Stephen Ashkin

Managing Expectations

July 3, 2023
Addressing custodial department staffing shortages and other challenges that may affect green cleaning practices.

Custodial departments are faced with numerous challenges entering the new school year. Among these issues are staffing shortfalls and hiring, training that can affect missed-work days, planning for labor shortfalls, use of new tools and technologies, communications and managing expectations from the community.


Many schools and universities are facing significant shortfalls in their hiring of custodial and other service workers. Some have job openings of 30% or higher—even with aggressive pay, benefits and other incentives.  Unfortunately, this staffing challenge may be a reality for the next several years, so schools and universities need to plan accordingly.   

To address this, continue to aggressively hire, but also invest in the workers already on staff who have demonstrated their commitment and competency. To this point, many schools and universities understand that it is much better to keep a good employee than to spend time and money recruiting, hiring, and training a new worker. For many custodians, just feeling recognized, appreciated and a part of a team can make a huge difference to them.

Training to protect health

Although custodians may have many reasons to miss work, a school’s custodial department can take steps to lessen absenteeism.  For example, two of the highest causes of custodial miss-work days are ergonomic injuries and exposure to chemicals. 

To keep custodians healthy and on the job, consider training custodians on proper lifting, bending and related ergonomic issues. Many successful custodial programs begin the day with voluntary stretching exercises when custodians clock in. Also, consider if changing procedures, equipment and tools can reduce ergonomic injuries.

Using Green Cleaning chemicals can help minimize exposure to compounds that can trigger asthma and other respiratory issues, as well as skin and eye burns that can keep custodians off the job.


Custodial responsibilities may need to change. Custodians must focus on cleaning as these tasks cannot be delegated to teachers, students or volunteer community members. So schools may have to eliminate the practice of having custodians help with students arriving and leaving the school or helping teachers move boxes carry out other classroom projects.

Planning also must address what gets prioritized because it is likely that a school will not have enough resources to do everything that needs to be done. Make sure the priorities are clear in areas like kitchens and especially food preparation areas, and if a school is fortunate enough to have a nurse’s office, keeping it clean and healthy should be a priority. 

Plans should address which areas get cleaned if members of the custodial staff are unexpectedly absent or during periods of inclement weather. These decisions should not be left up to individual custodians or to those who complain the loudest.


Advances in technology can make tasks easier and more productive. Those include cleaning products and equipment such as robotic cleaners and small scrubbers; scheduling tools with daily job cards; quality-control tools that use objective measurements as opposed to visual inspections; internet-based technologies to identify product outages so custodians do not have to stop what they are doing because a restroom is out of paper towels or toilet tissue; and occupancy sensors—why waste time cleaning a room that hasn’t been used.

Communicating expectations

One of the most critical factors in achieving success is managing expectations. It won’t matter how great a job is performed if administrators, staff, students and community members expect more. Thus, communicating and managing expectations is vital. This is especially important if some services historically assigned to custodians have been changed.

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