Building Skills Partnership - helping California’s most vulnerable frontline workers

16th of August 2023
Building Skills Partnership - helping California’s most vulnerable frontline workers

Luis Sandoval is executive director of the Building Skills Partnership in California, USA. She tells us about the organisation’s work in helping improve the lives of property service employees in low-wage industries.

In the face of continual social inequality, stagnating wages, and an economic recovery from a global pandemic, many workers in America are finding it difficult to get ahead. Building Skills Partnership; a nonprofit organisation serving thousands of workers from low-wage industries throughout California, in partnership with Service Employees International Union - United Service Workers West (SEIU-USWW) provides opportunities to fully address the unique barriers janitorial workers and their families face in realising the benefits of social, civic, and economic integration.

For thousands of janitors in low-wage industries across California, the pandemic has exacerbated challenges for an already vulnerable workforce. Mostly immigrants with limited English-proficiency, they have lacked  access to formal education - janitors often face multiple challenges such as financial insecurity and limited opportunities for career mobility. Since janitors do most of their work after hours or when business or entertainment spaces are not in use, they often go unseen, and the cleaning profession compounds that systemic invisibility.

“Now more than ever, we must invest in worker training and labour-protection solutions that address public health, worker retention, and career mobility,” says David Huerta, president of SEIU-USWW.

Equitable future

In partnership with SEIU-USWW, Building Skills Partnership continues to strive to create an equitable future for working families to build a better life, with union leadership thinking about Building Skills Partnership programmes to help meet the needs of janitorial workers in their lives and communities.

Building Skills Partnership was founded with the vision of creating an equitable playing field for California’s working families to succeed in their careers and educational endeavours. Born out of the Justice for Janitors movement that helped thousands of immigrant janitors achieve a more just way of living and working, today it represents a partnership between over 90 janitorial employers, over 60 commercial building owners, SEIU-USWW and the wider community.

Public health necessity

“In the last US recession, many building owners cut janitorial services, but cleaning services can no longer be considered optional or a luxury - cleaning services are a public health necessity. Now is the time to pave the way for safer workspaces and a more highly skilled workforce,” says Huerta.

Building Skills Partnership reaches 5,500 workers annually through career and education programmes that enable janitors and airport workers’ personal and professional success, providing opportunities to fully address the unique barriers immigrant workers and their families face in realising the benefits of social, civic, and economic inclusion.

Building Skills Partnership’s innovative training programmes address the needs from frontline property service workers, industry and labour for skill training. We have worked closely with SEIU-USWW, employers and building owners to develop various programmes to train thousands of workers, helping to create upskilling and create pathways to progress.

The organisation offers programmes for janitors at leading worksites across California, including major tech companies in Silicon Valley and the Bay Area; and leading entertainment offices and commercial buildings in Los Angeles, Orange County, and San Diego. The janitors Building Skills Partnership serves are at some of the most dynamic companies in the US, though low wages and inequality still exist in the janitorial industry.

For the work I do now, I see through my own lens of experiences. This work is personal, since both my parents and I have worked as janitors at one point. I understand the challenges, but also the resilience and opportunities to engage communities who are often disenfranchised and marginalised.

To help janitorial workers and their families obtain a better quality of life, Building Skills Partnership programmes are designed to develop high-road industry-driven partnerships that provide equity, sustainability, and job quality through skills strategies.

Among the janitors it serves, 97 per cent  are immigrants from Latin America, 70 per cent  lack basic English proficiency, and 50 per cent  are over 50 years old.  An average annual salary of $32,000  (€29,500)makes it hard for workers to climb out of poverty.

A typical janitor begins their journey to work at 4:30 pm on public transportation, works from 6:00 pm to 2:00 am, sleeps from 3:30 am to 6:30 am, then cares for children, tends to the house and/or works their second job to make ends meet. They clean the buildings of some of the most advanced companies in the state.

Commute long hours

Due to the skyrocketing cost of living in California and the nearby business districts, many janitors commute long hours on public transportation from affordable neighbourhoods. Janitors who own cars often resort to sleeping in them during the week to save time and fuel, while spouses or extended family care for children. Cultural and language barriers, low digital literacy and immigration status prevent many families from accessing support and health resources.

Building Skills Partnership programmes include infectious disease certification, environmentally sustainable cleaning programme, financial capabilities courses, English as a second language (ESL), digital literacy, citizenship & civic engagement, health and wellness, parenting engagement, higher education scholarships, and more.

Training addresses needs

To bring industry employers, workers, and partners together, we develop curriculum and trains thousands of workers statewide, which also enabled the organisation to quickly address workers’ needs in 2020 during Covid-19 and help janitors to safely conduct cleaning practices - supporting them and the business communities they serve.

Through a sector approach, Building Skills Partnership brings together stakeholders connected to the property service industry to address the skills shortages while developing a pipeline of skilled workers to meet future demands. By partnering with employers and labour, we are able to improve worker training, career pathways, industry growth, and facilitate the advancement of workers at all skill levels.

The organisation also partners with industry employers who support the professionalisation of a certified workforce through an industry career pathway. Together, they offer partnerships that facilitate progression to support employee training, upskilling and certification.

Building Skills Partnership has been working to address racial and social inequities for property service workers since its founding in 2007. The organisation collaborates with workers and partners to promote workforce development and immigrant inclusion strategies, and works to replicate its successful industry driven partnership model for the benefit of workers.

Through its Citizenship & Civic Engagement programme, the body emboldens vulnerable immigrant workers to raise their voices and advance social and racial equity for themselves and their communities.

Sustainable practice

It also works to achieve climate and racial justice through its Green Janitor Education Program (GJEP), a 30-hour certification that focuses on energy efficiency, recycling, waste management, water conservation, and other sustainable cleaning practices. GJEP enables large US commercial office buildings to meet green performance standards while providing skills training and upward career ladder opportunities for workers. Furthermore, it helps janitors understand the health benefits of green maintenance for their building tenants and themselves, as well as their families and communities at home.

In the coming years, Building Skills Partnership will be expanding its workforce development, immigrant inclusion, and community advancement programmes to also serve more passenger service workers at LAX (Los Angeles), one of the largest international airports in the world.
Workers from these communities are composed of a diverse demographic including Asian Americans, Black, and other people of colour.

By extending its programmes to serve workers beyond Latinx immigrants, we will impact
more working families and build fair systems that advance racial equity, diversity, and inclusion for all.

Workers of colour and immigrant workers have been disproportionately looked down upon by society  while working hard on the front lines to help keep the public safe, clean, and moving forward. Building Skills Partnership is working to change the narrative for society to have a new understanding and appreciation of the work these types of employees do every single day, no matter what.

Inclusion for all

Some successful outcomes of programmes so far include:
• Thousands of janitorial workers trained in Infectious Disease Certification
• Health and wellness programmes positively impact workers
• Full-time janitor and single mum improves her family’s quality of life
• Higher education scholarship recipient graduated from UC Berkeley
• Hundreds of immigrant workers have naturalised and become US Citizens
• Helped numerous workers to gain financial literacy
• Supported workers and  their family members to gain digital literacy skills.

To find out more visit:


Our Partners

  • ISSA Interclean
  • EFCI
  • EU-nited