United Services of America's Steve Jones: Why I Train Janitors To Be Execs

Steve Jones, United Services CEO

At 19, Scott Naso wanted to become a police officer. But to earn some cash while training and taking the tests, he took a night shift job as a security guard. After a few weeks, his Santa Ana, Calif., employer promoted him to patrol duty, and soon after to field manager, and then division manager. "That was really eye-opening," he says, "that I could make a career out of security."

Twenty-six years later, Naso works at the same company, as senior regional vice president. Naso's story isn't an uncommon one at United Services of America, which provides janitorial and security services. Plenty of United Services workers who started at the bottom end up in the executive ranks.

United Services' extraordinary growth, even through the recession, could be a lesson to employers who say that they can't find good talent. "Where are they? I just don't see it," a Rockville, Md.-based employer told Bloomberg about his struggle to find qualified workers, a concern echoed by 53 percent of small business owners in a recent survey. But United Services CEO Steve Jones (pictured above) has made it his business to find those people, and nurture them to the top.

"No one wants to work a dead-end job," he remarked.

Not even the financial crisis could deter United Services. Rather than downsizing, the company invested even more heavily in its employees, aggressively bought out other firms, and hired more people. "It was a gamble," Jones said. "We could have been smartest guys in the room, or we could have been broke, and the dumbest guys in the room."

United Services of America bet big and won big. In 2000, the company had an annual revenue of $24 million and less than 1,000 employees. Today, it takes in over $600 million and has over 20,000 people on its payroll. During the recession and its aftermath, the company created 17,330 jobs. Last year, the magazine Inc. dubbed Jones the "Top Job Creator in America."

Welcoming 'Overqualified' And 'Underqualified' Job Applicants

Nearly half of American workers laid off during the recession say that their current positions are a step down, according to a survey by Rutgers University. Countless workers have been turned down from jobs that they're overqualified for, while many employers complain that they can't find anyone qualified -- despite towers of resumes.

But United Services is happy to scoop up all the hard-working individuals who fall through the job market's cracks. United Services scours job boards and LinkedIn, technical and junior colleges, and even unemployment offices and churches. "We try to uncover people however we possibly can," said Jones, who's one of the company's two CEOs.

The firm was so active in recruiting veterans, Jones said, that it received a thank you email from the White House.

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United Services is also dedicated to helping the best rise up through its ranks. Companies have been cutting back on training for decades, and this only intensified as the recession hit. Only 1 in 5 workers, according to a recent survey, have acquired new skills from employer-provided training in the past five years. But United Services has doubled down on its training. Through "Universal University," all security employees receive two hours of training every two weeks, Naso says. The most ambitious among them can even study at home for a few months to earn a special accreditation that short-lists them for promotion.

"It takes the cream of the crop and rises it to the top," explains Naso.

Taking The Time To Know The Talent On The Bench

Companies tend to fill just a third of new positions through internal promotion, according to surveys by the staffing agency CareerXroads. This rose to over 50 percent at the height of the recession, since investing in current resources tends to save money. United Services has long embraced this as wisdom, with managers constantly discussing who should be promoted.

"Every great organization, one of the challenges they have is knowing the talent level they have on their bench," says Jones. "... If you're not constantly talking about it, you're not constantly bringing up new names."

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More Carrot, Less Stick

Low-wage workers often complain that bosses crack the whip with threats of reduced hours, or termination. In the past few years, after all, there have been plenty unemployed who are more than willing to take those jobs. But Jones wants to make sure that every employee feels valued. The company's janitors, in fact, have a lower turnover rate than the security staff, because they're often new immigrants and appreciate the good pay, benefits and opportunities. "Even though they're low-skill, labor-intensive jobs, they're a pretty decent job," Jones says.

And even though the day-to-day of a security guard may be repetitive, Jones emphasizes the many ways that role is indispensable: as the first line of defense in an emergency, as a watchman over theft and conflicts, as meet-and-greet customer service. "Some employers don't do the best job explaining why an individual's position is important," says Jones.

Naso takes this task very seriously. Because he was vigorously trained and promoted at a young age, thanks to the hands-on stewardship of co-founder and co-CEO Brian Cescolini (who himself started out as a security guard), he makes sure to always pay-it-forward.

"I think that permeates," he says. "It's now my responsibility to mentor the people I oversee."

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