Attracting Workers to ‘Non-Sexy’ Industry Is Challenge Seniors Housing Leaders Face

by Jeff Shaw

ATLANTA — By offering paid internships, educational programs, community events and flexible hours, seniors housing leaders hope to combat the well-documented labor shortage and entice younger workers. There simply aren’t enough employees to keep up with the pace of development, and the industry is plagued by high turnover rates as well.

That’s according to speakers during an operations update at InterFace Seniors Housing Southeast on Aug. 23 in Atlanta. The conference, held at the Westin Buckhead in Atlanta, attracted over 400 industry professionals.

Lisa Welshhons, senior vice president of human resources company Aureon, noted the distinct gap between the number of workers needed and actual employees working. As moderator, she asked the panel of operators how the labor shortage is changing the way they are staffing their communities, as well as recruiting and retention strategies.

“We’re often asked by our peers and partners what number of communities is our goal, but it’s not about a number of communities. It’s really about continuing to develop as long as we’re able to attract the best-in-class employees,” said Sarabeth Hanson, COO at Harbor Retirement Associates, a regional senior living development and management company in Vero Beach, Fla.

Already a concern, the demand for new workers will only continue to grow in the coming years. Argentum, a national trade association serving companies that own and operate senior living communities, projects that the seniors housing industry needs to recruit 1.2 million new employees before 2025.

Hanson said that Harbor Retirement’s strategy of rethinking its recruiting efforts included hiring in-house recruiting teams and a talent coach. This mentor works closely with employees and develops succession plans. Harbor Retirement is also now looking at recruiting Millennial employees.

Paid internships and training programs help combat the “non-sexy” industry image, according to Hanson.

“When you go speak at colleges or universities, it [seniors housing] doesn’t seem very sexy or exciting to them [Millennials],” she explained. “We are committed to training and education in hopes that we’ll be able to retain young, top-talent leaders into our communities long-term.”

Beth Cayce, founder and CEO of Roswell, Ga.-based CaraVita, a home care service, echoed the same sentiment. CaraVita will pay for online education in hopes that Millennial workers will stay and grow with the company.

“If they [Millennials] are excited about the culture I’m building and it’s a learning environment based around what they want to do, that gives me good bench strength,” she said.

Other qualities Millennials look for in employment, according to Hanson, include a sense of purpose and flexibility. Harbor Retirement offers employees the chance to create their own schedules. The company also pays employees up to four hours each month for time spent working with charitable organizations.

Word of mouth

Staffing issues limit occupancy and growth, according to Kevin Isakson, principal of Atlanta-based Isakson Living retirement communities. The day-to-day employees, whether they are in the dining room, care, housekeeping or maintenance, are the people touching the lives of community residents.

“If the staff is a revolving door, then that instability in staffing creates instability in occupancy,” he said.

To help address the labor issue, Isakson Living seeks input from its residents and existing employees when looking to expand or open new communities.

“Making the employee a part of the process helps significantly. That sense of ownership helps with stability,” said Isakson. “For us, our biggest recruitment strategy is happy, existing employees.”

Employee referral is huge, as Isakson noted that most of its new hires are friends of existing employees.

Chris Sides, president of Suwanee, Ga.-based Senior Solutions Management Group, which has 18 senior care communities within its portfolio, said it’s important to encouraging bonding among employees, which Sides best accomplishes by hosting cookouts. He’s even known as “The BBQ Doctor.”

“Until you can do the basics right, you’re going to have a hard time doing everything else that you need to do,” he said. “The communities we have that can’t do the basics, that’s where we have the turnover, inability to develop talent internally and inability to attract the good employees that we want.”

See you online

It’s important to create not only a community of residents, but also a community of workers, according to Cayce of CaraVita. Social media is one way to keep employees connected that also doubles as a recruitment tool.

Cayce cited the CaraVita Facebook page as a community-building platform for current employees and residents as well as a marketing platform for potential employees. CaraVita posts videos, photos and “employee stories.” A popular campaign included younger workers sharing common social media hashtags with residents and asking them to guess the meaning.

Community residents enjoy the company of the younger workers, who are even thought of as grandchildren figures, according to Cayce. “Millennials have brought their culture into the seniors [industry], and that engages seniors as well as their families.”

Harbor Retirement has been rolling out a new platform of internal social media for its employees. This way, co-workers can “meet” each other and exchange ideas. A rewards system in place allows workers to award points to their peers and redeem credits for a day off, gift cards or community charity.

— Kristin Hiller

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