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Seniors Housing Operators Find Ways to Deal with Staffing Concerns

With nearly full employment in the U.S., employees across industries have a sense that they can leave a job without fear of not being able to find another one.

Recruiting and retaining staff for seniors housing properties has long been one of the top challenges in the sector. With the U.S. unemployment rate low at 4.1 percent, owners and operators are boosting employee benefits and revving up recruitment to attract and keep top talent before the anticipated wave of new residents—the aging Baby Boomer population—hits.

“It’s something that the industry is having great trouble managing,” says Jeff Binder, managing director with Senior Living Investment Brokerage Inc., a Glen Ellyn, Ill.-based firm that specializes in seniors housing properties.

With nearly full employment in the U.S., employees across industries have a sense that they can leave a job without fear of not being able to find another one—putting pressure on operators to keep workers and maintain competitive wages. Care staff wages have increased over the past year by about 5 percent, typically outpacing revenue, particularly if operators cannot pass on the costs to residents, Binder says.

The issue is compounded by the aging Baby Boomer population, which is set to reach the peak age for seniors housing residency in about a decade and boost demand for seniors housing units. At the same time, a significant percentage of current care staffers may themselves be hitting retirement age. “The demand is going to increase and we’re going to have a significant exodus of care staff in that same time period,” Binder says. “I think it weighs very heavily on the minds of operators, investors and everyone in the sector.”

At first, the issue appeared to be limited to the availability of clinical workers, such as certified nursing assistants and medical technicians, says Ben Burke, president of CA Senior Living, a seniors housing investment and development firm which has developed 17 properties from Florida to Washington. But now, the dearth of employees spans positions—and it could be a symptom of the new supply influx the sector is seeing in some markets. “When you have areas with lots of new supply added, it not only makes it more competitive for potential residents, but also for staff members,” Burke says.

Some owners and operators have changed recruitment methods to show younger generations of workers and the broader population that the seniors housing industry has many opportunities for career advancement. There have been pushes to interact better with universities and medical trade associations, for example, Binder notes.

Pathway to Living, a Chicago-based private owner and operator of assisted living and memory care communities, has made a push to recruit staff early for new communities set to open, says Maria Oliva, COO of Pathway to Living. “It’s taking a lot longer to find staff,” Oliva says. Pathway to Living has extended its pre-leasing period for new developments to nine months from six—all to ensure a new community has the qualified staff needed to fit Pathway to Living’s mission.

And while standard recruitment efforts have focused on finding workers at career fairs and unemployment offices, now there is a push to recruit at colleges and high schools and through social media, says Lisa Rogers, director of Pathway to Living’s human resources department. Rogers notes that younger generations are open to working in service-related fields, but they need to be communicated to differently. “If you take that sole focus and emphasize why seniors housing is the place to be, it really is attractive to them immediately,” she says.

Once potential qualified workers become interested in the field, owners and operators are working harder than ever to retain them. Some companies are starting by hooking staffers with improved benefits, such as child care opportunities and improving the culture of the workplace, Binder says.

Ohio Living, a not-for-profit seniors housing provider with 12 campuses in Ohio, has worked to improve its workplace culture in a number of ways. About a year ago, it implemented an extensive welcome program to make new team members feel a part of the company. “We pride ourselves in making sure we’re creating a wholesome environment where team members come to work,” says Laurence Gumina, president and CEO of Ohio Living.

About 18 months ago, Ohio Living also introduced a program to help workers facing financial difficulties with “hardship awards” they don’t have to pay back. So far, the program has assisted more than 40 team members with $60,000 across the company. “If we can help someone in the time of need, that helps retain talent,” Gumina says.

Some retention methods extend beyond benefits to focus on career advancement. In response to the staffing shortage, Pathway to Living, for example, will soon start a rotation program to allow workers to try different roles. “It’s going to plague us for a while, for the foreseeable future,” Oliva says of the shortage. “So it has to be a multipronged approach.”

Foster Senior Living, a developer and operator of mostly assisted living and memory care properties located in the middle of the country, focuses on staff training and continuing education to allow employees to advance and take on new responsibilities, says Kevin Maddron, CIO at Foster Senior Living.

Focusing on hiring the right workers—rather than just filling positions—and investing in their talents reduces turnover costs and the attrition rate, he notes. “Oftentimes, your replacement’s right in your building,” Maddron says.

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