Because it is the single most long-term costly item of any organization's budget, labor expenses are always of concern to schools and universities-causing both private- and public-education administrators to begin questioning the need for various types of positions and departments.

While educational funding has never been perfect, increased competition for available dollars has resulted in lower funding levels for most schools on a per-student basis. At the same time, activity levels in facilities have increased dramatically. Administrators are caught between the reality of funding problems and the need to provide education and services to students. This often results in staffing cuts, department mission re-evaluations and the reduction of less visible services.

Creating a plan

Physical plant managers need a staffing plan for their departments. Although some have made attempts through internal staffing guidelines and fairly sophisticated computer software, these devices are only part of a plan.

A plan should include the following steps:

-Document the mission of the physical plant department. This is not a simple mission statement, but a document that outlines the goals and responsibilities of the department. A detailed document explaining what the department does with its assets is important because physical plant departments often shoulder the responsibility for student activities, like renting space for dances or preparing for sporting events, without extra funding or staff. Soon, the physical plant manager's role has been expanded to include any activity held within the facility.

-Make an agreement within the organization that defines the physical plant department's job. Is it the custodian's job to make coffee for faculty members in every building every day? Do grounds workers have to move a student's personal belongings between residence halls when a student decides he or she wants to relocate? Should custodians in an elementary school be present in the cafeteria to watch students during the day? These and other questions need to be addressed.

In the past, many physical plant departments have gone out of their way and done jobs that normally would not be their responsibility. Politics play a large role in this predicament, but guidelines can give the physical plant manager a place from which he or she can defend the situation. While individual job descriptions can be used to reinforce or formulate this part of the plan, a departmental job description is all-important in itself.

-Create a staffing grid that shows how many workers are necessary to fill a department's needs. Although computerized staffing programs contain numbers to fill staffing needs, the only real number that counts when it comes to funding positions is the amount of dollars that are available. Although you can justify why you need a certain amount of employees for a certain job, it all boils down to funds.

This does not mean that a formula to determine work for custodial and maintenance staff is not important. However, you must write a mission statement and define the job before any staffing formula can be valuable. Without some parameters on what work is to be done, it is impossible to staff with a formula.

For instance, if you have gathered all building data, equipment data and process data, and staffed your custodial workers according to a computer formula, you have done the basic job. But what if the school adds 15 percent more new activities each year, while reducing your real-dollar funding by 5 percent? Keep in mind that formulas are fallible because some are based on false or inadequate data.

In addition, sometimes job scales are based on flat rates that may not be reliable. Others use square footage of facilities based on past practices. The numbers generated by different programs can vary widely.

Just do it

A physical plant staffing plan is more than just numbers; it is a philosophy that is shared with everyone in the institution, from maintenance workers to faculty to financial officers. Although the numbers generated by computerized staffing programs justify and quantify, they are no substitute for a comprehensive staffing plan.

Coming up with the correct staffing for maintenance and custodial operations for a facility needs to encompass much more than just figuring out square footage of a building. It is a process that requires participants from all levels of an organization working together to decide on fair and equitable workloads while ensuring good service to customers.

Shaw is a former assistant facilities director at the College of Eastern Utah, Price, and a former maintenance industry analyst.