Dean Pufahl, CHFM, CHC, director of facility services at Froedtert and The Medical College of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, and immediate past president of the American Society for Health Care Engineering, believes that the field of health care facilities management has an image issue, and it is affecting professional reputation in broad and far-reaching ways.

“You ask high school kids what they think of plant operations or maintenance and the image that’s conjured up in their minds is of the high school janitor, cleaning up the showers or fixing the bleachers in the gym,” Pufahl says.

But facilities management has moved well beyond plungers and lightbulbs and into the high-tech arena, requiring a range of specialized and technical knowledge. The perception, however, that these jobs are dirty and low skilled with little long-term career potential means young people are less likely to pursue careers in the field.

In addition, health care facilities staff, particularly front-line employees, may not understand how to chart career paths and advance in their organizations and the field. “It’s hard to sit down and talk with people about the next steps and developing their professional reputations. They don’t even know what their reputation is at this point,” Pufahl says.

Nolan Harp, CHFM, recently retired vice president of facilities operations integration at Advocate Aurora Health, Milwaukee, agrees that changing the image of the field is an important part of professional reputation and one that extends far beyond a particular department or facility.

“You can be highly respected within your organization. But, if you’re highly respected in a number of organizations or within the community, it’s much easier to sustain your professional reputation,” Harp says.

Pufahl and Harp say that reshaping the field’s image should start with outreach to young people promoting opportunities in health care facilities and showcasing the achievements and careers of successful professionals. This shift in perception will then encourage them to pursue careers and, as more people move into the field, ensure that this rebranding is sustained over the long term. 

“People just don’t understand the complexity, the challenges and the rewards that these kinds of frontline positions offer. You need very effective, focused, local outreach programs that keep people aware of the value of these careers,” Harp says.

Pufahl stresses that this change will not happen overnight, and it will involve ongoing strategic planning well into the future. “It’s a long road and building that career image is going to take years. So, we need to figure out how to accelerate that process,” he says.