The Next Big FM Challenge in Higher Education

The Next Big FM Challenge in Higher Education

Colleges are facing a crisis that directly impacts student learning, safety, and continuity of operations as institutions are losing the staff who are responsible for maintaining equipment that keeps buildings up and running.

“I’m faced with losing over 25% of my current engineering staff in the next 6 months to retirement, and they’re taking a collective 80 years of institutional knowledge,” commented a College Associate Vice President of Facilities, during a webinar entitled The Next Big FM Challenge in Higher Education.

The reasons for departures include offers for higher pay from competing organizations, the desire to spend more time with families, and career changes.

When experienced facilities team members leave unexpectedly, they take with them a deep understanding of processes, procedures, best practices, important relationships, as well as knowledge about key pieces of equipment.

“Right now, there’s a guy with 38 years of experience who’s about to retire,” said Sarah Speron, Vice President of Facilities, St. Mary’s College of California. “What are we going to do when something breaks down and he’s not there to answer our questions?”

It’s likely that college and hospital buildings have been renovated numerous times over the years. With every renovation equipment may be relocated or replaced. Remembering all these details is tough, but veteran team members are called upon to find gas, water, and electrical shutoffs because no one else remembers. These calls can take place after hours or during the day, and if not quickly addressed disasters like floods can devastate buildings and disrupt classes or cause evacuations.

According to David Trask, National Director for ARC Facilities, these challenges are compounded because of the current labor shortages.

“There aren't enough people coming in to backfill vacancies and this is happening nationwide,” he said. “I hear horror stories where open positions haven’t been filled in a year or 18 months. Organizations are getting people that are applying that just aren't qualified – like the guy who worked for the IRS, who was interested in a lead electrician position.”

When short-staffed, some organizations turn to outsourcing electrical and HVAC services, which can be pricey. Training current team members to expand beyond their skill set is another option which takes time and commitment. Recruiting new talent is also a challenge, but savvy organizations are starting to consider the military, high schools, community colleges, and unions for skilled trades people.

Assessing The Future of Higher Education Facility Management

Facility managers in every industry deal with budget constraints, aging infrastructures, and keeping up with new technologies and best practices. As each facility has a unique history, culture, and processes, learning the ropes for newcomers takes time.

“We’re still struggling with technology and getting everybody up to speed,” said Nancy Birch, Physical Plant Service Center Manager, Salisbury University. “It’s a constant battle, and the people that have been here the longest are the biggest resisters because they don’t want to try something new. And yet it’s so helpful to have their information available to everybody,” she said.

Managing a 100+ year-old campus like Saint Mary's College of California is not without its quirks with underground tunnels, called the catacombs by students, connecting buildings. According to Speron, all sorts of unusual things have been found, like chandeliers, buried pools, and amazing antique furniture.

“You open up a wall and you never know what’s behind it,” she said.

The sense of adventure, excitement, and discovery also makes facility management a great career path, whether you have a background in the trades or not. Often, there are opportunities to learn new technologies, work with experts in safety, security, and operations, and feel like a vital part of the team. Higher education facilities are often located in rural settings, the buildings are interesting to look at, and there are lots of activities on college campuses.

The Next Big FM Challenge in Higher Education will be finding, recruiting, and fostering a new generation of people who love learning, getting out in the field, not being tied to a desk, and bringing a sense of safety and well-being to students and staff. Fortunately, apprenticeships, internships, and other hands-on training resources, including using mobile devices to capture and share facility knowledge, allow young people to get a taste of higher education facility management.

The higher education facility management world is fertile ground for gaining experience with capital planning, asset management, equipment maintenance, construction and renovation, and project management – skills which are transferable to other industries, including healthcare and manufacturing.

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