Senior Living Education Attracting Students, Needs More Industry Support

Students are increasingly interested in pursuing a career in senior living, but programs focused on educating the senior living managers of tomorrow need the support of senior living providers to be successful.

Despite the rise of senior living communities and growing demand for their services, the industry faces a potential shortage of qualified individuals to run these communities as the education needed to train for these jobs seriously lags the population it serves.

Those involved in the few educational programs say their small number is not for lack of student interest, that they have significant growth potential, and thrive in a multidisciplinary environment.

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Many companies in the industry have failed to invest the resources needed to educate and train the future leaders, even though they are the ones positioned to gain from a skilled crop of new workers. Over the last few years, this has started to change, but only slightly.

One program encompassing both undergraduate and graduate degrees in senior living, offered by George Mason’s College of Health and Human Services, is going on 10 years since its launch in 2002.

With graduates of this program now out in the workforce, senior living corporations are starting to see the impact of tomorrow’s industry leaders, which are accelerating in their career paths more quickly than those who enter the industry from other kinds of jobs and training.

Another, the Erickson School at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), was made possible by a gift from Erickson Retirement Communities Chairman of the Board, CEO and Founder, John Erickson in 2006.

Gaining Support

The biggest potential influence on the ability to offer these programs, say administrators and educators, is the companies that ultimately hire their students. They can’t exist without the financial contribution and expertise provided by leaders in the senior living industry.

Take Washington State University’s senior living management course as a success story. The course launched last year through the interest and participation of four senior living corporations: Aegis Senior Living, Emeritus, One Eighty Leisure Care and Merrill Gardens.

The collaboration between the companies, which have in turn benefited through the hires of several of WSU’s students, is what made the education possible, the program’s administrator says. And that’s not all they have gained.

“As a bonus, these companies have snagged a few graduates, but a second, unexpected benefit has been camaraderie,” says Nancy Swanger, director of WSU’s School of Hospitality Business Management. “Four companies who are competitors have put that aside and come together to talk about how to grow this and make it work for the good of senior living.”

The collaborative effort has even had some unintended positive consequences, says Jerry Meyer, President of Aegis Living, who flies regularly from his headquarters in Seattle to engage with the students in Pullman, Washington.

“We actually now collaborate on items outside of WSU,” Meyer says. “We’ll talk with people in the other organizations to find out how they are handling a challenge or issue and see if we can come up with a solution together.”

At UMBC’s Erickson School, the program also would not exist without the financial investment of a corporate partner, a $5 million gift from Erickson Senior Living that was matched by the State of Maryland.

“You need at least corporate buy-in, but also a pipeline for jobs, because that’s what will motivate students to look at this area,” says Dr. Judah Ronch, interim dean of the Erickson School.

Crossing Disciplines

Today’s students of senior living, which number 930 current enrollees in the most recent academic year at Erickson and count 98 graduate alumni, are not only equipped with internships and practical experience in senior living management, but they cross disciplines in what they are able to offer.

“Most people in aging services did not take a degree in aging services,” Ronch says. “They got into it through interesting paths. We’re going to need creative problem solvers and people from different areas are a great way to invigorate and enrich solutions for aging.”

Erickson’s students include engineers, pre-architecture majors, and pre-med students as well as many working toward a double major or minor in aging services. The job opportunities are equally diverse once students enter the workforce. Some go to manage communities, while others go to associations such as AARP or to work for state or federal government.

Salaries are competitive, with an assisted living administrator average compensation of $66,255, according to the latest annual survey by the Hospital and Healthcare Compensation Service.

As the job opportunities have shifted away from nursing home administration to span every aspect of the senior living sector, so has the education—and the interest level from students—even since the founding of George Mason’s program 10 years ago.

“It has absolutely shifted,” says Andy Carle, executive-in-residence, Program in Senior Housing Administration at George Mason. “Ten years ago, most undergrads let alone graduate students didn’t know there were careers in this field. Now we get calls from all over the country. They call us, not the other way around.”

While the programs vary in their course offerings, they tend toward a multidisciplinary approach including business elements, hospitality, management and others. It’s not just about nursing home administration anymore.

At Washington State the coursework falls under hospitality, with a prerequisite that students must major or minor in business. That could mean the students are accounting majors or hospitality majors. They know how to read a balance sheet, Swanger says, in addition to their interest in senior living.

“The conversation that got this going was the notion that we want people with hospitality backgrounds, not skilled nursing backgrounds. That’s not who these companies are,” she says.

Starting Early

Combining interests and backgrounds is essential, says Carle.

“We specifically and deliberately approach senior living as an equal combination of business, healthcare, and housing. This is what makes senior housing so unique and in need of well-defined coursework,” he says.

The courses have gained popularity, with WSU seeing its enrollment triple from the first semester they were offered to the second one. Despite the interest level from students, however, there is still the challenge of gaining their interest early on, before they become too set on other paths.

“By the time I’m a senior, it’s in my mind I’m going to work for the Ritz, or another hotel chain,” Meyer says. “The hotel business is pretty sexy. Our goal is: How do we get to them earlier and have more course offerings and a degree program that is still in hospitality management with a separate degree in senior housing?”

Some don’t yet have the foresight to realize that the demand for senior housing will be more resilient than for hotels.

“Maybe they go to work in a hotel and realize the hotel business is fickle,” Meyer says. “One hiccup in the economy and demand is down. That’s not much of a career path.”

But with respect to more than 100 programs in skilled nursing around the country, senior living services education is still behind, even despite the decline in skilled nursing providers and acceleration in the market for assisted living, independent living, and Continuing Care Retirement Communities (CCRCs).

That discrepancy, according to Carle, is a measure of three to one. Not to mention, superior job placement and career track of those who graduate with a degree or coursework specific to senior living management.

“Academia has yet to fully understand the difference between nursing home and senior housing administration,” he says. “…We need more attention from our industry now. We have the attention of the students. We need attention from the providers.”

Written by Elizabeth Ecker

This article is sponsored by the Assisted Living Federation of America (ALFA) as part of its efforts to advance excellence and explore topics impacting the future of senior living. For more information about ALFA, visit www.alfa.org.

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