Eyeing the horizon, facilities leaders lean into the key challenges of 2024…
Aging buildings and infrastructure. Higher costs. Mounting backlogs of deferred maintenance. Tighter budgets. Unreliable supply chains and long lead times. Rapidly evolving technologies and systems. And staffing shortages—challenges recruiting, training, motivating, and retaining skilled employees amid an exodus of retiring veterans—compounding it all.
If it’s true that every educational campus really is different, it may be equally true that every campus facilities department will be up against some measure of the same odds through much of 2024, according to an October 2023 survey of APPA members. The biggest challenges facing facilities departments? “A growing campus with not enough technical personnel to attend facilities’ needs of power, heating and cooling,” said a supervisor in Texas. “A flat-lined budget in a world of significantly increasing costs,” said a supervisor in Alabama. “Employee retention or a suitable technological advancement to supplement,” said an AVP in Florida. More bluntly, a director in the Pacific Northwest lamented a “lack of qualified (meaning breathing and present) staffing,” along with increased costs.
The biggest challenges facing facilities professionals themselves? Variations on the same themes, only with additional concerns around burnout and technological change. A director in New York wondered how to “keep a positive outlook despite bureaucratic shortsightedness and budget shortfalls.” A manager in Canada forecast the need to simultaneously balance resources, adapt to the changing higher education landscape, and stay abreast of new technologies. Collectively, addressing these challenges and more, this person wrote, will require consensus around “the continuous need to adapt and change … in a world in which technology and AI are influencing how we move forward.”
The survey drew open-ended responses from more than 200 facilities professionals, several of whom APPA later interviewed via video call. Loosely categorized, respondents’ challenges fell within three broad categories—buildings and infrastructure, funding, and staffing—that often, for both good and bad, are mutually reinforcing. Many facilities challenges stem from circumstances well beyond the scope of any one institution, department, or individual, such as persistent inflation, state funding vicissitudes, climate change, and a skilled trades shortage decades in the making. Others are more internal, such as morale and performance issues, deferred maintenance, declining enrollment, and understaffing.
Regardless of the root cause of these predicaments, managing them is a burden that usually falls squarely on the shoulders of facilities leaders. But that’s also where the good news comes in. At institutions small and large, you’re leveraging industry best practices, creative ideas and partnerships, novel financing arrangements, and a healthy concoction of workarounds, elbow grease, and a willingness to make hard decisions in order to “swing the pendulum to a more proactive (rather than reactive) mode of operations,” as one respondent said. Will it be daunting? Yes. Are you determined to see them through? Absolutely.
We can’t share every survey response in this article, but we’re grateful to all the APPA members who weighed in. We hope this roundup proves helpful to the broader facilities management community and, at the very least, underscores that you’re in good company, whatever your challenges may be.
BUILDINGS AND INFRASTRUCTURE: SPIRIT OF RENEWAL
Kenyon College sits on 1,000 leafy acres in central Ohio. Its 100-person operations division, led by Ian Smith, vice president for facilities, planning, and sustainability, covers maintenance, housekeeping, grounds, design, and construction. Kenyon’s physical plant has grown about 40% over the last 20 years, with new construction and gut renovations complementing a steady stream of improvements to historic buildings dating back to the 1820s. “Like a lot of campuses, we’re really good at putting up new buildings and renovating or adaptively reusing existing buildings,” Smith told APPA. “But we’re not so good at putting a complete system in place with a plan for renewal dollars. I’d like to get out of reactive mode.”
To do just that, Kenyon is using a tool that many other survey respondents also cited: a facility condition assessment, or a thorough evaluation of campus assets intended to help optimize and maintain physical condition and value, inform capital budgets, and prioritize resources. Kenyon’s assessment, Smith said, will likely be conducted by an outside provider and lead to a roadmap detailing the performance and needs (predictive maintenance, costs, and more) associated with perhaps thousands of systems and components, from roofs, chillers, motors, and pumps to electrical distribution networks to hardscapes.
The assessment will facilitate clear maintenance and replacement policies, support building up reserves for expensive projects, and “allow us to successfully argue for capital renewal dollars and ensure they are spent in the most impactful way possible,” Smith said. In its absence, “basically capital dollars are allocated via what is essentially a crowd-sourced, urgency driven system.”
Aging infrastructure and deferred maintenance pose both financial and physical challenge at many institutions. Balancing new construction with renovations puts campuses in a constant state of flux, with issues such as HVAC upgrades and space reconfigurations—and the disruptions association with them—equally vexing. To minimize the disruption, some facilities teams are stepping up communication aimed at setting and managing expectations and getting faculty and staff understanding and buy-in on the process. These communications include regular emails along with in-person programs such as workshops, focus groups, and training.
At the University of North Texas, Peter Palacios, CEFP, identified several areas of focus for him in his position as director of information services: “Maintaining high-performing team dynamics amidst staff churn; updating business processes in support of higher quality data inside department info systems that can be tapped for business intelligence and decision-making; building a more robust and comprehensive facility condition assessment program; improving project close-out and hand-off.”
To the latter three items, “improving data fidelity” is a key focus in the university’s facilities management department. “We create mountains of data every day, so we want to manage data like an institutional asset,” Palacios said, with much of it fed into geographic information systems that can guide decisions involving everything from roofing repairs to siting new construction. This extends beyond the operational data captured in maintenance systems to ways condition information helps inform the facility portfolio’s current and anticipated needs. The team is exploring ways to use mobile surveying tools to facilitate gathering and analyzing this data.
To address space challenges, in turn, Palacios cited “mini master-planning” workshops with academic units as a possible way to respond to changing academic needs and developments more nimbly than five- to eight-year (or longer) master plans allow. For a new class or major or even discipline, for example, workshops would seek to identify goals and visions and then translate those into programmatic requirements related to staffing, infrastructure, furniture, or lab space. Collectively, this information would help institutional leaders understand how to align these goals and needs to the long-range master plan itself.
FUNDING: THE NEW BUDGETING
Rising costs and flat or decreasing budgets are among the biggest challenges facing facilities operations at Minnesota’s Winona State University, where James Goblirsch, AIA, is assistant vice president for facilities management. “Enrollment is becoming more and more competitive, and public funding is unpredictable due to the partisan political landscape,” he told APPA. “As a public institution, we rely on both to fund our operations.”
Absent adequate funding from traditional sources, Winona State has taken advantage of various clean-energy incentives that will reduce operating costs and the need to maintain and operate obsolete central plant infrastructure. State programs and the federal 2022 Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) have played a big part in, for instance, a LED light conversion of 25,000 fixtures, a water-reduction program that replaced 4,000 plumbing fixtures, and solar facilities that will ultimately carry 10% of the university’s electricity load. “These are ways we can green our campus with reduced financial outlay,” Goblirsch said.
An additional key to Winona State’s success is student support for environmental initiatives, Goblirsch noted. “We were fortunate to hire a sustainability director about six years ago. The students volunteered to have a sustainability fee charged to them to hire this person and advance this work.”
Another institution looking to reduce its costs and environmental footprint simultaneously is The University of Texas at San Antonio (UTSA), where Rene’ Colunga is director of energy and utilities. In addition to pursuing energy performance contracting, IRA tax incentives, and local utility rebate programs for energy-efficient retrofits and water-reduction programs, UTSA takes advantage of demand-response programs, where the local utility pays it to shed electrical load when the state grid hits peak capacity, as it increasingly does amid a continuing boom of new businesses and housing coupled with extreme weather conditions.
Stronger negotiating skills, more authority over decision-making, and persistent, ongoing advocacy are the new order for many facilities leaders, whose budget requests now include increased funding for deferred maintenance, big-dollar line items over “band-aid fixes,” and sometimes the release of emergency funding. Several respondents said they’re also working to build their advocacy networks around the campus, particularly with higher-ups whose attention has been distracted by plentiful other crises affecting higher education.
Exacerbating these challenges are what several survey respondents said is indifference from senior administrators unwilling or able to prioritize less glamorous needs over shiny bells and whistles. “I know the plumbers and janitors of campus will never be ‘sexy’ or on the brochure to attract students, but the lack of being able to say ‘no’ to outlandish projects is asinine,” said one. In some cases, facilities leaders are hardening their determination to advocate for needed resources—or, if unsuccessful, insisting that administrators at least prioritize projects within the scope of funding available.
STAFFING: BUILDING ON INSTITUTIONAL KNOWLEDGE
Where to begin recounting how the skilled labor shortage is playing out in educational facilities? At Kenyon, “over 800 years of campus experience and institutional knowledge will have walked out the door to retirement” between 2022 and 2028, according to Smith.
Some positions seem all but impossible to fill. Winona State took a full year to find one electrician, and “we’ve been looking for two years to hire a boiler operator,” said Goblirsch. “We’ve got 30-, 40-, 50-year-old technologies running our campuses, but the people with the skills to manage them are getting old and retiring, and new people are not being trained to use them.”
While specific to these institutions, these anecdotes align with unprecedented turnover in the higher education workforce more broadly. A 2023 survey by CUPA-HR found that 35% of employees in college and university facilities, materials management, and operations positions are likely or very likely to look for other jobs within the next 12 months. APPA President and CEO Lander Medlin, in a related presentation, noted that the U.S. Department of Labor places skilled tradespeople and engineers among the top 10 talent shortages around the country.
In that presentation, Medlin invited higher ed leaders to look for “the levers that can make a difference.” Besides competitive pay and fewer overwork burdens, these levers could include supportive and encouraging supervisors, a sense of “voice” in decision-making, professional development fostering career-enhancing skills, and more aggressive promoting of the benefits packages and work-life balance that are more common in educational institutions than in higher-paying private-sector jobs.
Such norms at the University of North Texas attracted Palacios when he first worked in its facilities department as an undergraduate, an opportunity he extended through graduate school. He wanted to be a filmmaker and lawyer, but a certification program in geographic information systems (GIS) “got me into the mapping world,” he said. His career at the university blossomed over 15 years into his current role overseeing a multifaceted team responsible for data management related to campus mapping, building information, capital planning, and more.
Some of these evolutions were serendipitous, Palacios said; for instance, when the need arose to use data more effectively, the facilities department’s then-AVP tasked him with helping to figure out how. Others came from “wonderful managerial support and the overall culture of the institution,” which he has found to be collaborative, caring, and centered around coalition-building.
Today, Palacios and other leaders are recommitting to those cultures by working to formalize professional development into a competitive advantage for hiring. “We can’t compete with market rates,” he said, but he believes facilities management can become an attractive field of work by equipping staff with soft and hard skills to advance professionally in multiple areas. Several ideas under review tie advancement and compensation to performance goals, including career laddering and licensing in the specialized trades. Others include cross-functional training and student apprenticeships and shadowing programs.
Another advantage of cross-functional training? To help make up for offset veteran attrition at institutions where “you have a group of men and women with an abundance of knowledge but not much documentation leaving the workforce and an incoming workforce that is data driven but doesn’t have the data to maximize their efforts,” said a director in North Carolina.
Transitioning military professionals are another potential solution. At UTSA, for instance, Colunga is tapping connections within the naval world to recruit people with specialized experience that is directly transferrable to thermal energy plant operations. His division has also been successful with student workers “who are very savvy with technology, data, and spreadsheets to track our energy use and analyze costs.” Hiring and training students also aligns with the university’s mission of providing real-world training. “I think a lot of employers appreciate that [training] as well,” he said.
A wealth of experience
The survey’s final question invited APPA members to identify the additional tools or resources they needed to address their many challenges. Predictably, greater financial resources were the most popular wish-list item, whether acquired by arguing more effectively for budget dollars (especially for preventive maintenance), enlisting support from influential champions on campus, locking in stable year-over-year public funding, or through the broader entity of higher education somehow proving “beyond all doubt that there is a high return on investment in higher education and that the physical campus offers the highest levels of success to students,” as one respondent wrote.
Facilities professionals aren’t just watching and waiting, though. One, citing past efforts to identify and exploit as many operational efficiencies as possible, cited plans to review these options again with a fresh eye on new technologies and methods that could yield even more gains. Several are involved in building stronger pipelines of tradespeople and regional apprenticeship programs. Getting compelling case studies and visuals in front of “those controlling budgets” also helps; one respondent noted success sharing videos illustrating how certain systems operate and what it takes to make that happen.
Lastly, APPA members want to learn from others, whether through affordable (and, ideally, local or regional) professional development programs or conversations with colleagues, peers, and consultants. “The biggest challenge I see is the next generations of facilities managers not engaging with APPA national or the regional and state APPAs and missing out on the wealth of experience that is out in the market,” said a former AVP. Peer-to-peer learning, in other words, may be more critical than ever in this sustained era of generational turnover and technological change.
Leah Thayer is APPA’s director of publications and the editor of Facilities Manager magazine. She can be reached at [email protected].