Editor’s Take: Salt Hotels Could School Senior Living on Solving Labor Woes

I’m sick of hearing about career ladders.

With workforce challenges putting senior living operators under intense pressure, I ask industry leaders about recruitment and retention strategies whenever I have a chance. 

Sometimes, people share interesting and effective ideas. Most often, though, I hear about career ladders. Or the benefits of having a strong, mission-oriented culture. 

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I’m sure career ladders — and culture — are important and effective, but I doubt they’re enough to address a massive caregiver shortage and sky-high turnover rates plaguing senior housing. I always hope that someone will tell me about a really creative approach that surprises me and holds the potential to make a big difference.

I always hope someone tells me about an effort like Salt School.

Salt School was created in 2016 by Salt Hotels co-founder and CEO David Bowd. He was preparing to open a new hotel in Asbury Park, New Jersey, and finding staff with the skills for Salt’s boutique hospitality model emerged as a challenge.

“I was sitting in a meeting and someone said, ‘You won’t get great talent in Asbury Park,’” Bowd told Senior Housing News. “Anybody says I can’t do something, that’s the impetus to do it even more.”

Knowing from personal experience that people with the right attitude and aptitude could be taught and trained to be standout workers, Bowd hit on the idea of starting a school.

“That was how it was born, with my personal journey,” Bowd said. “I didn’t finish high school and ended up running some of the best hotels in the world.”

Bowd and his team created a simple application that asked a single question: Tell us why you want to do this. Applicants with the best answers would be granted admission to Salt School, meaning that they would go through several weeks of classes covering all the fundamentals of hotel operations — at no cost to them — and would be given an opportunity to apply for a position at the forthcoming hotel.

After the Salt School application was released via social media, Bowd held his breath.

The applications did not pour in.

“Within a few days, I thought, it’s going to be awful,” he said.

After three days, the first application arrived. Soon, the floodgates opened. Word of mouth caught on, the application began to whiz around social networking sites, the local paper did a story, and applications surpassed the 400 mark.

The first Salt School class ended up having 180 students, and the answers they gave on their applications all had something in common.

“The thing in common was a natural desire to help people,” Bowd said. “That’s what we were looking for. The person who holds the door open for the person behind them, instead of just walking through the door without even looking.”

That first iteration of Salt School ran for 12 weeks, with classes each Saturday. Classes were taught on a volunteer basis by Bowd’s friends and colleagues, including someone from Apple and people holding high-level positions with hotels. They were excited about the concept and happy to contribute by passing on knowledge about their respective disciplines, Bowd said.

Salt School essentially was an extended interview in which students and the Salt leadership team got to know each other.

The students began to see where they could fit in as hotel associates. For instance, more extroverted students were drawn to jobs like working the front desk, whereas other students were more drawn toward behind the scenes jobs such as in the finance department.

At the conclusion of Salt School, the students met individually with the hotel’s department heads, discussing whether they wanted to work in the hotel and in what capacities. Of the 160 positions that the hotel filled when it opened in Asbury Park, 110 went to Salt School graduates.

Salt School has now been held four times. It occurred again in Asbury Park when the hotel opened new departments, and then as Salt Hotels have opened in other locations. The company currently has five operational hotels, and will hold the next Salt School in London next fall before opening a new hotel there.

Some adjustments have been made along the way, including shortening to eight weeks, relying more on Salt’s internal leaders to teach, and creating career fairs with the larger community so that students who don’t take a job with Salt have an opportunity to put their newly learned skills to work in local restaurants, retail locations and in other settings.

But the essence of the school has remained the same, because the results have been so strong — particularly turnover, which is less than 5% at the Asbury Park hotel.

“There’s a sense [among the students] that people took a chance on them, and a sense of pride to make sure they do the best possible job,” Bowd said. “It really is better than I’ve ever seen in my career just doing a normal recruitment method.”

Salt School also has attracted a diverse talent pool, including people of all ages, and it’s captured talent that would have been passed over utilizing traditional recruiting. On the first day of the first Salt School, a student showed up who had not filled out an application. Bowd decided to let the student — a woman in her late 50s — stay. Later, he learned that she had not filled out the application because she could not write.

“She’d been unemployed for about 30 years,” he said. “She has the kindest soul, the nicest person, we employed her, she’s still with us four years later, truly takes care of people. You can’t buy that sort of natural talent.”

Now, people can apply to Salt School over the phone as well as in writing.

The senior living industry routinely borrows from the hospitality industry, adopting everything from dynamic pricing to multi-brand portfolios. Eclipse Senior Living CEO Kai Hsiao has been a proponent of adopting those hospitality practices, and he believes that the Salt School model could also translate — although he noted that operators might be too strapped for resources to pull it off. 

Salt School can be run without incurring huge expenses, Bowd said.

“To be honest, I did run it on a very tight budget,” he said. “It wasn’t vastly expensive, but it still costs money to run. The idea of using the local talent to help us train was key.”

Another hotel group has already come to Bowd for help in starting a school of their own, and he would be gratified to see the concept migrate to other industries as well.

“I think it’s really transferable,” he said.

Regardless of whether emulating Salt School makes sense for senior living, it seems clear to me that the industry urgently needs to start experimenting with this type of bold approach to growing the pool of available workers and improving retention — because the fundamental problem that Bowd set out to solve with Salt School applies to senior housing as well. As he put it, “If we’re going to struggle getting talent, we need to teach the talent ourselves.”

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