Aegis President: Senior Living Industry Must Reposition Quickly to Attract Talent

Going into 2020, Aegis Living is taking an entrepreneurial approach to meet intense workforce challenges. And the provider’s president, Kris Engskov, is pushing for a broader industry effort.

“I am concerned about how fast we need to reposition the industry,” he told Senior Housing News.

Specifically, Engskov does not believe that senior living as a whole has been effective in reaching millennials and other young workers, to promote the career opportunities available in this richly mission-driven field.

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Engskov was hired by Bellevue, Washington-based Aegis almost exactly one year ago and started with the assisted living and memory care provider in the spring. Previously, he was Assistant White House Press Secretary and personal aide to President Bill Clinton, then went on to run U.S. retail operations for coffee giant Starbucks.

As his background suggests, Engskov’s skillset includes both communications and general business operations — and he believes the “repositioning” of senior living will require both new ways of communicating with potential hires and more creative and intensive operational practices related to labor.

Health care trumps housing

Companies like Aegis that focus on assisted living rather than lower-acuity residents will be best positioned if they emphasize that they are health care providers foremost, rather than housing providers, Engskov believes.

This message is currently mixed industry-wide, as some organizations are positioning themselves with a health care-first approach and others are striving to keep clinical capabilities more firmly in the background while emphasizing a hospitality-centric service model.

Engskov’s belief in prioritizing health care is informed by a few factors. For one, he foresees that the future of assisted living is to be more integrated into the overall health care system.

“Senior living has the opportunity to take care of people at much less expensive rates than hospitals and skilled nursing and various other options people have, in a much less institutional way,” he said.

He pointed to companies such as Juniper Communities that have created robust integrated care models with on-site primary care and concierge-style coordination services, saying that he believes this is the route to gaining a seat the health care table. 

“I’m excited about us becoming much, much more a part of the health care continuum — being a much bigger player in helping our residents with all aspects of their health, not just housing or health as it relates to activities of daily living, but really [making] progress on truly integrated care within our community,” he said.

As senior living accomplishes this goal, he thinks that the industry will have an easier time communicating that it is a mission-driven field with rich and rewarding career opportunities. In other words, while there has been chatter for years about making the industry “sexy” to millennials, this is a generation that is more drawn to being “changemakers” and making a real impact in people’s lives, rather than working in sleek, hotel-like environments.

“I think we’ve got a giant opportunity to reposition our industry and this business to find those changemakers who, for whatever reason, have not tuned in to what is getting ready to happen and why, if you’ve got mission-driven bones in your body, how big an opportunity we can provide you to build a career,” he said. “ … But the first step is being recognized as a health care provider.”

To further emphasize his point, Engskov drew a parallel with Starbucks. The coffee giant spent a great deal of effort in trying to understand the millennial workforce and found ways to connect with the generation’s mission-focused mindset.

“Starbucks used to talk a lot about improving somebody’s day. They walk in, you give them a cup of coffee and a smile and engagement, and it made their day,” he said. “I mean, you talk about making someone’s day … take a 95-year-old resident who’s struggling with day-to-day activities and the opportunity you have to make a difference in their lives.”

The Aegis approach

A focus on health care does not mean that assisted living providers can or should neglect their hospitality services or the comfort and appeal of buildings. Aegis has a reputation for building creative, design-forward communities and will keep this up while expanding across the West Coast in the coming years.

However, Engskov’s top priorities for 2020 tie back to his concerns around workforce and the need for senior living providers to position themselves within the health care continuum.

On the health care front, Aegis is taking “a hard look” at its memory care offerings, with the goal of evolving them, likely with “key partnerships” as part of the effort, Engskov said. And partnerships with health care providers likely will be a key strategy overall in building up the “higher-order amenities” that will drive resident health and wellness in the long-term, making companies like Aegis increasingly valuable sites of care.

Other providers that are pursuing coordinated care capabilities, including Juniper, are also making plays to become health care payers by launching Medicare Advantage plans. Aegis has no immediate plans on this front but it’s another area of interest.

“We’re certainly looking at Medicare Advantage and trying to understand what opportunities that might create for us over time,” Engskov said.

Aegis’ workforce initiatives dovetail with the company’s health care moves. For instance, Aegis recently launched a CNA [certified nursing assistant] academy in Seattle, to develop certified care managers.

Senior living is not the only health care environment where workers are in high demand, Engksov noted. Individuals who are early in their careers and drawn to health care face a confusing array of potential work environments, so providing education and a starting point for a longer-term career as a certified health care professional should be a way for Aegis to not only upskill its own labor pool but stand out in a competitive labor market.

That competitive market also demands that senior living providers find ways to pay strong wages and offer increasingly non-negotiable benefits such as 401(k) plans, he said. Beyond that, Aegis and other senior living providers need to get more creative and “entrepreneurial” in creating benefits packages, he said. Determining and implementing some of these creative benefits is another top priority for the new year.

They could potentially take the form of greater scheduling flexibility or financial assistance with transportation to and from work; ideas such as these are not “super creative,” Engskov acknowledged, but they are steps in the right direction.

Finally, there is the challenge of communicating with potential hires about the opportunities available in senior living overall and at Aegis in particular.

Aegis is working on new marketing campaigns with these goals in mind, and with an appreciation for the fact that “the world today is very visual,” Engskov said. However, to reach the number of workers that will be needed in the coming years, he thinks the industry as a whole needs to be more unified and sophisticated in amplifying a powerful message about available opportunities.

“If you’re just starting out, this is such a no-brainer place to come, because there’s a lack of talent and there’s going to be huge growth,” he said. “That’s just the way retail was 20 years ago; the perfect place to get a lot of experience very quickly and get a lot of responsibility really quickly. Which translates to opportunity and a good, good life.”

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