Editor’s Note: Two dozen higher education leaders met in March 2022 for a facilitated discussion of diversity, equity, and inclusion as part of APPA’s annual Thought Leaders Series. This article is excerpted from the 2022 APPA Thought Leaders report, From Thin Words to Thick Action: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, available at no charge to APPA members from the APPA Bookstore.
Thought Leaders symposium participants considered how to address and improve DEI in the operations of facility management departments. Participants believed that progress within the department could have a ripple effect across the institution. “Facilities has a way of touching every unit and group on campus,” stated one participant. “If we find a way to embrace DEI, we can be a conduit for change throughout the campus.” The solutions they offered are discussed below.
Promote Greater Diversity by Improving Hiring Practices and Creating Job Pipelines
Senior facilities officers are facing a perfect storm of workforce challenges. The labor market is undergoing a historic shift as the Great Resignation ripples through the economy. Workers are demanding higher wages while many higher education institutions are facing unprecedented financial challenges. Trades workers are aging out of the workforce, and colleges and universities are scrambling to find skilled staff to take their places.
The need to diversify the workforce might seem like yet another item placed on facilities managers’ to-do lists. In fact, a focus on diversity might be a way to solve many of the workforce challenges in higher education.
Take the shortage in skilled workers. “High school graduates have been so effectively encouraged to get a bachelor’s that high-paid jobs requiring shorter and less expensive training are going unfilled. This affects those students and poses a real threat to the economy,” reporters Ashley Gross and Jon Marcus stated in an article aired on NPR’s All Things Considered. Colleges and universities have certainly benefited from this push toward higher education, but even the most enthusiastic backers recognize that not all students will find satisfaction in a degree.
Meanwhile, the United States and Canada desperately need skilled workers. A 2021 report by the Home Builders Institute (HBI) analyzing data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the construction trade needed 2.2 million new workers by 2024—a figure that doesn’t include replacement staff for retiring workers.
These are good jobs, note many in the industry, with above average pay and high job satisfaction. The HBI report noted that “half of payroll workers in construction earn more than $50,460 annually and the top 25% make at least $71,000. In comparison, the U.S. median wage is $49,150 while the top 25% make at least $67,410.” Meanwhile, 83% of tradespeople report themselves satisfied in their choice of work, according to the 2021 Skilled Trades in America Report, published by Angi Research and Economics. In comparison, overall job satisfaction is about 57%, according to research by The Conference Board. Many trades allow workers to earn a salary while training for their career, and students complete programs in less time than required for a college diploma and without any student loan debt. As a result, these jobs can be particularly appealing for individuals from economically challenged backgrounds.
What is limiting growth in skilled trades? Lack of awareness is a major problem, combined with the continued focus on college-readiness in K-12 education. Educators and counselors also worry about stereotyping. The NPR report cited above noted concerns that “if students are urged as early as the seventh grade to consider the trades, then low-income, first-generation, and ethnic and racial minority high school students will be channeled into blue-collar jobs while wealthier and white classmates are pushed by their parents to get bachelor’s degrees.”
There is no quick fix to this problem, and solutions will likely require partnerships with K-12 school districts and community colleges. However, momentum seems to be building in a renewed focus on trades. Programs at the state level include the following:
- Indiana’s Next Level Jobs program provides free training for high-demand occupations in construction, transportation, and logistics.
- Tennessee’s Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education program is spending $50 million to expand career and technical training opportunities, especially in rural counties.
- Florida’s Workforce Education Initiative seeks to raise awareness of high-value career and technical education programs in the state.
Colleges and universities should consider creating or partnering on apprenticeship programs of their own to develop a pipeline for new employees. Institutions with such programs in place find them invaluable in workforce development, succession planning, and diversity.
The University Facilities department at Clemson University, for example, admitted its first cohort of apprentices in 2021. The program will train and certify HVAC and plumbing technicians and Certified Professional Custodians. The plan is to expand the program to train apprentices in construction, painting, locksmithing, welding, and more. Both new and existing employees may apply for the apprenticeship program, making employee retention another aspect of the program.
The University of Virginia’s (UVA) apprenticeship program is now in its 40th year of offering on-the-job training, technical education, and classroom instruction in plumbing, electrical, carpentry, masonry, plastering, and HVAC. Apprentices are paid while they learn and receive all the benefits of full-time employees. More than 200 individuals have graduated from the program since its founding.
The apprenticeship program has always sought to recruit members of underrepresented populations; in recent years, the program has expanded its efforts by partnering with the Facilities Management department’s DEI team to reduce barriers and provide resources for employees to advance in their careers. For example, the DEI team works with UVA’s Center for American English Language & Culture to help the department’s English-language learners achieve linguistic and cultural proficiency. The team also brings awareness and inclusivity training to facilities management employees.
Expanding the pipeline to facilities operations jobs requires an investment of money, time, and energy, but the rewards could ripple out far beyond the institution. Ultimately such programs could benefit the local economy by creating opportunities for a diverse population of workers and training up a new generation of skilled trades workers.
However, a college education has many advantages beyond the targeted vocational technology experience. Acquiring additional broad-based education and attending college helps students meet others with different backgrounds and experiences and expand their minds through the ability to understand history, politics, culture, and more. What we would suggest is that facilities departments offer internships to students or further encourage the development of or engagement with academic programs to help them learn about the facilities profession as a viable career alternative.
Improve the Collection, Analysis, and Application of Data Relating to DEI
Data are the lifeblood of contemporary facilities management operations. Organizations rely on data about energy, water, heating and cooling, room occupation, classroom capacity, and so on in an ever-growing list.
Yet data about diversity and inclusion are frequently overlooked. This is a missed opportunity, because solid data could help senior facilities officers understand where they are doing well and where they are falling short.
Stanford University sociologist David Pedulla wrote in a 2020 article in the Harvard Business Review:
By collecting and analyzing data on diversity over time, comparing those numbers to the numbers at other organizations, and sharing them with key stakeholders, companies can increase accountability and transparency around diversity issues. Say a company has far lower representation of women in managerial positions relative to the local labor market, similar firms, and/or the goals of the corporation. This identified shortfall can lead to concrete goal setting about numbers and timelines for increasing women’s representation in management. In turn, these goals can be made available to key internal and external stakeholders to promote accountability.
This is basic analysis of basic data, but it is nevertheless one of the most effective approaches to increasing diversity and inclusion in the workforce, according to research by Pedulla and his colleague Devah Pager.
The two also edited a report on this topic, titled What Works: Evidence-Based Ideas to Increase Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion in the Workplace. A chapter in the report, by Elizabeth Hirsh of the University of British Columbia and Donald Tomaskovic-Devey of the University of Massachusetts Amherst, highlights the key advantages of collecting and analyzing diversity data:
• Collecting diversity data allows organizations to establish baselines, develop goals, and make timelines for reaching those goals.
• Monitoring personnel transitions allows firms and institutions to identify the points at which diversity and inclusion efforts often fail, such as recruitment, hiring, promotion, pay and/or retention.
• Tracking data on discrimination complaints and outcomes helps organizations to develop routines and practices “to restore dignity, demonstrate commitment to equal opportunities, and save on the cost and trauma of legal solutions.”
• Creating transparency around diversity metrics allows stakeholders to hold leadership accountable for outcomes.
Some of the necessary data will be readily available to facilities managers, but some will require new collection and analysis processes—and the cost of these efforts can add up. However, institutions should not shy away from complicated data analysis, which can reveal previously hidden barriers to inclusion.
For example, the U.S. federal government frequently employs a data analysis technique known as barrier analysis. This is a deep dive into employment data intended to identify root causes of disparities within the workforce and provide guidance on effective remedies. Barrier analysis is a complex process that involves statistical analysis of employee data combined with information from policy analyses, focus groups, and surveys.
As an example of the findings barrier analysis can produce, the final report of one federal agency’s Barrier Analysis Team, published in 2019, found within the agency, 1) resistance in the organizational culture to diversity and inclusion efforts, 2) perceptions of unfairness in career growth opportunities, and 3) inconsistent and decentralized recruitment and selection practices. (The agency referenced was the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, but barrier analyses of other agencies have had similar findings.)
This level of analysis may go beyond the reach of many facilities organizations, but departments would be wise to start with the data available and make as much use of them as they can. This type of data analysis will provide institutions with new insights into diversity and inclusion within their operations.
Name the Thing
Too often, individuals and institutions are hesitant to put a name to what members of the community are experiencing. They don’t want to put a name to racism, sexism, or homophobia. They dance around the truth with vague terms. This serves no one.
A repeated call at the Thought Leaders symposium was for greater transparency. Of course, every organization must place limits around what it can disclose in personnel matters. Most employees understand that. However, institutions can be transparent about processes and practices, and they can be clear about expectations.
Transparency and authenticity can be uniquely challenging for both individuals and institutions. Individuals worry about giving offense, about being taken out of context, and about statements being used against them. They fear being wrong, being attacked, or being subject to retaliation. These are not idle fears. Authentic communication is only possible in an environment of trust, and it is up to leaders to foster that environment. One of the ultimate tests of inclusion is the degree to which open dialogue is possible about sensitive issues of identity, behavior, and beliefs.
Institutions struggle most for authenticity and clear speaking when equity and history are involved. Campus communities feel deep loyalty for their colleges and universities. It is painful for them to admit that the campus was constructed by enslaved people, or built on seized land from Indigenous Americans, or refused to desegregate until forced by the federal government. Some members of the community will feel that any criticism of the institution’s past is an attack on the institution today; they may react with anger and a sense of betrayal.
The mission, vision, and values of the institution can be anchors in these rough waters. Colleges and universities value intellectual honesty, rigorous inquiry, and open debate. These are core beliefs that cannot be ignored even when the truth is painful.
One participant at the Thought Leaders symposium put it this way: “It comes down to denial. When you name it, you can claim it. So let’s own who we are and what we’ve done.”
Opportunities for Collaboration between Facilities Management and DEI Offices
Participants at the Thought Leaders symposium believed that new and expanded partnerships between facilities management and DEI offices would benefit the entire institution. They made the following suggestions for where to begin:
Attend each other’s standing meetings. Both facilities management and DEI offices likely have regular meetings where they update stakeholders about projects, plans, and goals. Facilities management should invite DEI representatives to their meetings and in turn ask to join DEI meetings. This kind of engagement will create new partnership opportunities and build channels of communication.
Involve DEI representatives in project planning. In addition to building diverse planning teams, facilities management should seek input from DEI offices early in the planning of new projects. Diversity and inclusion staff will have a perspective that facilities management needs to hear.
Consult DEI offices on facilities hiring, management, and training. Senior facilities officers should call on the expertise of DEI offices to improve the diversity and inclusion of the facilities management workforce.
Partner with DEI offices to reach out to different campus populations to better understand their needs. DEI offices are well positioned to sponsor listening tours by facilities management staff with affinity groups and representatives of historically disadvantaged communities. The two departments working together could open dialogue with members of the campus community who rarely get to engage with facilities management.
Elizabeth Lunday is the primary author of APPA’s 2022 Thought Leaders report, From Thin Words to Thick Action: Diversity, Equity & Inclusion, available from the APPA Bookstore. She is based in Fort Worth, TX and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. APPA thanks Johnson Controls and Siemens for their support of the Thought Leaders Series.