Top Providers Pluck Fresh, Well-Trained Talent for Leadership Roles

With high turnover rates and competition for leaders, staffing across senior housing—including for executive director positions—is a challenge that all operators strive to overcome. There are several options for operators to recruit and develop persons for leadership and management positions, and one resource with room to grow is recruiting students right out of school.

One innovative program bringing young people to the senior housing space is George Mason University’s industry internship with senior housing partners. Since the program’s inception, the Virginia university has completed over 100 internships with many leading operators, including Brookdale (NYSE: BKD), Sunrise Senior Living, HCR Manor Care and Erickson Living. Students working toward degrees in senior housing administration are required to complete a 15-week internship within a senior living community, rotating through each department.

The internship allows students to shadow each department and understand the different components of what it take to run a community, which industry leaders believe is an effective strategy against a major risk to the industry: turnover.


The Downside of High Turnover

Finding qualified managers is essential for operators dealing with high turnover rates. One of the major senior housing players, Ventas Inc. (NYSE: VTR), revealed in a recent quarterly earnings conference call with investors that its struggles with high turnover rates among executive directors played a part in somewhat disappointing results within some of its senior housing properties. The real estate investment trust (REIT) also emphasized that the industry standard for turnover rates can be as high as 50%.

Turnover rates among assisted living staff in general is significantly lower, but still extremely high. Overall, assisted living staffing has a turnover rate of 24.2%, according to a survey from the National Center for Assisted Living (NCAL).


This alarming figure has serious implications for senior communities, including lower occupancy rates and higher costs to providers, which is why operators have their sights set on the incoming class of graduates. Erickson Living and Sunrise have both found successful hires after utilizing interns from the GMU program.

One of the significant barriers to filling the role of executive directors across communities is that few are actually trained for these positions, says David Gallagher, executive director of Ashby Ponds, an Erickson Living-owned retirement community in Ashburn Virginia. Gallagher works with a few George Mason student interns at the community annually and sees the need for a diverse range of skills and awareness for management positions that is tough to come by.

“As the industry of senior housing and health care and senior services, very few of us were trained to be in this industry,” says Gallagher. “I’m a former lawyer. People come to this career from a lot of different directions. One common denominator is that they feel like they are making a difference in people’s lives, but it’s not trained.”

Programs that train students and young people who are already interested in the field is the industry’s best bet, he adds.

“For us to be the most successful, we need to attract talented, caring people that want to be in this industry and that have broad skill sets,” says Gallagher. “As an industry we need to start engaging people much, much earlier, back in school. We need to inspire them and say, ‘This is a great industry that you can grow in and develop and have a worthwhile life with a career progression.’”

Rotating through different departments through the GMU internships allows is a critical experience for combing potential hires, says Gallagher.

“I think the industry really requires a broad set of skills,” Gallagher tells SHN. “It’s very multidisciplinary. The folks that are going to be the most successful leaders, they really have to be able to do a little bit of social work, a whole lot of cultural leadership. There’s a lot of finance, a lot of problem solving and creativity. I think it’s doing a lot of jobs.”

What It Takes

Executive directors are required to wear many hats and be on call nearly all the time. The job is also severely more demanding than many other industries, says Justin Roberts, executive director of Sunrise at Hunter Mill in Virginia. Roberts completed an internship while he was a student through the GMU program at one of Sunrise’s communities in England and was eventually hired by the operator after graduating.

He says there are several reasons executive directors may choose to leave their post, sometimes abruptly.

“It’s a very taxing and demanding position,” Roberts tells SHN. “You’re running a business that is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days per year. And we’re dealing with humans. Things that happen at two and three in the morning are things the executive director is ultimately responsible for. There are a lot of demands as far as filling a community, keeping it filled, the hiring and staffing and scheduling.”

Programs that directly address the needs of the roles will make more successful leaders, Roberts says, arguing that his experience as as an intern provided him direct insight into the needs of other positions as well.

“Being able to work in the different departments and shadowing and understanding what the department coordinators are going through on a day-to-day basis makes me a better leader because I understand what they struggle with and what’s most important to them,” says Roberts. “It gave me a greater appreciation for the rest of my team. That’s from the department coordinators all the way down to our housekeepers and caregivers. I’ve really been able to take away the import of working shoulder to shoulder every single day with my direct care staff.”

One of the most unique aspects of the GMU internship is when students commit their time to work with housekeeping within a community. As one of the requirements, students will clean resident rooms, including the bathrooms. Students who complete this portion of the internship are designated a “T-HoF,” or a member of the program’s Toilet Hall of Famers. Roberts experienced this first-hand.

Angela Maioran.2

(T-HoF Angela Maioran of George Mason University)

“The purpose of that isn’t just so that we know how to clean a toilet,” says Roberts. “It’s to have a greater understanding and appreciation of the team members or employees that you’re going to be working with later on in life. What you gain from that experience is being able to roll up your sleeves and work should to shoulder with your team members. The successful administrators understand that and do that well.”

While not all university programs need their own T-HoF designation, operators are finding success in tapping students from schools for leadership positions down the line. To further combat high turnover, senior housing may need an influx of young people to fill open roles.

“If you want to go into nursing or a medical field, there are programs for all of that,” says Gallagher. “Industries like this require developing leadership skills in a very multidisciplinary space. Hopefully that’s what we see more of to develop leaders who can understand operations and change in cultural development.”

Written by Amy Baxter

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