers would help much more. The average annual pay for a U.S. maintenance technician in 2020 was $40,850, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Maintenance workers can earn more by climbing up the ladder to become supervisors, managers, or facilities managers, but why not learn a trade that is a bit more lucrative, such as becoming an electrician or an HVAC technician? For example, electricians are also in high demand right now, and the BLS reports their median annual wage in 2020 was nearly $57,000. For all the outpouring of support for essential workers during the pandemic, a boost in salary for those deemed essential like maintenance techs would help them a lot more.

Solutions for labor shortages

As for the wave of retirements among building maintenance workers, many in the facilities management field have developed some practical solutions. The biggest among them may be succession planning. Identifying and working with older employees nearing retirement age is crucial right now, as more and more Baby Boomers leave the workforce. One strategy some FMs are using is to team up older workers with younger ones in a mentoring relationship to ensure institutional knowledge and skills are passed down. Building management experts say it’s good to fight back against the ‘knowledge is job security’ mentality. At the very least companies should set up a procedure to document best maintenance practices before older employees leave. A better solution is to help connect the veterans with the newcomers. Mentoring relationships can also be a two-way street, younger maintenance workers can help older peers with newer building tech that the ‘old-heads’ may struggle with.

Bringing fresh blood into the industry hasn’t been easy. Angi’s report on the skilled labor shortage suggests FMs and building owners should consider tweaking their recruitment practices when advertising for open positions. Word-of-mouth recruiting is relied upon heavily in skilled trades, so companies may not be casting a wide-enough net to attract qualified candidates. In addition to more frequent use of online job boards to post openings, Angi’s report suggests FMs may want to reach out to technical schools and trade organizations more often, post job openings on social media, advertise their company and job positions at local high schools and military organizations, and attend more local job fairs. Again, a bump in in wages might be the most direct path to alleviating this problem.

If managers are not able to find good enough candidates, another option is to outsource. “At my company, we could probably get by with more of a hybrid model by outsourcing plumbing and electrical work and then having our employees focus on more routine maintenance,” Rose said.  We already outsource mechanical work, and we have a third party that does preventive maintenance.”

The skilled labor shortage has been happening for a while, but the pandemic and resulting ‘Great Resignation’ of American workers may be making it worse. Building managers and owners can be proactive now and reach into their proverbial toolbox to find qualified candidates and replace the wave of retirements on their maintenance staff. Maintenance workers, just like janitorial and cleaning staff, are the lifeblood of commercial buildings, they do the work many of us either don’t want to do or don’t think about it until there’s a problem. As the rugged and unappreciated offensive lineman of commercial buildings, maintenance techs are truly essential. They don’t get the same spotlight as executives and higher-ranking employees, but you can’t manage a building without them.

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