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Tight Labor Markets: What Can Seniors Housing and Care Operators Do?

Solutions fall into three general categories: work environment; recruitment; and collaboration with educational institutions.

It’s a good time to be a worker. The U.S. labor market is strong. Since late 2010, 17.5 million jobs have been generated (a 13.4 percent increase), pushing the number of employed persons in the U.S. to an all-time high of 148.2 million. In February alone, more than 300,000 jobs were created, marking the 89th consecutive month of positive job gains for the U.S. economy. A separate survey from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that the job openings level was at a record high of 6.4 million on the last business day of January, and that openings continue to exceed hirings by a significant margin. The JOLTS survey also reported that workers are willing and able to quit their jobs more readily than in the past as new employment opportunities proliferate.Meanwhile, the unemployment rate sits at a 17-year low of 4.1 percent, with many prognosticators suggesting that it may fall toward historic lows in the coming months. The lowest post-war recorded jobless rates were 2.6 percent in 1953, 3.4 percent in 1969, and 3.9 percent in 2000.Hiring, hiring, hiringWhile good for employees, such low jobless rates present challenges to employers who must staff their businesses. This is true for nearly all industry sectors, but it particularly resonated at NIC’s recent Spring Investment Forum, where much discussion and many sessions addressed the topic. The challenge for the seniors’ care and housing sectors is recruiting and retaining appropriately trained and skilled staff for all positions, from the front line to the executive director and management level. And, as new properties come on-line, stories of new competitors pilfering existing staff from incumbent properties are rife.So, what are some strategies that can be used to mitigate today’s tight labor markets? Below are some ideas being discussed to address this concern. They fall into three general categories: work environment; recruitment; and collaboration with educational institutions. 

Work Environment

  1. Improve employee retention by providing a culture and work environment that makes staff want to stay in place. The added benefit of this, of course, is that it will also enhance long-lasting relationships with residents. Steady, consistent and predictable staffing improves quality of life for residents.
  2. Reduce turnover and create long-term commitment from staff by providing a benefits package, competitive pay, financial incentives and a work environment that encourages employees to stay for prolonged periods. This applies to frontline caregivers, middle managers and senior executives. Offer training and educational programs. Offer scholarships to staff family members. Provide healthcare to staff. As Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin Group, has said, “Train people well enough so they can leave, treat them well enough so they don't want to.”
  3. Create an environment that encourages opportunity for community-based involvement, including programs for staff with young adults and children. Generate a family-oriented environment for staff where family members periodically come to work. Offer complementary meals to staff and consider offering child care services.
  4. Take away any stigma associated with working in the seniors’ care and housing sectors. Improve the narrative about working in the sector. Emphasize the “care” component of the industry and the sense of purpose that comes from doing work that enhances the lives of others.
  5. Employ technology to improve work efficiencies so staff can spend more time with residents to improve quality and quantity of care.
  6. Create teams of excellence composed of staff members that work well with each other, share experiences and become professional colleagues. Use these teams as role models throughout the organization. Create programs where employees nominate each other for awards and recognition.
  7. Listen to your staff. Understand what motivates them. Engage with staff. Find out why employees leave.
  8. Generate a flexible scheduling process for staff and guarantee a standard set of work hours for proven employees.


  1. Think marketing. Create a job recruitment program that is comparable in marketing scale to new resident sales recruitment.
  2. Create a corporate brand and reputation that makes staff proud. Provide a bonus to existing staff for recruitment of new staff and create an employee referral network.
  3. Train senior management on talent management and recruitment of appropriate candidates in terms of corporate culture, requisite skills and personalities. Consider industries in the retail and hospitality sectors, as well as other industry groups as competition in your staff recruiting and retention challenges. Foster employee loyalty with an effective on-boarding program.
  4. Consider demographics and where the future workforce is coming from. Recruit older workers and create an environment where the old take care of the older and the older take care of the oldest.
  5. Create succession planning models and redundancy plans for key staff positions. Implement systems that can mitigate a single source of failure in the operation. The creation of assistant executive director programs, for example, is one solution being implemented to help protect the operation from the loss of an experienced and well-regarded executive director, a position often viewed as an operator’s single most important and critical resource for a property’s success.
  6. Optimize social media opportunities for staff recruitment. Use the latest search engines and job websites to generate applicant flow.
  7. Expand the geographic radius from which to draw staff and consider helping staff get to work with ride-sharing services such as Uber or Lyft.

Collaboration with educational institutions

  1. Identify and advertise specific career tracks for the sector and within organization structures. Debunk negative myths about the sector. Re-shape the narrative of working in seniors housing and care as being a promising and exciting field with myriad career paths.
  2. Continue to create awareness campaigns, such as Connect the Ages and through group initiatives such as Leading Age’s Center for Workforce Solutions and Argentum’s Workforce Development Initiative.
  3. Collaborate with universities to create and expand undergraduate and graduate educational tracks and degrees for operations and management in the seniors’ care and housing sectors. A number of these programs exist today, but more are needed.
  4. Reach out to high schools to create training and hiring programs for students, as well as internship opportunities. Create programs for graduating seniors who have worked in seniors housing and care to choose aspiring undergraduate high school replacement workers.

A change in immigration policy that would welcome workers in the caregiving and healthcare professions could also help to alleviate the sector’s growing hiring challenges. This needs to be vocalized among policy makers in Washington. And lastly, I wonder if there is a way to “uberize” select staff positions in the seniors housing and care industries. There are many boomerang boomers out there who want to provide service and “give back,” while earning money and having flexibility in their schedules.

While this list is far from extensive, I hope it stimulates conversation and dialog about a topic that is here to stay. Collectively, let’s keep adding to this list and generate additional ideas about practical and implementable solutions to the ever-growing challenge of today’s tight labor markets. 

Beth Burnham Mace serves as chief economist and director of outreach with the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing and Care (NIC).

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