Senior Living Providers Add Chief People Officers as Workforce Challenges Mount

With unemployment rates dipping below 3% in states across the country, senior living workforce challenges are only becoming more acute. And like other industries, senior living providers see labor as an issue requiring dedicated C-suite leaders and are appointing chief people officers.

Recently appointed chief people officers, such as Misti Powell at Civitas Senior Living and Melanie “Mel” Sullivan at Ecumen, are looking for ways to expand the pool of qualified talent available to operators, exploring avenues to make senior living a desirable career path, and expand growth opportunities to current employees.

They are drawing from their previous experiences in forming their strategies in their current roles. Sullivan’s backgrounds in human resources and clinical health care, as well as her experience building businesses and operational partnerships, solidified her belief that the most important asset a provider has. And her experience blends well with new Ecumen CEO Shelley Kendrick’s vision for the chief people officer role.


“There is a deep commitment to the work being done,” Sullivan said.

Separating fact from fiction

Fort Worth, Texas-based Civitas has a portfolio of 35 operational communities and plans to add another 20 within two years. Powell was named chief people officer last month and was Civitas’ senior vice president of operations, prior to that.

One of the biggest challenges Powell consistently sees: overcoming misconceptions about senior living.


“To be honest, we don’t sound appealing to a lot of people,” Powell told Senior Housing News.

Civitas was invited to speak with classes at Texas Tech University’s hospitality studies program, sharing info with incoming freshmen and outgoing seniors about what senior living is about and the career opportunities available to them.

Many college graduates in hospitality believe a clinical degree is necessary to entertain a career in senior living, she found.

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“We had a handful of students assume senior living was only nursing homes,” Powell said. “They were shocked to learn we had chefs in our communities.”

Ecumen’s Sullivan shares these concerns about how young talent misunderstands senior living. Shoreview, Minnesota-based Ecumen is one of the nation’s largest nonprofit senior housing operators and service providers, with a portfolio of 40 communities in eight states.

Sullivan joined Ecumen last March. Additionally, she is an adjunct professor at the University of Minnesota and the University of St. Thomas, in the areas of health management and master of business administration–health care.

In her teaching roles, Sullivan has experienced first-hand the struggles to get young professionals to consider senior living as a career path. The industry has not been the most well-regarded career path but, in her opinion, offers some of the most exciting service opportunities.

“People aren’t sure what the industry involves,” she said. “But the possibilities are limitless.”

Balancing hospitality with health care

Civitas is not only reaching out to hospitality students but is active in developing a solid employee pipeline on the health care side.

The company build a clinical bridge program with the nursing school at Southwestern Adventist University in Keene, Texas, so that students get a more thorough understanding about senior living, Powell told SHN.

“Sometimes the only clinical [training] they get is in a nursing home,” she said.

Two years ago, Civitas and Southwestern Adventist University developed a 12-credit senior living certificate and certification program, which provides a solid initial immersion for graduates interested in pursuing careers in the industry.

Civitas’ recruiting efforts on college campuses gives the company an advantage over its competitors, Powell said. In fact, she has been surprised at how few of Civitas’ competitors are actively recruiting on campuses.

“Branching out to colleges is the best avenue for being in front of those new minds of tomorrow and get into this industry that is always evolving,” she said.

Senior living’s health care and hospitality components share a common trait — a focus on the consumer and what the provider can do for them, Ecumen’s Sullivan told SHN.

The two components must have a balanced existence, or else that personal experience is lost. This could be an increasingly tricky balance to strike as senior living providers are seeking to add more robust health care capabilities than in the past.

“If you tip it too far to the hospitality component, you can lose the humanity component,” Sullivan said.

Ecumen offers internships to college and high school students, showing them the many career paths available to them in senior living. Sullivan encourages interns and employees to develop diverse skill sets in order to prepare them for the shifting demands in the market.

“You don’t want to get hooked into a specific skillset now, when the industry will be different in a few years,” she said.

Senior living has recognized the need for more focused training, and industry groups and providers are stepping up to the plate. A fundraising effort at Washington State University is underway which would establish a senior living institute named after industry pioneer Granger Cobb. Last month, LeisureCare launched a paid internship program. Andrew Carle, who helped build the senior housing program at George Mason University, is laying the groundwork for a similar program at Georgetown University.

Empowering the workforce

Maintaining a workforce is just as hard as developing one, if not more so. Chief people officers have recognized that allowing employees to have a say in how training programs are developed and adjusted, and in identifying their own career objectives, establishes loyalty and gives workers an added sense of purpose.

Civitas has several training and mentorship programs available to its employees, from apprenticeships to incentive-based programs for shift leaders and a pipeline to develop future executive directors for its communities, Powell said.

Civitas invested $1 million last year in training, and Powell is betting that developing people and providing them with a place to grow professionally will allow them to compete with other industries that can offer higher wages.

Powell found that, while speaking with Civitas employees, many prefer to have defined career trajectories over a small hourly wage hike, as they recognize the training they receive will eventually benefit them long term.

The investment in training is paying immediate dividends for Civitas. The company reduced its turnover rate 36% in Q1 2019 over the previous year, Powell said.

Sometimes, it is about neither wage nor title, Sullivan said. It is about finding work with a sense of purpose and meaning, knowing they’re being appreciated.

“It’s mostly about helping develop talent to find their unique gifts and serve customers as best as possible,” she said.

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