Past APPA President Jack Hug is associate vice chancellor for auxiliary and plant services at the University of California/San Diego, La Jolla, California. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org..
I have just finished a week of presiding over three retirements of key people in our Physical Plant Services Department. In stepping back and reviewing what has happened and looking to the future with some reluctance, the following facts and figures impressed me. In the course of the past 18 months our Physical Plant Services Department has lost 63 percent of its management team, with several others having given notice of their intent to leave within the next year. During the past six months, we have appointed 14 new supervisors. You could say that the Physical Plant Services Department is a department in transition...changing daily.
The facts and figures however, tell only the quantitative side of the story. It's the quality of the people who we are losing that underscores the significance of the situation. People who have been with the university for 15-20-25 years or more have left and others are planning to leave in increasing numbers; some for traditional retirement, some for self-selected early retirement, and some for other opportunities.
I must say that the loss of the investment that we have in these people and our inadequate preparation of others to follow in succession is disappointing. I have always taken great pride in the fact that we did a lot of training, education, and development of people throughout our facilities group. It is now obvious that we have not done nearly enough. Further- more, the type of training we have sponsored (the curriculum) has missed the mark. Today's successful supervisor and manager still needs many of the old tried-and-true skills but in addition to this there is also a new skill set required…that is, if we are interested in improving support services to our institutions.
The loss of large amounts of talent in our support service sector, coupled with a continuously tight labor market and a history of underpaying for talent, have together increased the challenges for the facilities professional. I consider this a threat to the standards of service by which we are all being measured.
An interesting dilemma has emerged from our particular situation that I expect is occurring in other markets as well. For some time now I have made it a point to talk with every new employee coming into the department and every employee who leaves. For the new arrivals I ask each of them, "Why have you decided to join the Physical Plant Department?" The answers are always the same: "For opportunities!" Interestingly enough when I talk with those who are leaving the department and ask, "Why are you leaving?" the answer is almost always the same: "For opportunities!"
Now doesn't it make sense that we should take a closer look at what is happening to people while they are with us and what we can do to provide internal opportunities? Why lose the investment made in preparing people to be successful in our distinct educational environment? Why can't we provide more opportunities from within the department so that we can achieve a return on our investment and ensure that we have a competitive internal pool of candidates when opportunities are available? These are the questions that will be occupying a larger space on the agenda of all of us as we move through the new growth period ahead.
Some campuses obviously have done a better job than others. I thought we were prepared but the sheer fact of the matter is that we have dropped the ball in carrying out one of our most important responsibilities. Ensuring the successful handing off of responsibilities to well qualified and talented people who are properly and adequately prepared to take over and carry-on with the provision of successful facility services is a substantial challenge worthy of the highest level attention.
Focus on the Supervisor
Lester R. Bittel in his early writings on "What every Supervisor Should Know" (first edition 1959, with additions in 1968, 1974, and 1992) writes that the book might well be called THE TRUTH ABOUT SUPERVISION. The facilities professional would be well advised to revisit the lessons so effectively articulated by Bittel and improved and expanded by George B. Wright and a very small number of others who have worked a lifetime with supervisors.
What was true about supervision in the past is still true today. Those of us who consider ourselves leaders should keep in mind that the first task of leadership is to define reality. It seems to me that a critical requirement for successful facilities management departments today begins with defining the realities of the supervisory responsibility. It may be time for an intense review of how well we are providing this key link between management and the worker.
Today, it is easy to get caught up in the excitement of all the management tools, theories, and systems intended to help us improve our management. The menu of choices available to us is truly staggering. Sometimes it is necessary to revisit the basics and it seems more obvious to me that many of us need to go back to the foundation of supervisory and mid-management training in order to truly position the organization for a successful future. There is a lifetime of requirements for supervisors to master and any facilities leader worth his or her salt will make the investment at this critical point in the organizational hierarchy.
So where has all the talent gone? Look around. There are a lot of new faces in APPA eager for opportunities within our organizations. For some, this acknowledgment may sound like a confession of missed opportunity. I will admit that we most certainly have taken our eye off the ball. The road to success for facilities management service organizations surely goes through the supervisors. So how are you doing?