Two and a half years after the pandemic sent workers home, many have chosen not to return to the workplace. The “Great Resignation,” as it’s been coined, largely affected service-industry professions where in-person work is required. Specifically, in the commercial cleaning industry, concerns about COVID transmission multiplied this trend. Now, as the world continues to emerge from sheltering in place, the custodial labor shortage continues.

Schools have been dramatically impacted—so much that some school districts are putting students and parents to work with mops and brooms. Medical facilities are struggling, too. In fact, U.S. Medicine reported nearly 70 percent of healthcare experienced “severe custodial worker shortages” in FY 2022—up almost 30 percent since 2021. And unlike cleaning up classrooms, medical cleaning and disinfection require specific knowledge of biosafety protocols.

The shortages don’t stop there, either. Hiring websites like Indeed and ZipRecruiter are flooded with ads for custodians across all business sectors. A recent search of Indeed reveals 67,954 custodial job openings with 59,280 on ZipRecruiter—ranging from corporate offices to gyms; colleges to prisons; shopping malls to senior living centers.

The Pandemic Illuminated a Pre-Existing Problem

While safety concerns around COVID certainly deepened the custodial labor shortage, the truth is that recruitment and retention have long been issues within the industry. The work can be physically demanding, shifts can be undesirable, and pay low. Plus, at an average of 49 years-old, the custodial workforce is aging into retirement—without millennials and Gen-Zers clamoring to fill the gap.

So, now, as staffing shortages rage on—as garbage cans overflow and floors go unswept—facilities managers are wondering how to attract and retain dedicated, skilled custodians.

A Respectable Profession

It’s no mistake that the word “custodian” is derived from the Latin root for “guardian,” “safe-keeper,” and “protector.” Think about it. These were the people charged with facing down a virus whose capacity to spread was barely understood at the start—people who, all along, have been responsible for “protecting” the public from its own waste. Yet, some argue that it took a pandemic to underscore the importance of their jobs.

Tim Vanover, Business Development Director at PRIDE Industries, concurs. “Without highly trained custodians willing to step forward, business would come to a standstill. A company would be unable to provide a safe work environment for its employees and customers,” said Vanover. “It’s past time that organizations recognize their custodial staff’s value and treat them as important contributors to business success.”

Re-evaluating the contributions custodians make in every aspect of public life is vital. So is creating a culture where they are esteemed—one that includes safe working conditions, training and advancement opportunities, and a culture of appreciation and recognition.

But what does this look like in the custodial space?

Safety, Opportunity, and Welcome

According to the Bureau of Labor Statics, custodial work ranks high in occupational injuries, so training in the proper use of chemicals, equipment, and PPE is imperative—as are well-ventilated storage closets and mixing stations. Training should also include slip/fall-prevention and best ergonomic practices.  Once employees are initially taught proper procedures and protocols, ongoing training and support are critical.

Growth opportunities translate to motivated employees. When it comes to opportunity in the custodial sphere, training is again key. Specialized training can lead to advancement and a higher wage—while mitigating the shortage of custodians with unique skills. For example, when the need for hospital environmental technicians skyrocketed, PRIDE Industries partnered with Kaiser Permanente to  create a skills lab where they trained over 30 people to become environmental technicians. Program graduates became eligible for a significant pay raise and a new career path.

A culture of welcome, including appreciation and inclusion, is also key to retaining good employees—especially given that custodians often report feeling undervalued. When employees feel appreciated, they are more likely to (a) stick around and (b) do their best work. To be welcome also includes opportunities to see oneself as a part of something bigger—as in, “Why do I come to work each day and do what I do?” A story from 1962, well illustrates this point: During his first visit to the NASA space center, JFK noticed a janitor carrying a broom and introduced himself, casually asking the janitor what he was doing. The janitor replied, “Well, Mr. President, I’m helping put a man on the moon.” And it was the truth. Similarly, every day, janitors help children learn, help patients recover, and help keep people in business.

Chris Bunch, PRIDE Industries Vice President of Commercial Facilities, puts it this way: “Not only is each member of our custodial service staff key to our mission to create employment for people with disabilities and other barriers to employment, they also play vital role in enabling our customers to provide a clean and safe work environment for their team and their customers—ultimately allowing business to carry on effectively.”

Inclusivity and an Often-Overlooked Workforce

PRIDE Industries created its environmental technician program with a focus on inclusivity. Since 2015, with a workforce comprised largely of people with disabilities, the social enterprise has provided environmental services to hospitals in California—including the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation. Beyond the medical sphere, PRIDE Industries custodians staff airports, military facilities, and businesses large and small—to a chorus of praise. Contrary to myth, organizations that employ people with disabilities are highly competitive. According to a 2018 study by Accenture, they boast 72 percent more productivity, 30 percent higher profit margins, and 200 percent higher net income than their counterparts. Their shareholder returns are also higher, their innovation boosted, and their appeal to socially conscious investors heightened.

The custodial labor shortage may continue indefinitely. But facilities managers need not be discouraged. With an eye toward inclusivity and a heightened perception of the custodial workforce’s value, hiring and retaining dedicated, hard-working employees—even amidst a labor shortage—is possible.

“It’s past time that organizations recognize their custodial staff’s value and treat them as important contributors to business success.”

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