At the Table

At the Table

USGBC-LA’s Green Janitor Program reaches beyond energy-saving strategies to empower its employees.


By Kiley Jacques

It started with an initial conversation back in 2010 that sought to answer the question, “What could be done to promote operations and maintenance practices that focus on green building performance?” Enter the U.S. Green Building Council–Los Angeles (USGBC-LA) chapter’s Vocational Green Class with Building Skills Partnership, which stemmed from the realization that janitors, supervisors, and operations managers have a significant effect on a building’s functionality.

Classroom instruction is given onsite at their place of employment.

The development phase of the program was a long one. Determining what such a program should look like meant careful consideration of its participants and the curriculum necessary to provide results-driven, on-the-job training for employees responsible for the maintenance and operations of commercial buildings, Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certified or otherwise.

“It took us a good amount of time to come up with our strategy,” says Dominique Hargreaves, executive director of USGBC-LA. “The core team has worked together for over five years to make this program come to fruition.” That team includes: USGBC-LA, Building Skills Partnership (BSP), Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA), and Service Employees International Union (SEIU). The group took cues from the Green Professional Building Skills Training program (otherwise known as GPRO), a national training and certificate program designed by USGBC’s New York City chapter, Urban Green, which trains electricians, construction managers, and the like. “We looked at their model [in terms of] how to create trainings, testing, and certification,” explains Hargreaves.

The Green Janitors Program mission is to promote operations and maintenance practices that enable buildings to meet green performance standards, with special emphasis on energy efficiency and building health. “It’s really critical that the janitors understand their role in building management and operations maintenance. It’s the kind of thing that can be taught and it can be cultivated,” says Hargreaves, adding that all of the work those employees perform on a daily basis shows up in utility bills, water bills, etc. “They have a large impact on the building.”

The program is designed to enhance coworker collaboration.Training manuals and materials are provided in each person’s native language.

By 2014, the team had hammered out the logistics and put into motion a pilot program designed for eight buildings. There were 150 participating employees maintaining buildings belonging to companies like CBRE, Commonwealth, Equity, and JMB Realty, among others. The entertainment industry, in particular, has been very involved in the program. “We’ve really found a nice niche with studios,” notes Hargreaves. “[That industry] is really a cornerstone of our economy and what makes our city interesting.” SONY, Dreamworks, Paramount, and (soon) NBCUniversal support a strong cohort of certified janitorial workers. It is important to note that this program aids corporate responsibility goals like energy conservation and LEED certification. Buildings whose janitorial workers have completed the Green Janitors certificate program are able to apply for the LEED pilot credit IPpc81 for operators and service workers.

In terms of training, janitors receive 30 hours of instruction, during which time they learn hands-on energy management and green cleaning techniques. The program is organized into seven modules. The first, introduction to building sustainability, examines topics like recycling, water conservation, and LEED certification—it is a kind of “buy-in to the program,” explains Hargreaves. The second is focused on green cleaning, which is five hours spent studying environmentally preferred cleaning agents. “This module is another kind of empowerment [tool] for janitors to try new products and see that they do work,” she says, making the point that the worst thing for a janitor is to receive a complaint that something is not clean. “So getting comfortable with new products that are better for their health and that of the environment, yet that are still effective, is really important.”

The third module is devoted to energy conservation. “Energy conservation is key and one of the reasons this program came into existence,” notes Hargreaves. Unlike most professionals who work in a commercial building, janitors really have eyes on energy waste and overuse throughout the building. During this portion of the program they learn about plug loads and vampire energy, and they perform energy hunts, whereby they form teams to survey their respective buildings, floor by floor, to identify good versus wasteful practices. “The janitors are the eyes and the ears of a building,” she says. “They have a lot of knowledge about the building and its usage.” So training them on specifics like energy waste and water strategies is helpful and another piece of the empowerment pie. They come away understanding why it is important to save energy and seeing themselves as potential agents for change.

The fourth module is a five-hour training on recycling and diversion, during which they learn why it is crucial to redirect waste away from landfills.

The fifth is health and safety, and runs for two hours. “It’s really critical that janitorial workers think about health and safety in the workplace because they do come into contact with all kinds of hazards,” notes Hargreaves. Water conservation is the focus of the sixth module—it runs for four hours and includes a “water hunt” that identifies possible conservation measures and areas in need of improvement in a given building. Finally, the last module is dedicated to review and testing.

Because the training occurs at their place of employment, participants are among their coworkers. It is taught in Spanish, though it can be taught in English as well. “They are more comfortable learning the material in their native language,” notes Hargreaves. They take two multiple-choice exams, a midterm and a final. Once they pass both, they have a graduation ceremony that includes a keynote speaker, and they receive a certificate and a pin, meant to be worn while at work, which demonstrates their “loyalty, allegiance, and pride.” The program fosters teamwork and gives people, many of whom have not received higher education, the opportunity to graduate.

Judging from surveys taken from building management staff, as well as the janitors themselves, it is clear their level of engagement and confidence in their skills have been greatly enhanced. Prior to this program, janitors did not necessarily understand why certain sustainable procedures or materials were required, or the kind of impact they could have on energy reduction and water consumption—and ultimately, human health—through their work.

“This has gone to a way more profound place than we had originally designed the program to do,” says Hargreaves. “It was designed to train and up-skill workers.” But beyond having expanded their knowledge, vocabulary, and skill set, they also absorbed what they learned on a personal level. Many of them now recycle at home and use green cleaning products, and they are more cognizant of energy and water usage in their homes. In short, the program helped them expand their concept of green cleaning to green living.

“All of that has [permeated] their family lives,” notes Hargreaves. “They have really taken this knowledge to heart as a better way of living and working. They also have a better understanding of their role in the building.” They now see how their work relates to green building standards, like LEED certification and ENERGY STAR. “They feel empowered because they know that what they do every day helps the environment.”

Feedback from managers has been very positive. In many cases, the janitors have exceeded expectations in terms of how much information they came away with, how much they retained, and how they are applying it to their work. “They were happy to see the workers’ confidence develop,” notes Hargreaves, adding that their communication skills have also improved.

One such manager, Cristina Rosales, Pacific Corporate Towers (PCT) supervisor in El Segundo, says: “I’m glad that the staff attended the class because it gave me support and reinforced the changes that have been made in PCT to be a green building. There is a difference between me telling them what to do and them learning the importance of why.”

Lesbia Chinchilla, an employee in the Oppenheimer Towers and a graduate of the Green Janitor certificate program, notes, “Being part of the [program] has really opened my eyes as a janitor and as a consumer. I was aware of topics like the three R’s and water conservation but not to the extent that we learned in the class and how it applies to my work.”

In its totality, the program is also an example of social equality, whereby everyone participates in the management and maintenance of a building. Janitors, alongside building owners and managers, are empowered to actively engage in the goals of the LEED rating system. “I think the hands-on learning [portion] of the program really…helps them be more informed and helps them come to the sustainability table,” says Hargreaves. “This program is empowering them to join the conversation.”

Now in its third year, the Green Janitors’ reach has spread from Los Angeles County to Orange County and San Diego. Expansion goals include statewide trainings. Furthermore, the team has pledged to train 800 janitorial workers by 2017 as part of the city of Los Angeles’ Sustainable City pLAn, which was released in April 2015. When encouraged to adopt the plan, USGBC-LA and its partners chose to focus on workforce development. Currently, they are signing up additional LA building owners’ employees for training. “The state of California is next,” says Hargreaves with conviction. The five-year plan sees the Green Janitors Program available across the country—they have already begun discussions with partners in Chicago and New York.

The vitality of their mission is clear, and summarized in Hargreaves’s own words: “You can design, build, and engineer the most efficient building but, when it comes down to it, it’s all about operations and how people use the building…it’s people that make buildings efficient.”

At the completion of the course, each graduate receives a certificate and a lapel pin, meant to be worn while at work.