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UD custodians pick up managerial skills through CASE program

Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson and Wenbo Fan

Inaugural Custodial Advancement Skills Education class graduates

More than one year of planning, hard work and classes culminated at the graduation of the first cohort of the Custodial Advancement Skills Education (CASE) program at the University of Delaware on June 15. The audience cheered on the inaugural class of custodians as they earned their certificates, solidifying their studies of managerial skills.

The CASE program came to life during UD’s employee appraisal process. Coincidentally, Sylvester Johnson, director of custodial and university services, and Judy David, assistant director of residential and conferences services, both wrote that they wanted to offer practical advice and options for staff that want to climb the ladder.

To sweeten the opportunity, the students could apply for an open position to become a manager of custodial services at the University after completing the class. Johnson said they wanted to convey through the program some of the skills and qualities they will look for during the application process.

“We want somebody that's passionate and wants to do this kind of work because you have to deal with all kinds of people,” Johnson said. “You have to be really up on diversity, you have to be up on cultures and different backgrounds and how to talk to people … You have to be flexible, you have to be a good listener and a good follower.”

Johnson said he sometimes heard complaints that custodians feel there is nowhere to go. He and David both realized that sentiment was untrue, they also recognized custodians might not know the path forward. David started as a custodian and experienced first-hand the vagueness around how to advance one’s career in the field.

“The move into management was very cloudy,” David said. “How to get there and what you needed to do. So, I really wanted to try and help make clear to people what skills they needed.”

The duo also realized this may be a good way to create some excitement for people to see custodial services as a career. They’ve both noticed a lack of enthusiasm, especially among younger people.

“It’s not glamorous and people don't think about it as a career,” David said. “So we have to make sure we're picking up some good people to replace people as they retire.”

Lots of planning, meetings, visits and phone calls resulted in a nine-month program that broke down some of the key skills managers need to lead. Themes including public speaking and customer service were explored through projects, writing assignments and guest speakers knowledgeable on the topic.

After the application process and interviews with more than a dozen custodians, seven were selected for the first cohort. In addition to attending the classes and completing assignments, each member was assigned a mentor who was available to offer support. Johnson and David also arranged to meet with each student once a month to discuss their progress and address any specific concerns. For everyone, the journey turned out to be more than they imagined.

Dawn Nelson started working as a custodian at the University five years ago. She works the early shift (5 a.m. to 1 p.m.) in Smith Hall. Nelson said she has considered management as a good option to transition away from the more physical nature of the current job and thought this would be a great opportunity. That said, she really did not know what to expect after she was accepted.

“It turned out to be a lot more — more detail, more challenging — than I thought it would be,” Nelson said. “Certainly, more entertaining. I’ve learned a lot about myself — things I can do, things that I need to learn to do and things that I excel at that I didn’t think that I would.”

As Nelson went through the program, her perspective changed. Previously, she said, she might have viewed a decision by her manager as unfair. The class gave her a chance to see a situation from a manager’s perspective and it helped her understand certain decisions.

Sarah Jones (center) is awarded her certificate by Sylvester Johnson and Judy David.
Sarah Jones (center) is awarded her certificate by Sylvester Johnson and Judy David.

Some students noticed improvement in other areas. Sarah Jones, a custodian who has worked more than three years in Trabant University Center, said her confidence has grown.

“I’ve had interviews to be manager [before] and my feedback was always I wasn’t confident,” Jones said. “I feel like taking this program has made me more confident. It’s given me the information and resources that I can go to, to be more confident.”

The class also pushed her to become a more proactive member of the union. After starting the class, Jones attended her first union meeting last year and is now the shop steward. She said she realized steps like these are good opportunities to take on small leadership roles and serve as practice for possible future roles.

Johnson and David said they are proud of the students for what they accomplished and they view the cohort as a close knit family. On graduation day, the cohort’s mentors, supervisors and others on the custodial team celebrated their accomplishments.

Peter Krawchyk, UD vice president for Facilities, Real Estate and Auxiliary Services
Peter Krawchyk, UD vice president for Facilities, Real Estate and Auxiliary Services, spoke at the graduation ceremony.

Peter Krawchyk, UD vice president for Facilities, Real Estate and Auxiliary Services, was the guest speaker for the ceremony.

“All of you have demonstrated tremendous courage, that I think we need to recognize,” Krawchyk said. Krawchyk thanked them for helping drive forward this effort, which he said he believes will bring change to the University.

As the graduates were awarded the certificates, they each said a few words on the impact this program has had on them. They also thanked Johnson and David for making the opportunity possible and thanked their mentors.

Sharon Melvin was a program mentor for Nelson, and Melvin said the classes helped Nelson draw out her latent leadership skills.

“She has grown tremendously,” Melvin said. “I think it will be a great opportunity for her to become a manager.”

The graduates celebrated their achievements with food, cake and pictures. During Johnson’s closing remarks, he borrowed from Martin Luther King Jr. to thank students and other organizers for believing in this class and seeing it through the first year: “Faith is taking the first step, even when you don't see the whole staircase," he said.

2018 CASE Graduates:

  • Cristina Alos

  • Regina Arriola-Lopez

  • Adolf Brew

  • Erica Coles

  • Sarah Jones

  • Dawn Nelson

  • Jason Wilson

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