Gary Falasca – St. Petersburg College
Talk to anybody involved in construction, facilities and maintenance, and you’ll hear that there aren’t enough young people moving into the trades to replace the outgoing plumbers, electricians, carpenters, welders, painters, et al. It’s even more difficult to refill the ranks in the public sector, which pays less than private industry.
It takes creativity and incentives to recruit and retain, says Gary Falasca, who logged over 30 years directing facilities at Lehigh University before taking a similar post at Florida’s St. Petersburg College in January 2020.
Similar post but much different entity, he tells Blueprint in February.
“It’s different from what I’m used to,” Falasca says. “A state school rather than private, and one that’s much more community-centered and helping the locals rather than the wealthy. But work is work, buildings are buildings, and the needs are the same. We just have to identify more ways to be efficient with our workforce and skill set.”
He credits his facilities manager, Olin Conrad, for realizing the savings in costs and personnel from replacing the vehicular fleet with a five-year rotation from Enterprise Rent-a-Car. Then there’s his custodial manager, Jason Soler, who sold Falasca on how ionized water could be a better cleansing agent than harsh chemicals.
As more senior staff rides into the Florida Gulf Coast sunset, Falasca incentivizes youngsters with personalized attention they might not get in the private sector. He’s got four apprentice technicians going through HVAC training and each will be paired with a senior staffer and hopefully, he says, become a specialist here for a long stretch, if not a career.
And career opportunity, he emphasizes, does abound at this college that may lack dormitories but still has 11 learning sites throughout Pinellas County. The curriculum serves many practical needs, with courses in firefighting, law enforcement, veterinary technology, healthcare and power-line mechanics and safety.
Standing the heat
Unfortunate as the COVID-19 pandemic has been, Falasca says it’s allowed him and his crew to catch up on such pedestrian tasks as cleansing the HVAC ductwork and upgrading the air handlers at the main campuses in St. Petersburg, Seminole, Clearwater and Tarpon Springs. With software now in place for chiller optimization, facilities have been efficiently cooled since on-campus learning resumed.
Falasca’s also been collaborating with the college’s five provosts so their academic plans align with what he’s doing on the facilities front. He’s among those assessing the use of space needed to consolidate more activities on the campuses while not reducing curriculum. He expects to have a financial roadmap in place later this year.
Got to stretch each dollar, he says, noting that capital funds can be sparse at a modest public school. Still, the college did garner $52 million from the American Rescue Plan of 2021—aka COVID-19 Stimulus Package—with Falasca’s department getting a fair share.
“I don’t know who lobbied for it, but I appreciate it,” he says with a chuckle. “We’re finally thinking forward.”
And looking upward for there always seems to be a roof that needs repair or replacing. Year-round sun and short but intense summer rains wreak havoc with the tops of buildings.
“If you don’t have a secured envelope, everything inside is at risk,” Falasca says. “Mechanical controls, safety issues—all that’s compromised.”
Rocking chair can wait
All seems to be in better hands since Falasca came out of a brief retirement. Having overseen Lehigh’s facilities from September 1988 to December 2018, Falasca left Pennsylvania and planned to spend a year renovating a bungalow he had bought in St. Petersburg. Boredom settling in, he applied for the St. Petersburg College position and three-plus years later retains his passion.
It’s also been a good fit for his civil engineering background—Falasca having earned a degree in the subject at Lehigh in 1973 and honing his skills with mid-Atlantic consulting firms and operating his own for a few years. Seeking more stability, he worked from 1984 to 1988 as a municipal engineer in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and then got an unexpected offer to be Lehigh’s facility director.
“I told them, ‘I don’t know buildings. I know roads and sewers,’” Falasca recalls. “They said, ‘We think you can learn.’”
One of the lessons: “It’s more about critical thinking than actual knowledge,” he says. “I’ll never be the smartest guy in the room, but I can manage interactively and have great people around me. They’ll present me with a solution and whatever goes down, I’ll back them.”
He’s got around 65 people and that’s not many, given the 11 college locations and the catch-up on so much deferred maintenance. That Conrad who’s so availed himself on the vehicular front—Falasca says the man’s got just as much HVAC savvy and has mitigated staffing shortages by shuffling among the locales to ensure all’s literally cool.
And Falasca’s taken well to life in the popular retirement community of St. Petersburg though he’s given no thought to the rocking chair. Motion’s his potion and it helped him endure the recent death of his wife. Life goes on with Falasca and his grown son sharing a house, and them cheering on the Tampa Bay Rays, who play in downtown St. Petersburg. He also has a daughter, who lives in Pennsylvania.
“I’ve got a lot to accomplish here before my second retirement,” Falasca says. “We’re a step behind based on the old paradigm of operations and maintenance.”
View this feature in the Blueprint Vol. IV 2023 Edition here.
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