How Senior Star, Country Meadows, SLC Are Rising to Workforce Challenges

The need for caregivers is growing, and senior living providers are faced with the dual challenges of higher wages and a tight labor pool. As a result, more providers are looking at ways to more successfully recruit new talent and improve employee engagement to reduce turnover.

Executives from Senior Living Communities, Senior Star and Country Meadows Retirement Communities shared their successful workforce strategies at Senior Housing News’ annual summit Thursday in Washington, D.C.

These providers have found technologies and implemented new operational practices to address labor challenges, but there are no silver bullets, and the current environment has demanded that they re-think and revise some aspects of their organizations and cultures that have been in place for decades.

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Senior Living Communities on raising, capping wages

Maxwell Group, Inc./Senior Living Communities President Ben Thompson said the top three reasons for employee turnover are a poor relationship with a direct manager, scheduling and wages — and the wage issue is coming largely from forces outside the industry. The national push for a $15-an-hour minimum wage, and moves by large companies such as Amazon and Walmart to pay that wage to employees, led Senior Living Communities to look for ways to stay on top of the issue, starting in mid-2017.

The challenge for Senior Living Communities — which operates 15 communities in six states employing over 2,700 people — was in accurately capturing the living wage data in its markets. At the time, the company received regular feedback from community managers about where wages stood, and if they were a factor in turnover. SLC also conducted a grass-roots campaign to gather wage data by having community members cold-call competitors.

“We still didn’t entirely trust the information we were getting,” Thompson said. “It would not be consistent and some folks would not share that info, especially if it was a competitor calling.”

SLC President Ben Thompson
Senior Living Communities President Ben Thompson

Meanwhile, wages were rising higher than expected. So, Senior Living Communities launched a three-phase initiative to gather more reliable data to establish a baseline of where it stood in the marketplace, and how it wanted to address wage hikes for new and tenured employees.

First, the company partnered with Payscale, a data analytics firm specializing in researching and comparing average salaries. Payscale analyzes competitor data, wage offers from online job listings, Bureau of Labor Statistics data and information from Mercer Surveys, a Payscale affiliate.

With this data in hand, Senior Living Communities set starting wages for new hires based on a wage banding system, which defines the market and internal value for each role. Starting wages are based on market information, followed by a wage increase after 90 days (typically around 35 cents per hour), and set hikes after one and two years of employment. After that, wages are capped.

“We found that, over time, longer tenured employees kept receiving regular 2% increases, which isn’t cost effective from a labor standpoint,” he said.

The banded wage policy extended to other team members, as well. If the hiring wage for new employees increases, tenured staff in the same line positions will see increases in their own pay.

As a result, Senior Living Communities wound up paying employees more while saving the provider money over time. The system also shows new employees that the company is committed to their career growth.

Senior Star: It’s an associate’s world

In 2018, Senior Star Living CEO Anja Rogers decided to look at the associate as the forefront of the company.

This marked a major shift for Senior Star. For 30 years, the resident was the primary focus of the business. But Rogers recognized that the moment associates don’t feel good about what they do, it impacts care and service to residents, and the business as a whole.

Senior Star launched an initiative to the employee journey in comparison to the sales and marketing journey for residents.

The Tulsa, Oklahoma-based provider operates 14 communities in seven states and employs 1,300 people, and placed in the top 10 on the Great Place to Work survey the past two years. For this “journey-mapping initiative,” Rogers took cues from successful companies outside of the space such as Nordstrom, Disney and the Ritz-Carlton chain of hotels.

“Like Ritz-Carlton, [whose motto is] ‘ladies and gentlemen serving ladies and gentlemen,’ that’s what we did,” she said.

Senior Star took the sales process and mapped it with the help of millennials on staff, which Rogers credited for allowing the company to look at the process with fresh eyes.

“It was helpful because they have no boundaries in their thinking,” she said. “Some of us who have been in the industry for a long time have to focus on that beginner’s mindset and be willing to listen to something different.”

Through this process, Senior Star was able to lay out pain points in the sales process, as well as missed opportunities. It then took this practice and applied it to recruitment: how many job applications were on file; what sources did the applications come from, et cetera.

Much like sales referrals, the source of job applicants emerged as an area of importance. On the sales side, Senior Star wants referrals and word of mouth to be among the top three ways that prospective residents hear about the company, and Rogers wants that for recruiting talent, as well.

“Our top three methods of recruiting associates are referrals, word of mouth and LinkedIn,” she said.

From there, Senior Star analyzed ratios — how many applicants come in for an interview, what kind of experience do they have, and how many of those do they hire.

Finally, Senior Star analyzed whether they tendered an offer. If an offer was not extended, then Senior Star would often send a card explaining why and inviting the candidate to come back in a few months, after getting some experience, if they were still interested in joining the company.

This journey-mapping process allowed Senior Star to put best practices in place to speed up the recruitment and interview journey. Processes were put in place for managers to respond to job applications, which Rogers calls “speed to lead.” Telephone interviews were tailored to get candidates to talk about themselves, as a way for managers to determine if they would be a good fit for the culture. Interviews were scheduled based on the prospect’s availability, regardless of time of day, and the entire community was opened up to treat a prospective employee the same as a resident referral, with Senior Star putting its best foot forward.

“It is an associate’s world and we need to recognize that. They are our business,” she said.

Stupid Rule Hotline at Country Meadows

Much like Senior Star, Country Meadows did a complete revamp of its vision so that the customer and associate journeys dovetail.

Implementing a forward-thinking digital strategy played a big role in this revamp, Vice President and COO Mills said. She has an e-commerce marketing background, and narrowed the focus down to what job ads looked like when they went live.

“It should not have just the job description, but [ask for] who you are as a person. When you’re in our buildings … what journey are we on together?” she said. 

Country Meadows COO Meredith Mills

Country Meadows’ marketing teams rewrote all ads so that they clearly aligned with the workplace culture, and installed dedicated specialists at its communities to ensure “speed to lead,” as well as offer weekly updates on what is — and is not — working.

Country Meadows did deep dives into its online employee reviews on sites such as Indeed and Glassdoor, and encouraged employees at campuses with lower reviews to share their experiences in the hopes of attracting new talent, and the company began sponsoring posts online, working on its search engine optimization (SEO) and recruitment strategies. Employee referral fees were increased to $500 per lead, and Country Meadows implemented 90-day wage increases for front line staff and lined out clear career paths for all positions.

Country Meadows also participated in the Great Place to Work survey and the feedback from employees forced the company to confront some hard truths about communication and rules, Mills said.

One of the things implemented as a result of the feedback is a “stupid rules” hotline where employees can call out rules or policies that can be improved.

“We are reading all of those and responding to them, even the anonymous ones. It makes a huge impact [on associates] to show that executives are learning and acting on those [suggestions],” Mills said.

Country Meadows bought Argentum’s educational platform, which it rebranded as SeniorLivingU, and is having it coded into a series of over 100 online lessons for onboarding, compliance and general learning and career ladders.

Finally, Country Meadows set up a suite of budgeting lessons for front line employees to learn basic financial planning, such as setting up rainy day funds. The company has a “helping hands” loan program where associates can borrow up to $1,000 at a time. Many employees were taking out several loans, however, which identified the need to educate them on basic finance, Mills said.

“Education is important and we want to provide it consistently,” she said.

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