Many people consider janitorial and security-guard positions to be the very definition of dead-end jobs. Hundreds of employees at Universal Services of America could prove those people wrong.

There's Scott Naso, a senior regional vice president at Universal Services, who began working as a security guard on the graveyard shift when he was 21. There's regional vice president Rafael Sorto, who, shortly after emigrating from El Salvador at 17, put himself through college while working as a daytime janitor. Don Brandt became a security guard after receiving his master's in education. Now, he's the company's director of training.

"When you look through the organization and see all the people who have been promoted throughout the years, and you see all that they've become, it's pretty amazing," says Steve Jones, one of Universal's two co-CEOs.

Based in Santa Ana, California, Universal Services of America is a 48-year-old company that provides janitorial and security services to corporate, industrial, and residential facilities. Among the company's 35,000 employees are thousands of veterans, recent immigrants, and people who were laid off during the economic downturn. Many of them came looking for any job they could get, but soon learned, as Naso, Sorto, and Brandt did, that Universal's owners take spotting and fostering talent seriously.

"If you have 35,000 employees, like we do, there are bound to be a lot of great people you don't know about," says Brian Cescolini, who shares the title of CEO with Jones. Cescolini himself started his career as a security guard, albeit at a different company, back in 1974. He joined Universal in 1981 and helped its co-founders, Jim Moses and Stephen Salyer, build the company before buying it, with Jones, in 2006.

Since then, Universal has grown in large part through acquisition. With thousands of new employees starting at a time, all the time, Cescolini and Jones have had to formalize the art of finding rising stars in an ever-growing pool. In 2001, they launched Universal University, an internal training program for employees with management potential. "We're creating leaders," Jones says. "If we don't promote them fast enough, we'll end up losing them."

In fact, Jones says, one of the biggest retention problems the company faces is having clients hire Universal's employees themselves. After all, they're the people who see the employees every day. "We're always losing individuals because they were doing a great job guarding a distribution facility, and the client wants to make them assistant warehouse manager."

That, says Jones, is both frustrating and rewarding. "You get a great sense of pride when you're able to see people accomplish their goals and become successful in careers they may not otherwise have had."

This story was updated to reflect Universal Services' ranking in the 2013 Hire Power Awards.