Modern Facility Management: Career and Industry Insights from an Expert
IFMA Fellow Thomas L. Mitchell, Jr. talks about the past, present, and future of the FM profession and what the next generation needs to know.
With so many rapid advancements, especially in recent years, it’s easy to forget that the facilities management industry is still growing and developing and the parameters are in a constant state of flux.
Thomas L. Mitchell Jr., Senior Vice President and Chief Operating Officer at FM3IS, has seen this first-hand as both a dedicated FM practitioner and teacher. In addition to delivering the best FM experience possible to clients, he also wants to bridge the knowledge gap for younger FMs who will be in charge of the industry sooner than you may think.
With over 30 years of experience in facilities management, you’ve seen the industry change significantly. What are some of the biggest changes you’ve personally embraced that you believe have had a positive impact on the industry?
Mitchell: One of the biggest changes that I’ve personally embraced and that I believe has had a positive impact on our industry is FMs thinking and acting strategically. They’re recognizing that on average these facilities will be in our inventory for anywhere between 50-60 years — and that’s a conservative number.
Here in the U.S., our history is not as long as other countries in Europe, Asia, and Africa, but we do have some facilities that have been here for over two centuries. Ideally, people made those investments because they recognized America would be here for a while.
FMs who recognize that organizations that seek longevity and viability over the course of their operational existence should have facilities that can enable them to turn their organizational vision into a physical reality.
Since facilities represent one of the top three valuable resources that are owned or used by organizations, that should be something on an FM’s mind at all times. The question we should alway be prepared to answer is: how can facilities serve as critical enablers of an organization’s success? The answer guides our ability to develop and deliver course of actions that empower organizational leadership, as well as our FM team members, to make informed choices that accomplish long and short-term goals collectively.
You became a member of IFMA in 1998. What can you say about the FM climate at the time and some of the most important issues then compared to now?
Mitchell: I can confidently say that I have observed our profession develop considerably over the past two decades in terms of the kind of services we provide, the skills we’ve acquired, and our ability to deliver on the expectation of organizational leadership and customers. We’ve actually come quite a long way when it comes to the maturation of the FM profession.
In America specifically, FM wasn’t recognized as a separate and distinct profession until the 1970s. Our predecessors came up with the means to address the advent of two items that radically changed the work environment during that time: systems furniture and desktop computers.
In terms of the impact from the introduction of desktop computers, the heat produced from operating a bunch of them in a confined space taxed building HVAC systems. Systems furniture provided privacy not afforded to workplace personnel who previously used open row desks. However, the new vertical partitions caused air distribution problems and sound attenuation problems.
Architects and engineers were not educated or trained to deal with these workspace operating environmental changes. So the question facing organizational leaders at that time was how do you create a work environment that’s comfortable for the workforce so they can continue to be productive?
That literally was the impetus of the development of FM as a profession. We’ve come quite a long way since that time. In the beginning, the primary focus was operations and maintenance. We maintained and operated what already existed in our inventory, yet we also recognized the value of the other aspects of the facility life cycle, like construction coordination and project management.
We recognized in order for these facilities to operate at a certain level of service or standard, our influence should also occur during the facility planning stage of development. We got involved in project management, energy management, and even move management. Each of these service areas enable our ability to ensure the functionality of the built environment.
Over the last decade in particular, I’ve noticed that more members of our profession are discussing issues of long-term importance like strategic planning. I’ve also participated and engaged in conversations regarding strategic outsourcing. How can we better utilize the competencies and capabilities of other individuals, but not necessarily rely on those within the organization organically?
As someone who serves on a number of advisory boards for different companies and institutions, how do you think the overall C-Suite mentality has shifted towards facilities management?
Mitchell: I ask this question whenever I speak or teach: how many of you receive phone calls, emails, texts from people who are supported by the facilities that you’ve maintained, stating “my lights came on today, thank you very much for your service!” Out of the many times I’ve asked that, one person actually said that they received feedback that was unsolicited and unexpected.
You can imagine that when I asked the question: how many of you have gotten phone calls, emails or texts from individuals who told you something’s not working and they need it fixed. Of course, the majority of hands come up.
Because of our ability to deliver facilities so that they operate more efficiently, effectively, and economically, members of the C-Suite increasingly recognize that their portfolio of facility assets, one of the top three most expensive listings on their financial balance sheet, can really serve as an enabler of organizational success.
If you want to attract the best talent that your industry requires in order to be successful, particularly when you’re competing with others who are offering the same services, it’s easier to appeal to these superstars if they know that they’re going to be operating in a facility that’s appealing as well as functional.
We’re at a point in this post-modern era where the desire to have quality of life is at a premium, and being able to live somewhere where we’re comfortable has an impact our ability to do so. C-Suite members recognize a quality workspace goes a long way when it comes to attracting the individuals that can help sustain their organization’s ability to remain successful.
Consequently, FMs also recognized the value of adopting the mindset of a C-Suite member so we can better understand what’s important to them. By doing so, we can be in a better position to express how their facilities can help them be successful in terms they understand. Our C-Suite advocacy usually results in gaining the resources necessary to provide these facilities.
In 2008, you did an interview with IFMA’s Italian chapter where you brought up a startling statistic that only 8% of the roughly 24,000-person membership of IFMA were aged 35 and below at that time. What do you think needs to be done to entice younger talent to the field?
Mitchell: The IFMA Foundation also published a subsequent report and unfortunately the number has not changed. I’m genuinely concerned about this trend and disturbed about the potential impacts of what the lack of growth will have on our profession.
The IFMA Foundation projected in 5-15 years that 50% of the existing FM workforce will be eligible to retire. The reason why many haven’t retired sooner is because of the economic impact the great global recession had on their financial portfolio. For those of us who worked in the private sector, our 401Ks shrunk. The reality is, at some point in time, whether voluntarily or involuntarily, we will eventually leave the workforce.
I’ve long considered what could be done to close the knowledge gap between those of us in the FM workforce and those who will replace us. The average FM profession operating in North America and Europe is about 49 years of age, serves a second-level supervisory position, manages a facility portfolio of roughly 150,000 square-feet in size comprised of multiple buildings, and draws upon about 20-25 years of experience in our industry to do so.
I’ve receive a lot of comfort from helping industry and academia to continue their focus on developing and delivering advanced FM degree programs. More colleges and universities offer classes so these students can demonstrate their comprehension of the 11 core competencies of FM, as recognized by IFMA. These FM degree graduates will possess FM professional knowledge prior to their entry into the workforce, which better prepares them to deliver this competencies in job opportunities advancing their development so they can become the future leaders of our industry.
What kind of career advice do you have for the modern FM looking for mentorship or leadership in the industry?
Mitchell: The question I regularly ask students and young professionals is “what do you want to do when you grow up?” That generally prompts them to pause during their contemplation, which provides an opportunity to explain what I mean. You may have ideas in terms of what you’d like to do or at least exposure to those things that appeal to you. You know where you are now in the stage of your personal and professional development? Where do you see yourself 10-15 years from now?
One of my first mentors encouraged me to look at examples of individuals who have also served in the positions that appealed to me during the early stages of my career as an U.S. Air Force civil engineering officer. They also advised I consider what was it that differentiated them from everybody else? What do they have in common in terms of their qualifications and ability to lead in this position?
There’s no guarantee that you’ll match anyone’s professional biography. People hire you, you don’t hire yourself. You can, however, take actions that will avail yourself through professional development, knowledge sharing, and industry network events. Increasing your marketability could expose you to job opportunities whereby the successful demonstration of acquired skills, knowledge, and experience provide results that offer future opportunities that ideally will get you to where you seek to be.