A class apart
Transforming a newly arrived low-skilled worker from the sub-continent into an efficient customer-friendly cleaner, security guard or maintenance technician is no easy task. Jeremy Martin, Quality and Training Manager for Farnek Services, tells FM Magazine how he does it.
“We believe that everybody should be given as much opportunity as possible to learn something, to be able to do a job on site safely, well and to the complete satisfaction of the client,” says Jeremy Martin, Quality and Training Manager for Farnek Services, a member of the Khalifa Juma Al Nabooda Group of Companies. Training is the cornerstone of any service industry. It’s the skills of the employees that make companies succeed or fail.
And when you have more than 700 people of various nationalities servicing an array of clients scattered around the increasingly competitive market of Dubai, quality and training are key differentiators. That’s why, Martin says, Farnek has stood the test of time, having been established in 1980. Martin himself is responsible for the regular ongoing training of the company’s 300 cleaners, 200 security guards and 200 maintenance and administration workers as well as for assessing and training new staff.
The company describes itself as ‘the UAE’s foremost property and facility maintenance out-source organisation’, and not a facilities management company, as some might describe it – a point the ever-jovial Martin is keen to clarify before any talk of training.
What is facilities management to you?
Facilities management should mean that you take care of the property entirely for somebody. That doesn’t mean that you take on the services. The outsourcing of services – such as the maintenance, the cleaning, the security and so on – should be controlled by the facilities manager. When facilities management companies try to take on the actual services then they’re not actually doing what is facilities management.
Everybody’s trying to get in on the [FM] bandwagon. Farnek Services, for instance, has been in business 25 years. Why? Because it does a good job and it concentrates on the four key aspects of its business which are: cleaning services; security services; building maintenance, which includes electrical maintenance and AC; and a small works division that deals with everyday problems or new things that people want to do like tile a floor, build a bathroom, make a kitchen or renovate something.
That’s why we are specifically not going into facilities management because we believe we should be a subcontractor to facilities managers, rather than being a facilities manager. We're a service industry: 'we care for your property', as it says on our brochure.
How is Farnek Services' training department structured?
We carry out training throughout all four divisions and we have safety officers as well. I’m a BICS (the British Institute of Cleaning Science) assessor so my major part of training is concentrated on cleaning – which is from basic through to specialised cleaning. Our security guards are trained in basic fire fighting, first aid, evacuation procedures and so on. And we are a registered security company in Dubai. Each division goes through their own training. Each division we have has an operations manager and we have a breakdown of people who are responsible for various things. For instance, we outsource and in-source safe driving. All of our drivers go through driving courses and we test them to see if they are driving well – unlike the managers!
Safety at work is a very important part of the training and is carried out through all divisions. The Municipality is becoming more aware of unsafe working practices, a development we highly appreciate because we’re already doing what they require. And it justifies our rates in the market for doing a job professionally and correctly. It irks us sometimes when people get jobs and they are not professionally carrying out the work in a safe or proper manner.
Having been here a number of years, have you observed the culture of health and safety evolve much?
Well you still see poor practices now. One has to wonder why the Municipality is cracking down on private companies, and then you look at what the Municipality does and you have to wonder. You’ve got Municipality workers doing all sorts of unsafe practices. You only have to drive down the road! Having said that there is an increasing awareness of health and safety in both the Municipality and the market itself, so I’m sure there’ll be an improvement – which of course we are absolutely 100 per cent in favour of because we’re already there.
People often talk about the low level of skills and training in Dubai’s labour market. How would you differentiate the skills of Farnek employees from others?
Well, number one, we adopt a basic training form. Without being rude to our employees, they are not university graduates so therefore our training is brought down to a level where we can show and see, if you like. In other words, show them what to do and tell them in simplistic terms what they’re about to do.
As far as security staff are concerned, they’re not SAS commandos! They’re supposed to be alert, knowledgeable about the building orientation, know what to do in case of an emergency, and know how to contact the correct authorities if necessary.
In terms of our cleaning staff, they are trained physically how to do everything – how to do it safely, how to do it efficiently. So we’re not trying to give them master degrees in any particular science. If we sent all of our trainers on some of the courses available from some of the training companies in the country, it would be a total waste of money because it would be far too academic and with no practical experience.
Do you normally employ people with certain skills already?
We try to. Obviously we’re not looking for geniuses. In security, for instance, we tend to look for people with military or police experience. In the cleaning industry, we look for people who have worked in hotels or worked abroad previously or done something that involves a relative degree of skill. But we do also take on people that have raw skills, and then it’s our responsibility to bring them up to scratch. But first of all we have to assess whether they’re capable of doing that – and that’s by interviewing them, usually in their country of origin.
Do you undertake customer service training as well?
Communication is a very important part of what we do. We expect all of our staff to communicate everything and to avoid any confrontation with their customers. If there’s any potential confrontation, we should get them to report back to their superior and to liase. But also, to identify any problem before it happens because obviously in the service industry that’s crucial.
Are language problems an issue among your workforce?
It is an issue. We are fairly multilingual, but obviously the business language of Dubai is English really, so all of our employees are expected to speak at least basic English. And lots of them can communicate in Arabic as well. Another thing we have is what I think is a unique system here. Farnek Services has a phone answering system. If you phone, you will speak to a real person 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. No ‘press one for Arabic, press two for English. Your call is very valuable to us. Please hold on for the next three hours'!
Do you conduct the training in a classroom or on site?
We have a classroom that is totally multi-purpose. In other words, we’ve set it up for any particular class – depending on whether it’s a basic job or more specialised cleaning. And we do training on site. Some of the more specialised jobs we have to do on site because we don’t have the facility to do it in the training class. We also have videos, boards, signs and various different things. But we try to keep it to the level in general where it can be shown practically and physically.
Many of the training props or the videos or books etc. cannot really be taught as such, so we go back to practical. There’s no point in taking a book from England and trying to sit down with a load of guys who’ve just arrived here and never even seen a mop before. “There you go, read that, come back tomorrow morning!”
How much time does it take someone with raw skills to start working as a cleaner?
Six two-hour sessions. In which time, they will also be physically in the market working with other cleaners who are experienced.
How do you ensure that your workers adhere to the health and safety guidelines that you teach them?
As much as we train our people, you can’t be behind 700 people - it’s not physically possible. You can’t insist that everybody wears a face mask for instance when they are dealing with dusty or paint conditions. Because if they don’t do it, they don’t do it. You can provide them with the mask, but you can’t stand there for five hours and make sure they wear it. That’s one of the most difficult things, trying to persuade people that the safety equipment and safety procedures are for their own benefit. They are not there to try and make life difficult; they are there to make sure that you’re [the worker] protected, the public is protected, and the building’s protected.