Of course, it is not just cleaning, it is any number of industries, but that does not diminish the sense of surprise we still feel when a position that three years ago might have attracted 20 or 30 applicants, now struggles to attract one or two. It is all part of the long- term structural change in the UK economy that means there is no longer a ready supply of labour for what has traditionally been described as low-paid work.
Wage inflation, whilst a danger to the economy at large, is something that we as an industry were always in favour of when it meant that regular rises in the living wage, in its various guises, were increasing the amount we could pay to front-line staff. With many contracts index-linked to such increases, there was no debate around annual price increases. However, I think it is fair to say that the Real (LWF) Living Wage has now pretty much become the entry-level pay rate for most front-line roles, with several commanding a premium even to that. In the middle of the biggest cost-of-living crisis most of us can remember, this can only be a good thing. Nonetheless, at a time when price competition is still raging throughout the industry, it is becoming increasingly important to look at two areas that significantly affect the maths of a cleaning contract: firstly, the wider basket of non-pay benefits we can use to attract new staff and secondly, the options for increasing productivity as a way of continuing to support competitive wages. Together, these two things can keep staff motivated whilst maintaining margins and keeping overall client charges down.
In previous columns, I have alluded several times to the important role environmental, social and governance (ESG) policy is playing in encouraging our industry to up its game. The casual way in which cleaning staff employed at 10 Downing Street were allegedly disrespected during lockdown, as highlighted in last month’s The Independent, reminds us how essential it is that we create a working environment in which all staff have access to a full range of benefits that include mental health first aid and whistleblowing procedures against inequality, discrimination, or abuse. Combining these sorts of welfare benefits with learning and development programmes to give every single member of staff the chance to move up the ladder are creating, for many contractors I have spoken to, a solid foundation for attracting new staff in a labour market that is only going to get more competitive. At DOC, these initiatives form part of our ‘Beyond Cleaning’ strategy, launched last month and designed to position ourselves as a company where you can look forward to a proper career in an industry that holds massive opportunities for those willing to look past the traditional ‘mop and bucket’ associations of yesteryear.
On the productivity side, our industry’s suppliers are rising to the challenge of improving labour productivity and securing environmental gains in the process. I am particularly impressed by the new scrubber dryers that filter and recycle water as they go along, reducing downtime. And who can ignore the rise of Co-Botics, the ‘intelligent’ machines that do the so-called easy jobs of floor vacuuming as part of the team shift, whilst the staff get on with more critical jobs such as cleaning the hygiene areas and carrying out the detail work.
All in all, it is a challenging, but very positive time for contract cleaning. Provided I am not replaced by a robot myself, I am looking forward very much to what the next 12 months may bring.
Published in July issue of Cleaning & Maintenance.