Grounds for Outsourcing, Part II

By Steven Jackson

Last week, we brought you coverage of the grounds management outsourcing. Starting Nov. 1, Clinton firm Furman Bros Landscaping was hired to oversee the Beloit College grounds crew. This week the coverage continues.

A bit of background

The outsourcing of grounds is best understood in a wider context. The story really begins in 2008, when the college had to cut 34 jobs. The cuts took place during Dick Niemiec’s interim presidency, at which time the college faced a projected $2 million shortfall over two years.

After cutting nearly 10 percent of staff, it was necessary to re-organize campus services. To that end, the administration formed a small ad hoc committee. The group has since expanded to become “Staff Council,” a body of about 40 people including all department and division heads. The council meets twice each semester.

In the summer of 2010, Staff Council launched the Benchmarking Beloit study. They sent a small delegation to peer institutions in the ACM, with the goal of identifying the best practices in spending, staffing and other operational activities. The schools visited were Ripon, Lake Forest, Coe and Cornell.

“We were interested in looking at schools that were good at managing with scarce resources,” said President Scott Bierman. One of the things they learned from the study was that “other schools outsource more than us.”

Based on the Benchmarking Beloit study, Staff Council suggested that the administration do preliminary research into options for outside contractors for various campus services.

Senior Staff (composed of Bierman and all department vice presidents) initiated negotiations with local landscaping firms in the summer of 2011.

Why grounds? Why the Furmans?

Cuts and reorganization of staff in 2008 cued administration to consider outsourcing at a broad level. But why was grounds targeted? Physical Plant felt the 2008 cuts especially deeply, and the department seemed like a natural starting place for testing out a new organizational structure, Bierman said.

Secondly, grounds manager Mark Rummpe resigned in February of 2011, leaving the management position unoccupied. “There was an opportunity where we wouldn’t have to displace anyone to at least have a conversation,” Bierman said.

Furman Bros Landscaping is a small firm owned and operated by two brothers out of Clinton, Wis. Beloit College is the company’s biggest contract to date; prior to this the Furmans did smaller residential landscaping jobs.

Although the company is small and young–it started in the spring of 2007–the college hired the Furmans in light of their experience in landscaping and groundskeeping. “They live and breathe landscaping,” Bierman said. Director of Human Resources Lori Rhead said they were attractive for their “breadth of knowledge and expertise.”

Some remain skeptical that Furman Bros Landscaping can bring the expertise that has been promised. “It’s almost irresponsible to say they have a vast amount of experience,” said Ian Hedges’12, who participated in a silent protest at Bierman’s address last Tuesday.

Furman Bros Landscaping was also hired because the company was willing to work with existing Beloit College staff, which was a top priority for the administration.

“There’s a reason we kept our staff, and that was to retain their pay and benefits,” said Rhead. “And that won’t change. Staff preservation is a priority.”

The Furman Bros will mostly manage college staff, but for especially large tasks like snow removal, the Furmans will bring in employees of their own, said Rhead. Just last week the Furmans used several outside workers–mostly family members–to aid in collecting and disposing of leaves.

A rumor debunked–sort of

Although administration has insisted that the management outsourcing will not affect staff pay and benefits, there has been talk of a two dollar decrease in pay. President Bierman stated there was “absolutely no truth” to this allegation.

Rhead had a good guess as to where the rumor originated.

Last spring, when former grounds manager Rummpe resigned, two grounds employees were asked to take on some additional duties throughout the management adjustment period. They were given a two dollar raise as compensation. When the outsourcing took place this month, that increase was removed.

So, for two individuals on the grounds crew, pay was in fact affected. But it was under special circumstances, and the baseline wage of grounds workers remained untouched.

“There was never a permanent promise,” said Rhead. “We took steps to make sure they understood the temporary nature of the arrangement.”

What happens now?

With the Furman’s in place, the grounds crew is smaller–four college employees–and more specialized. Non-grounds work that once fell to the crew is now taken up by the three “facility services” workers that were reassigned from grounds. The four grounds employees now operate under a different system, using a new set of keys and radios.

The contract between the Furmans and the college will be up for review in one year. In the meantime, it’s wait-and-see. A lot hinges on the success or failure of this outsourcing arrangement. If the model is successful, the administration will likely look into applying it to other departments on campus.

“This is an experiment,” said Bierman. “But it took us a while to get here, and we have confidence that it will be successful.”



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