Your Building's Most Important Relationship I'm Super, Thanks for Asking

When a crisis arises in a building, however large or small, calling the super is almost as reflexive as dialing 911 in an emergency. After all, it’s the superintendent who literally holds the keys to a building’s successful operation—he or she is the captain of the ship, as it were.

Over the years, supers’ job requirements have changed, but the essence of the job hasn’t. A proficient superintendent is first and foremost a facilitator: they either know how to fix the problem or have someone on speed dial who does. The super handles the day-to-day tasks on behalf of residents and managing agents.

In order for boards and managers to maximize their relationship with their superintendent, they need to create a positive, mutually beneficial relationship, says Sean Wade, a resident manager with Manhattan-based AKAM Associates.

“Supers have a greater knowledge of staff performance than management or board members,” says Wade. “In order for a building to operate efficiently, the super must have autonomy over the staff. A chain of command is extremely important for staff members to function effectively.”

Changing of the Guard

With time comes change. A super who joined the ranks 50 years ago and hasn’t kept his or her skills up to date would find it hard to enter the job market today. If one considers the advancements and adoption rates of technologies such as email, cell phones and social networking sites, it is clear that the game has changed. Think old Yankee Stadium vs. new Yankee stadium.

“This position in the past was one of almost God,” says Peter Grech, director of education for New York’s Superintendents Technical Association (STA).

“Now it’s much less authoritative in most buildings. Depending upon the type of building, most supers have become less hands-on, and more supervisory and more budget conscious.” “People skills are the top skills needed today, followed a close second by communication skills—both verbal and written.”

These new skills are attained more often than not in a classroom setting which is a significant change from years past when street smarts and on-the-job training were considered a default diploma.

“The modern super is more likely to have a college degree. They are also more likely to have taken advanced courses related to the industry,” says Wade. “The union has a school that offers many new skill sets not available 50 years ago. They can range from a second language to a refrigeration licensing program,” he continues. “The modern super is more likely to require basic computer skills. Personally, my position requires a BlackBerry.”

New educational requirements and specialties may have become the norm in the superintendent’s trade, but a traditional skill set remains mandatory. “The person’s level of education will factor into hiring today,” says Desmond Beglin, a resident manager with Manhattan-based ATCO Properties & Management Inc., and the president and treasurer of the Hibernia Provident Society, a Manhattan-based organization of building service professionals.

“The higher their education level, the better chance they have of securing a top-class building. The mechanical skills required are similar to the those of 20 or 30 years ago, skills are still expected to be high to deal with day-to-day issues of running a building.”

Forget Smoke Signals

As Grech noted, supers once held an elevated status that sometimes created barriers. As a consequence communication levels often broke down between board members and managing agents. This was an antiquated approach. The playbook has changed. E-mails and text messages have altered the way in which supers interact with not only board members and managing agents, but homeowners, too.

“Communication should be in writing and be as direct and simply put as possible,” says Grech. “Most supers like things upfront and simple.”

When it comes to encouraging progressive dialogue, Beglin says board members should be exhaustive in their discovery process when hiring new supers, and for those with standing employment, rules of engagement should be included in a yearly review process.

“Supers should attend monthly board meetings which is a good place to communicate and follow up on the performance of the building,” Beglin continues. “It may be necessary to have a written contract for individual buildings which outline the requirements of the job.”

Wade agrees, adding “Building administrators should communicate expectations in writing. If there is a specific duty not considered normal, it should be spelled out in the hiring documents.”

Reasonable Requirements

Whether determining the requirements for a new super position or developing and implementing new standards for existing positions, board members have to balance their needs and wishes versus what’s reasonable and realistic.

Grech says there is no fixed set of standards as every hiring situation is unique. He did offer what he considered to be the basic requirements. “A super should be honest, be responsible, and responsive to needs of the building and residents,” he says, adding that “a super should care about his job and the people that live in his building.”

When Wade was asked his thoughts on the issue, he offered: “It is reasonable for a building to expect the super is licensed to operate the mechanical equipment in the building. It is reasonable to expect the super is familiar with the most common trades used by buildings, i.e plumbing, electric and carpentry. Finally, it is reasonable to expect the super to manage the staff at the building.”

Beglin says that when issues are related to licensing or code requirements, the boards have to be more sympathetic and understanding of limitations. “To me reasonable is work that will not be in violation of New York City building codes,” he continues. “Buildings vary in their expectations of their supers and hence some of this leads to a breakdown of relations between boards and supers.”

Theoretically, the Service Employees International Union Local 32BJ (SEIU 32BJ) has no impact determining requirements for hiring; however, boards should be aware of the organization and a candidate’s affiliation.

“The building defines the duties of the superintendent, as long as they are not illegal or in conflict with the union contract. The normal work week is 40 hours over five days,” says Wade. “A super is responsible for responding to building emergencies. If a strike occurs a super is not allowed to perform the duties of other union members on strike.” He adds, “Legally, a super can service multiple buildings up to 15 total units, or one building with several hundred units.”

More so than the union, New York City government has significant influence over the role a super plays in a building. “The city has a licensing system where supers must have knowledge and skill in several trades as related to running an apartment building.” says Beglin. “They need a boiler license, standpipe and sprinkler license; if the building has central air conditioning, the super is required to have a refrigeration license.”

It’s always helpful to get inside the mind of those in the profession. This approach allows board members to know supers’ like and dislikes which provides a more thoughtful approach on sensitive issues.

“I believe the biggest pet peeve in the industry is interference with staff management,” says Wade. “Supers need to receive direction from one person. If there are staff issues, they should be addressed to the super and not the individual staff member,” he continues. “This is critical in the event of an emergency. If a staff member has received conflicting direction, this can create greater risk to life or property during an emergency.”

Grech relates that most supers have feelings of being undervalued and field unreasonable demands outside the scope of the job description. “Some of the complaints deal with being underpaid or that the job has become a babysitting job rather than a supervisory, management one.”

Moving Forward

Money, as in all employment scenarios, is a driving factor. A weak offer could lose a great candidate; however, boards need to keep a tight grip on the purse strings. There are no set guidelines for salaries. They run the gamut block by block, borough by borough.

“This is a wide question that most will not answer,” says Grech. “Here is a stab. Supers make from $35,000 to $150,000 per year. The pay depends on the building, what is required of the super, and how well the super delivers. Lastly, how well the super can negotiate.”

There are perks as most supers are offered an apartment or a reduction on rent in neighborhoods they might not normally be able to afford. “Don’t call it free rent because they earn it,” stresses Grech.

As noted above, communication is cornerstone to building and maintaining a progressive relationship with a super. It is important not to cross agreed-upon boundaries, which is often a gray area.

“Many buildings publish a set of house rules. In co-ops and condos, the offering plan is helpful in defining the level of responsibility in terms of repairs. Another useful tool is having a [computerized] building management program. Many buildings have a work order system in place that can be accessed twenty-four hours a day without the need to communicate in person with the super,” says Wade. “The programs can be set to define maintenance issues like plumbing for example. Normally, a resident should not call their super outside of working hours unless it is an emergency. An emergency is something that would cause harm to a person or damage property like a fire or flood.”

If a problem with a super arises that calls for mediation, it is suggested to schedule a meeting between all parties. This process should allow for transparency with the intention of arriving at a mutually-agreeable solution. If the super is failing to meet his or her obligations, action can and should be taken.

“The first resource is a meeting with the super, the management company and the board to discuss the problems. An agreement can be written up with the requirements for the super to improve his performance,” says Beglin, who adds that the letter should include an end date for review at which point termination is an option.

Conversely, when the super is doing a great job, the issue of when and how much to tip arises. There is no law or requirement. It’s a sliding scale depending on the individual.

“Tipping the super should be as generous as your pockets can afford. This man (or woman) is responsible for your health, safety, quality of life. He is the go to guy when you need something in your home, he is the rock that supports the building,” says Grech. “A good super is hard to find; an excellent super is even harder to keep.”

W.B. King is a freelance writer and a frequent contributor toThe Cooperator.

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