Empower Your FM Team by Building a Training Program Just for Them

by | Aug 23, 2018 | Empowerment, Leadership, Operations & Maintenance | 0 comments

Effective and efficient operations and maintenance (O&M) is a critical component of a healthy building environment, especially for institutions like hospitals and universities. Few avenues exist today that support the technical enrichment of facilities management staff, regardless of industry. Due to this shortage of operator training programs, oftentimes institutions turn inward to develop their own curriculum that best fits their needs.

If you’ve been thinking about developing an internal training or apprenticeship program for your O&M staff, consider these six points before committing to a certain structure or curriculum. These are lessons learned through experience that might save you some heartburn in the future.

When developing a curriculum for your facilities management team, be mindful of future and planned infrastructure projects. Think about what equipment, systems, and technology will exist on campus 3 to 5 years into the future.

For example, if you know you’re converting to a variable volume system, then create training material and coursework around this concept, especially if the technicians are used to constant volume operation. The same concept applies to direct digital control (DDC) systems and operator dashboards. This technology is a wonderful tool when operators and technicians are trained on how to use them effectively.

Training is far more successful for O&M staff when it’s delivered in the field (or at least a portion of it), so it will be difficult to communicate the fundamentals of these future systems and technologies until they’re actually installed. If you can, use modeling software or digital demonstrations to visually depict what the equipment will look like and how it will function. Some vendors offer virtual reality applications for their technology, so this might be an option as well.

Depending on the coursework, consider acquiring spare equipment components to bring into the classroom environment. When teaching about variable air volume systems, I typically use a VAV box to explain how air travels through the terminal unit, each component’s function, and how these components work with one another. Any equipment or component that is stored and transported easily can be used for this purpose.

I recently watched a presentation about an apprenticeship program developed and implemented by a large university system. One of the lessons learned from their experience is to be selective about who is permitted to participate in the program.

Their apprentices receive several years of formal training at a partner community college, and the university’s initial investment for the inaugural class was $2 million over a 4-year period. That’s a huge investment, especially if not all the participants (they started with around 12) successfully graduate from the program. The university learned that not everyone interested in the training will successfully complete the program.

In some cases, they simply don’t have the aptitude to learn and retain the coursework. One way to address this issue is with pre-training testing. The university chose to assess the entering participants in the areas of reading, writing, mathematics, and other fundamental subjects. Alternatively, some institutions have chosen to develop a custom evaluation using the core competencies of a technician’s job description. For example, a participant might be asked how to properly grease a bearing or the first step in the process when cleaning a coil.

This evaluation can be completed with a formal, written exam or it can be completed on the shop floor with a supervisor using a checklist of performance benchmarks. Whichever testing approach you choose, what’s important is that it’s done to screen applicants before they’re accepted into the program. It’s also a means to measure proficiency gains before and after training is delivered, which can be difficult to quantify without some method of testing.

Other than gaps in aptitude, what you might find through the evaluation process is that some technicians don’t have the desire to learn (poor attitude). The technician that holds the greatest opportunity is the one with a positive attitude, the desire to learn, and a low evaluation score – not because he can’t learn the material, but simply because he hasn’t been shown or taught yet. On the other hand, the technician with the poor attitude and belief that he already knows everything probably won’t receive the instruction and benefit from the training.

I observed behavior indicative of low aptitude and poor attitude a few years ago when working with an academic medical center that was training 70 people within its utilities and facilities management department. It was a massive program with an admirable objective to reach all levels within the organization. We discovered very quickly that some of the participants didn’t belong in the training sessions – some for attitude, some for aptitude, and some for relevancy.

Those with the obstinate and resistant attitude refused to learn anything new and created a hostile learning environment for those that were eager to be there.

Those with the aptitude hurdles missed most of the material and didn’t walk away from the training with anything actionable.

Others understood the material, but they also couldn’t make the training actionable because it wasn’t relevant to their job responsibilities. These few individuals asked good questions and sometimes offered solid feedback, but at the end of it all, the training wasn’t a good use of their time.

Even with these lessons learned and early challenges, the program was a huge success. The effects of these efforts are evidently realized through lower utility costs, improved equipment performance, more efficient operations, and a team that takes ownership in what they do. All good things.

If you’re going to invest the time to develop an internal training program, consider taking this opportunity to revisit your staff retention strategies and your succession plan hierarchy.

Simply by developing and implementing an internal training program, you will likely improve your staff retention rate. Regardless of industry or profession, when people believe their organization has invested in them, they feel an obligation to reciprocate this gesture with a sense of loyalty, responsibility, and ownership.

Some organizations choose to further this effect by including a bonus structure or other reward system into the training program. For example, if a technician successfully completes a certain number of courses within a year, he receives a monetary bonus for these efforts.

Other institutions have chosen to reward graduates with certificates and documented professional development hours. A few years ago, I worked with a hospital facilities management team that received individual training books for their personal training plan and coursework. In these books, there was a spot for their supervisor to sign off on the coursework and there was a place to store certificates once they successfully completed their coursework. You could see the pride their team (at all levels) had in their personal professional development.

If you’re issuing certificates or similar documentation for completed coursework, align this framework with your succession planning process. For example, if you establish three levels of HVAC Technician (HVAC Tech I, II, and III), then each level might have its own set of requirements relative to the training program. 

In this scenario, each level should outline specific core competencies to perform that work. These core competencies should be directly related to the position and measurable so progress and achievement can be objectively observed. If you chose to develop an assessment specific to the job requirements, then anyone completing the evaluation should receive a score indicative of a I, II, or III technician.

The training curriculum itself should include learning objectives that address these competencies, and the training delivery should include periodic sub-evaluations with technical benchmarks to measure progress and retention.

Everything is connected and consistent with one another – the job descriptions, core competencies, evaluations, training curriculum and delivery, learning objectives, and benchmarks. This approach demystifies when a technician is eligible for a promotion, and it offers an assessment of candidates applying for new or open positions.

Staff evaluations might indicate who will likely succeed in a technical training program, but they won’t indicate if you’re training the right number of craftsmen. After you’ve completed the exercise of establishing job descriptions, core competencies, training curriculum, and compensation ranges for HVAC Technicians I, II, and III, how do you know if you have the right number of each?

The answer is benchmarking. Many benchmarking analysis tools exist today, some of them are available at no cost. The more sophisticated tools will calculate recommended staffing levels by trade – HVAC technician, boiler operator, electrician, plumber, janitorial services, leadership, etc. Even if you forgo the formal benchmarking exercise, take the time to reflect on your resourcing needs.

Some equipment maintenance might always need to be outsourced – typically, elevators fall into this category. Other equipment might need periodic maintenance requirements, which could be wrapped up into an FTE’s role or outsourced – annual generator testing and service might fall into this category. Other equipment demands continuous monitoring and/or maintenance, to which you will need to allocate full-time staff.

You may discover through the evaluation process that you have technical proficiency gaps specific to some of your equipment maintenance. You could either train staff to fill these gaps or outsource those specific maintenance needs entirely.

Technology. Those that don’t have it, want it. Those that have it, hate it. Okay, maybe not always, but there’s truth in those statements. Technology is one of my favorite discussions to have with facility managers because the issue is multi-faceted and hotly debated.

Technology can revolutionize the way we work and operate. It can save time and money that we didn’t even realize we were wasting. It can also waste time and money if not properly utilized.

Given the aging workforce in facilities management, some organizations encounter a resistance to technology. Many seasoned staff prefer the manual approach over the automated one because it’s what they know and place confidence in.

Transitioning to handheld devices, operator dashboards, and data analytics can be an uphill battle for some. In these cases, consider incorporating technology into the training curriculum. This might be an orientation or review session to the work order management system, the building automation system, the energy management dashboards, etc.

If a training session addresses the control systems, administer part of the training at the workstation where you can interact with the BAS and pull up trend data and other reports.

Dedicating a funding source, scheduled time, and a physical space for training delivery speaks to the culture of the organization. A training budget can widely vary by facility and by organization. I’ve seen programs implemented on a shoestring budget and others developed and delivered with a six-figure funding source. Obviously, the delivery platform, number of participants, and training frequency is vastly different between these two extremes.

It wasn’t until I worked with a particular hospital that I realized the importance of a training room. Most of the other facilities I worked with had training rooms or conference rooms that were always available, so scheduling and logistics weren’t really issues. However, this hospital didn’t have a training or conference room close by, and the utility plant was far removed from the administrative tower on campus where we hosted the classroom sessions.

Logistics became an issue in many ways.

Oftentimes, the training schedule was at the mercy of the conference room availability. It can be enough of a coordination battle to get all of the participating facilities management staff into one room for a couple of hours, but this room was a particular challenge because it was often booked during the preferred training time (in consideration of shift changes, staff scheduled absences, etc.), or the room was reserved by another department immediately prior to and/or after the training session. There was very little room for schedule flexibility.

We got through the scheduling battles with some effort, but when the hospital decided to continue the training efforts with quarterly classes, they carved out some space in their utility plant and created a training room. It’s not especially sophisticated or world-class (it’s in a utility plant after all), but it’s there, it’s convenient, and no other department can reserve that space. Amazing!

For this organization, staff training and development became part of their culture, and creating a space to support that culture became necessary.

Time is another big one. It’s imperative that the training sessions are planned for and marked on the calendar. Just like with anything else, if the training is not scheduled and organized ahead of time, then it’s forgotten about. Training classes can range anywhere between 1 hour to all-day workshops. In facilities management, 5 spare minutes can be difficult to find, let alone an hour or more.

If the training classes are scheduled several weeks out, then the staff also has time to prepare for them. Facilities management personnel tend to not appreciate being stuck in a classroom for any amount of time, and the idea of formal training can be stressful. Giving your team time to ask questions and express concerns will improve their likelihood to engage in the material and invest back into the facility.

This time will also give you the opportunity to hype up the program and generate buzz that celebrates your team. After all, the intent of the training program isn’t to demonstrate what your team doesn’t know, but its’ to empower your staff with the tools and knowledge they need to be successful.

About me: I have been responsible for the development and management of over $370 million in specialized energy solutions and infrastructure projects. Since starting my career in healthcare engineering consulting, I have provided healthcare facility managers with the tools and resources they need to make data-driven, well-informed decisions that improve their energy efficiency, building performance, and facility operations. The most recent of these solutions is a healthcare facilities operation and maintenance training program, the first of its kind in the industry. 

Let’s connect: If you have a success story in facilities management, I’d love to hear about it and learn how you made it happen. 

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