Top Providers Reveal New Ways to Recruit Senior Living Talent

In an industry that is rapidly evolving and expanding, leading senior housing providers are looking outside traditional avenues of recruitment to obtain the greatest and brightest candidates to fill key activity program and management roles.

“There is a weakness in our industry of organizations growing from within only,” says Cindy Smith, corporate vice president of human resources at Greystone. “You need a good balance of external and internal recruitment.”

And while some providers are rolling out new initiatives and training programs to attract recent graduates to the field and keep current hires satisfied, industry leaders agree the industry has a poor track record of outside recruitment — which has stunted innovation growth within the sector.


“Employment in our industry has been challenging and disappointing,” says Bill Pettit, CEO of Merrill Gardens. Pettit will soon serve as executive in residence at Washington State University as part of a new senior living program within Washington State University’s hospitality school.

Merrill Gardens has 26 operating and development communities in four states.

Inititally senior living providers took risks with young professionals, but didn’t provide those young professionals with the depth of training or foundation to successfully execute their job, Pettit says, adding that those experiences led providers to shy away from outside recruitment.


But tapping into the young, professional market is exactly what the industry needs, he says, noting that both providers and education institutions need to do a better job of promoting the benefit of pursuing a career in senior living.

“So many of today’s young professionals think of senior housing as end of life services exclusively, instead of recognizing an energetic environment for older seniors interested in maximizing their lifestyle,” he says.

In turn, the industry has a limited supply of qualified candidates for management positions, Smith says.

“From entry level all the way up, it’s a challenge,” she says. “Even in higher level positions, Greystone has had challenges with finding good directors. So, we the recruiters have to get creative and look outside of the senior living community.”

Here are four innovative ways providers are reaching qualified professionals to fill top ranking positions.

1. Partner With Colleges, Universities

Building relationships with education institutions is crucial to reaching and attracting young professionals to the industry, providers agree.

“Over the last 20 years we’ve been working to create a workforce which understands what senior living is and has a true compassion for seniors, but are also really good business managers with professionalism and compassion,” Pettit says, explaining the impetus for senior housing administration courses that are popping up at universities. “As we’ve taught the course [at Washington State University] we’ve found when you take the typical 20 or 22 year old they come in with some skepticism, a little bit of curiosity and they find out through the course that senior housing is nothing like they expected. They find that working with seniors is not only rewarding, but an excellent career opportunity.”

One of the great challenges in the senior housing industry is creating environments that seniors find stimulating, which is why recruitment of young professionals is important to the evolution of senior programming and amenities, Pettit says.

Promoting senior housing academic courses is key to elevating programming to meet the needs of tomorrow’s resident, says Andrew Carle, executive in residence in George Mason University’s program in senior housing administration.

Students trained in senior housing are equipped with the know-how of a changing and fast-growing industry, he says.

“We’re making our students read about new models of housing, niche models of housing, new technologies, best practices in wellness and lifestyle,” Carle says, adding that the next generation of seniors will favor wellness and lifestyle programming as opposed to today’s traditional activities of crafting and watching TV.

Students who shy away from a senior housing program likely don’t realize what opportunities the senior living industry offers, Pettit says.

“The key steps for us, for students headed toward a career in hospitality who want to run a five-star hotel, is helping them with reality and differences in perceptions,” Pettit says.

Those students will likely end up overseeing operations at a less exclusive hotel than they imagine, but with a degree in senior living administration they could be running an exclusive continuing care retirement community (CCRC) or other upscale senior housing model, he says.

2. Embrace Social Media

Today’s young professionals are learning about jobs and a company’s culture via Facebook and LinkedIn, says Mark Heston, senior vice president of human resources at Life Care Services (LCS). LCS is the leading developer and manager of continuing care properties and has been in business since 1971.

“We use Facebook and LinkedIn significantly for recruiting,” Heston says, adding that the company has put a strong emphasis on use of social media in the last 18 months and Twitter will soon be added to the mix. “It’s been successful for us. There’s more and more people using social media as the primary way to communicate, especially among the younger generation.

“As a whole, our industry has been slower to adopt this, but we’re seeing more of it,” he says.

Greystone uses social media to connect with qualified candidates as well.

“Whatever it takes to get those younger people [to apply],” Smith says. “Use of social media is really important. That’s how the younger generations are communicating.”

3. Rethink Interview Questions

While attracting a bigger pool of qualified candidates is important to the success of a community, rethinking the types of questions operators ask during the interview process is key to getting the right candidate for the job, industry leaders agree.

“Our No. 1 best practice is working with our communities and training them on behavioral interviewing,” Smith says. “We train [hiring staff] on how to ask questions, how to recognize emotional intelligence in candidates — we want to make sure they have that propensity for hospitality and fit into [the community’s] culture.”

When Ginna Baik, national director of innovation and resident technology with the life enrichment team at Emeritus, meets with candidates, she looks beyond their answers for insight into their personality.

“I start on the technology front,” Baik says, adding that enrichment directors at Emeritus are expected to integrate new technology into programming, such as teaching iPad classes to residents. “I look for whether they have a smartphone, or know how to use an iPad. As the resident evolves, so must the enrichment director.”

If a candidate lacks in-depth exposure to older populations, ask the interviewee to share a story about why the industry is important to them, Heston suggests, noting that a strong passion for senior wellbeing can make up for lack of experience.

“The passion for seniors is a true differentiator when we hire,” Heston says. “We have the opportunity to enhance the lives of over 30,000 seniors [at LCS], and we take that very seriously.”

4. Provide Ongoing Training

Once a provider has hired a desired candidate, ongoing training and new initiatives will ensure employees’ success, providers say.

Ongoing education and training programs not only elevate the success of employees and the overall community, but it also attracts qualified applicants to the company, Smith says.

“We’ve rolled out a leadership development program that all our communities go through,” Smith says, adding that it helps promote opportunities for growth within the company. “The other thing we are excited about is helping our communities create their own culture in addition to Greystone’s. This certification program helps communities create their own service standards and training initiatives, which will help them attract and keep the best candidates. We want to take hospitality to the next level.”

Employees that enjoy learning new things will want to share that knowledge with residents, Baik says.

“It’s not about doing the same thing over and over again,” Baik says. “You have to offer regular training programs and invest in them with the right tools so they feel successful. If the [program director] doesn’t feel comfortable using new technology, they will project those fears onto residents.”

Written by Cassandra Dowell

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