Senior Living CEOs: ‘Bringing Sexy Back’ Is Industry Imperative

There are few things people may consider “sexy” about the senior housing industry, or for that matter, any business dedicated to serving the country’s aging and most frail population. But cue the Justin Timberlake: When it comes to attracting new expertise to work in this sector, enhancing the appeal of senior living is critical to both the growth of the industry and insuring against the looming staffing crisis currently facing the U.S., according to a group of industry chief executives.

It’s no secret that the U.S. population is aging at a rapid rate. With thousands of Baby Boomers turning age 65 every day for the next decade or so, as more members of this generation require the need for senior living, providers will be forced to staff-up to meet this growing demand.

Senior housing can address this impending need by looking outside the industry itself for staffing, several CEOs and executive leaders said last week during the 2016 Senior Housing News Summit in Washington, D.C.

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From left: Jack Callison, Jon DeLuca, Lynne Katzmann, David Schless
From left: Jack Callison, Jon DeLuca, Lynne Katzmann, David Schless

“We are not that sexy of an industry,” said Lynne Katzmann, founder and president of Bloomfield, N.J.-based Juniper Communities, which operates 18 senior living communities in four states. “We have to talk about senior housing differently and we need to start publicly talking to people that this is, if not sexy, a great place to be.”

Engaging in such conversations to attract non-industry professionals, as well as soon-to-be professionals, has led some providers to target their efforts to corporate America, while others have focused on developing programs aimed at college campuses and certain graduate students.

Widening the Funnel

Specifically, professionals with business acumen are going to help drive growth in the senior living industry, said Jon DeLuca, president and CEO of Chicago-based Senior Lifestyle Corp. With a total resident capacity exceeding 17,300, Senior Lifestyle ranked No. 8 on the 2015 largest providers list from Argentum (then known as ALFA).

“That is where we need to get better as a group to really push this industry forward,” DeLuca said. “Going to corporate America, [which] can bring in fresh ideas, is huge for this industry.”

Enlivant, a senior living provider also based in Chicago, also has experience with this approach in attracting non-industry personnel to senior housing. Three years ago, the company—ranked No. 11 on the 2015 Argentum list—embarked on an “aggressive transformation,” a significant restructuring that led to changes in both culture and the replacement of several executives, said Enlivant CEO Jack Callison.

One of those executive changes included the addition of a former Burger King executive to head the company’s human resources division. In that previous role, a big HR challenge was figuring out how to retain line workers across the globe, Callison said; specifically, how to reduce this inevitable turnover and create a sense of culture and career paths—two objectives relevant to the senior living industry today.

“We went to corporate America in general to bring in different perspectives,” Callison said during Thursday’s Summit. “When you bring in those kinds of people, you open up a whole new funnel, but it has to start, at some level, with bringing in folks who look at things differently than we do today.”

A New Generation

Professionals with corporate experience in other industries can bring a new perspective to the senior housing field, and for some providers, so can graduate students.

Enlivant focuses on three different “buckets” of personnel, Callison said, including current senior housing industry veterans, professionals working in non-industry corporate positions and recently graduated MBAs or grad students to whom the company believes it can teach the senior housing business.

“We’ve had great success in attracting some of those folks,” Callison said. “They will be our next generation of leaders.”

Senior Lifestyle has taken a similar approach, DeLuca said, “spending a lot of time” at college campuses, either in business schools, geriatrics or nursing programs. By hosting job fairs, the company is able to connect directly with these young professionals and educate them the various career opportunities the senior housing sector has to offer.

“Whether you’re at the community or corporate level, there is an incredible career path that one can have, and that’s what we are trying to make people understand about our industry,” DeLuca said. “Senior housing is going to be one of the fastest-growin industries over the next 20 years. We’re trying to make this a sexy industry.”

Bridging the gap between senior living and non-industry professionals has been a particular area of focus for senior living industry trade associations.

The American Seniors Housing Association (ASHA) has been working with various universities, guiding its outreach to schools’ hospitality, health management and real estate programs—particularly those specific to long-term care and gerontology. Two-year community colleges also represent a ripe area for senior housing education.

“Our industry needs to further that outreach,” said ASHA President David Schless during the panel discussion. “That is the next generation of talent that is out there; they want work and they want meaning and the senior living profession offers a tremendous career path and a lot of opportunities.”

As an industry, senior living cannot afford to keep doing the same things over and over, getting the same results in return, all panel members agreed. To ready itself for both the swelling senior boom and staffing shortages that aren’t so far away, the senior housing sector needs to bring “sexy” back to the industry if it hopes to attract, and retain, fresh blood, new ideas and different perspectives.

“People outside of our industry know we do something good,” Katzmann said. “We just have to make it attractive.”

Written by Jason Oliva

Photo credit: “Justin Timberlake @Rock in Rio – Cidade do Rock – RJ” by Focka, CC BY-ND 2.0

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