Beyond Millennials: Senior Living Must Now Win Over Generation Z Workers

The leading edge of the “generation Z” age group has joined the U.S. workforce, meaning senior living providers need to be thinking about how to attract and retain them as employees. As the industry grapples with a labor crunch, the difference between staffing success and failure may hinge on operators’ ability to entice members of the demographic to come and work in their communities for the long haul.

Generation Z — typically defined as people born between 1995 and 2012 — is estimated at around 61 million people in the United States. Similar to the millennials before them, the age group is generally thought of as diverse, technologically savvy and driven by purpose and passion in the workplace. They’re also more independent than members of some previous generations, preferring to forge ahead on their own with new projects or business ideas, according to a 2017 report from Forbes.

And as with millennials, generation Z’s unique beliefs and traits represent a staffing challenge for senior housing providers who wish to recruit them — but it’s one they cannot simply ignore, according to David Boyd Williams, global director of diversity and inclusion at senior living dining and services provider Sodexo.

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“If senior living doesn’t fully embrace the acceleration of generation Z, and helpfully and skillfully provide an ecosystem for them to thrive, I think we’ll miss one of, if not the most, important opportunities to shape our industry,” Williams said at the recent LeadingAge Annual Meeting and Expo in Philadelphia.

The need for new workers in senior living is vast. Nearly 1 million people serve in positions across senior living, a workforce demand that is expected to grow to 1.2 million by 2026, according to numbers from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, which are often highlighted by industry association Argentum.

At the same time, industries such as hospitality, retail and food service are also growing quickly and are competing with senior living providers for the same workers. It’s for this reason, among many others, that senior living providers must adapt their hiring and management techniques to attract the next generation of employees.

From one generation to the next

For senior living providers — many of which are run by members of the generation X or baby boomer cohorts — building the right mix of benefits and culture to lure generation Z may seem like a mysterious process. But it doesn’t need to be, according to Randy Brown, CEO and board chair of Rowntree Gardens, a continuing care retirement community (CCRC) in Stanton, California.

It wasn’t long ago that the CCRC had some difficulty filling many of its open frontline positions. Located in Orange County, the community is just a 10-minute drive away from Disneyland, which is a big draw for young people just entering the workforce.

“There were a couple areas of our business where we were having trouble recruiting quality people and just finding enough people,” Brown said during a LeadingAge panel.

So, the provider hired a full-time recruiter, who happened to be a millennial, to focus on hiring. So far, having a millennial in a recruiting position has completely turned around the community’s hiring situation.

“Our recruitment is way up, and the quality of those recruits is much higher. Now we’re getting more applications than we have job openings,” Brown said. “We stumbled into it, and it has worked out.”

Generally, both generations value equality, authenticity and passion in the workplace. That’s a fact that often comes into play when hiring, Brown said.

“I hear [our recruiter] on the phone. For this age group, he really does push purpose,” Brown explained. “He can do it so much better with that age group than I ever could. They identify with the way he presents it.”

Rowntree Gardens has also enhanced its culture to attract younger workers. The CCRC lets its employees add one statement to their job description, whatever that may be. That way, the employees feel more directly engaged with what they do on a daily basis.

“We’re really trying to give staff choice, and choice means there’s going to be more than one path,” Brown said.

On the whole, the organization is moving toward implementing a kind of Montessori method across its entire workforce — one that prioritizes equality among all employees. And that could be a big draw for members of a generation that values egalitarianism.

Other tips shared during the LeadingAge panel included being more flexible with scheduling, investing in workers by helping to paying off student debt, giving more feedback, launching mentoring or job-shadowing programs and incentivizing workplace “champions.” And also, simply listening more goes a long way, according to Valerie Armstrong, director of human resources for Sodexo Seniors, the global company’s senior living division.

“We have to listen,” she said. “It’s not just equality, it’s equity. They know they have something to say, and they want to be heard.”

Written by Tim Regan

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