Faces of Facilities

Faces of Facilities: Erna Perkins-Jones from Johnson C. Smith University

Diversity, equality, and representation are essential across all industries, including facilities management. In honor of Black History Month, Erna Perkins-Jones shares her FM success story, discusses what the annual observance means to her, and offers advice for future facility leaders, no matter their skin color.

Perkins-Jones is the director of facilities at Johnson C. Smith University (JCSU), one of about 100 Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) across the U.S. Based in Charlotte, N.C., JCSU has a rich history dating back to 1867, was a founding member of the United Negro College Fund in 1944, and has grown into a nationally renowned private liberal arts school.

As director of facilities, Perkins-Jones oversees JCSU’s entire campus with 55 buildings spanning over 100 acres. Her role includes facility operations, design and construction, asset and risk management, and event and space planning, among other duties. For example, she spearheaded a campus-wide building “refresh” project last summer.

Perkins-Jones has been in the FM industry for nearly 20 years and worked at various organizations, including Goodwill Industries of the Southern Piedmont. Before entering the FM space, she also had comprehensive experience as a built-environment professional.

To learn more about Perkins-Jones and her take on industry issues, please read the “Faces of Facilities” interview below:

How did you get your start in the facilities management field?

As a 1986 graduate of Choppee High School in Georgetown, S.C., I entered the University of South Carolina as a broadcast journalism major, focusing on being the next Barbara Walters. But God had another plan for me. As a college sophomore, I entered a residence hall decorating contest, and my roommate and I won. At that moment, I realized I had a gift to see beyond the present condition of a space or place, visualize the potential of Space through the placement of elements, how the space functions for the end-user, and integrate nature into the Space. I changed my major immediately to the College of Arts and Sciences – B.A. with an architectural design focus. I interned at GMK Associates Architects, a multi-disciplinary planning, design, and construction services firm, and never looked back.

Upon graduation in 1990, I worked in various built-environment capacities, sharpening my skills. I decided to pursue my M.S. in architecture. However, another milestone of good fortune presented itself in 1992. I received a scholarship at Morgan State University for an M.S. in urban planning as a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Scholar. The scholarship offered an extraordinary opportunity to significantly impact the revitalization of urban neighborhoods in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., during the 1993 HUD Block Grant Programming to use grant funds to implement a range of community and economic development initiatives to revitalize impoverished urban and rural communities.

Working with community residents through visioning and community planning efforts was a positive experience. I experienced various levels of community impact opportunities, in-fill housing, elderly housing renovations, and community leadership training, which allowed me to plant seeds and witness the community residence vision become a reality—from run-down row houses on blighted streets to green spaces with brightly trimmed houses with residents sitting on the stoops in the afternoon.

During the 2008 recession, I was forced to close my consulting business due to the downturn in the construction industry. The unexpected job loss caused me to reimagine my life. I identified my strengths: excellent people skills, trade industry experience, and passion for human interaction with Space. Then, I had to look for a job that allowed me to use my broad view of facilities.

My first facilities position was with the Parsons Brinckerhoff/Dewberry JV contract with the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) to provide management support to the Job Corps Acquisition Services. The scope of work covered the DOL’s Job Corps campuses (122 centers), including custom-designed complexes, CCC camps, converted schools and churches, and military installations pre-dating 1945. We provided total facility life cycle program management services by assessing current conditions, creating long-range plans to build the agency’s annual facilities budget, and executing design and construction.

After four years, SSC Services for Education offered me an opportunity to be a facilities director for the D.C. Public Schools POM contract. The SSC Services opportunity was career-changing, as I became the first African American female to manage an account in the company’s history. My career setback in 2008 evolved into my most incredible opportunity in the facilities management industry.

Who is/was your biggest influence in the industry, and why?

Several influential people in the industry have supported me in navigating the male-dominated industry waters. “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” – Proverbs 27:17

The SSC Services for Education leadership during the mid-2000s were extraordinary men. They provided a nurturing and supportive work environment. I was the only female, and they created a circle of trust—trusted my abilities and created a safe space that gave me a stronger sense of purpose and increased my communication skills in asking honest, open questions that helped me better understand challenging situations and my audiences.

What’s your favorite part about working in facilities management?

Facilities management, as we know, has the primary purpose of methodically guiding maintenance tasks to ensure building integrity. However, my favorite part about working in facilities is creative freedom. A day is never the same, but sometimes it feels like “Groundhog Day.” My career success has relied on the autonomy to think outside the box to implement new ideas or to improve processes. This freedom keeps me engaged and drives innovation throughout my facilities career.

What changes would you like to see in the FM industry?

An industry requirement for facilities department succession planning. As a higher-education facilities director, I walked into a position that had a leadership vacancy for four years. The talent crisis manifests as shrinking experienced applicants, an aging workforce pool, and wage compression among frontline employees.

The four-year vacancy of a facilities leader at any institution will cause an overwhelming deferred maintenance list, compliance challenges, and daily system failures. I felt like “Chicken Little” for two years. The sky always fell whenever the phone rang or I opened an email. Succession planning is essential to any organization but, more importantly, to the educational facilities to ensure critical roles are not left vacant for extended periods or filled by people who don’t have the skills or knowledge to perform the role. An ideal situation is knowing who is next in line to fill senior positions and being able to mentor those individuals to become the next generation of successful facility leaders, which is crucial to maintaining and avoiding safety issues, breakdowns, or damage and increasing team morale.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

Black History Month is a time of celebrating and understanding the impact of my community’s Black heritage—a community of talent, resilience, and culture. I try to recognize and honor those who paved the way for me, especially my parents and family. My parents are retired educators and community leaders. Over the years, their leadership roles have significantly impacted me, my two sons, and the surrounding community members. I would not have gotten to where I am today without standing on their shoulders.

How has your personal experience been as a Black professional in FM? Does the industry need to work on becoming more inclusive?

My experience as a Black person and a female in the FM profession has been challenging. Because of my skin color, a predetermined judgment was made over the years that I was not knowledgeable about facilities management. I found that often, in particular audiences, when communicating a decision or being instructional, I was constantly questioned and saw it necessary to explain the reasons behind my position. I recall arriving at a Montana Job Corps campus for a site inspection. I was ignored and isolated by campus leadership for the entire two weeks.

As time has passed, the facility industry has slowly begun embracing diversity. However, there is much more work for the industry to become inclusive. During recruitment events such as at HBCUs, there are opportunities to demonstrate how different roles/professions can be integrated into the facilities industry roles—i.e., a business degree can help with vendor/contract management, and an architecture degree can help with capital project management.

Looking back on your career, what’s your best mistake, and what did you learn?

As a regional facilities director, I worked on a significant dining hall renovation project before students returned to campus. I underestimated how much time it would take to renovate the kitchen and dining hall of a 50-year-old facility—and my team’s poor skills to support the project’s management. 

With a two-month delay, the project was over budget by $600K+, and the kitchen needed to be redesigned due to permit requirements. I had to release everyone from their roles and hire a new team—a project and design management consultant. The project was a perfect storm of time and money. The water was way over my head.

It was a lesson learned. This storm was my wake-up call to get back to the basics, never make assumptions when inheriting staff, conduct thorough employment background checks, remember the proposal with the lowest number is never the best option, and set realistic project schedules with a contingency plan.

How can company leaders make facilities management valuable in their organization?

Communicate effectively on all levels of the organization the importance of facilities management. These frontline workers need to be celebrated as a part of the culture of an organization. Without the facilities department or the building manager/facilities manager, the business operations will fail due to the inability to keep the building/campus functioning—lighting, heating, waste management, safety, etc. Facilities management is an integral part of business operations. 

What are you most proud of?

One moment I’m particularly proud of involved successfully coaching a team member. When I first began at Goodwill Industries to open their new campus, in a management role with a new employer, I needed to understand the organization’s culture and the employees’ needs as they struggled to meet their performance targets. While many believed I would need to terminate them, I thought it best to use another strategy first.

I adopted a coaching mindset (my father was a high school football coach for 50 years, so I am a coach by nature), meeting with them one-on-one to learn more about their struggles and sharing professional stories to inspire them to push through and how we could devise solutions together. Some members had never worked in the facilities industry and did not understand the functionality of operating a campus and large-scale commercial buildings. But through training, professional development sessions, and team building, everyone worked together and overcame challenges to excel in their roles. The team is still at Goodwill and has thrived since my departure.

Do you have any advice for people entering the profession?

“So I saw that there is nothing better for people than to be happy in their work. That is our lot in life. And no one can bring us back to see what happens after we die.” – Ecclesiastes 3:22

These words encourage me always to keep my hand in the dirt; there’s nothing better for usmen and womenthan to enjoy whatever we do. That is our lot.

Are you or a colleague an FM professional interested in being profiled for the “Faces of Facilities” series? Please contact Editor Joe Bebon at JBebon@BLR.com.

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