As the senior living industry shifts its focus from damage control to recovering from the Covid-19 pandemic, recruitment and retention remain a leading industry challenge.
Unlike national senior living providers that can devote large amounts of time and money to filling positions, smaller or mid-sized companies often must find more creative ways to recruit and retain workers.
“As smaller or mid-sized operators, we don’t always have the deep pockets and extensive resources some of our larger operating partners do,” said Pamela Engle, senior vice president of people and administration at New Perspective and moderator of an Argentum webinar on hiring and retention Thursday.
Small and medium-sized providers such as Balfour Senior Living, Era Living and Summit Vista have implemented innovative strategies to keep workers engaged and employed, and bring new ones through the door in the process.
On the hiring side, these strategies include forging relationships with high schools and colleges and using niche job boards to better target applicants. And to retain workers, these providers are setting new staffing schedules more amenable to caregivers and creating new pathways for career advancement.
Summit Vista, a life plan community in Taylorsville, Utah, took a multifaceted approach to recruitment and retention when the pandemic began last year.
The community implemented a staffing strategy at the height of the pandemic where two teams of employees alternated working seven days a week for more pay than usual, according to Tineka Hardwrick, director of human resources. Hardwrick described this approach in an interview with SHN last July, and provided an update during Thursday’s webinar.
“We had ‘A’ and ‘B’ teams, and they worked seven days on, seven days off,” Hardwrick told SHN last July. “And in those seven days on, they worked 65 hours but they were paid for 80.”
The community scheduled those shifts from Wednesday of one week to Tuesday the next, extending the work over two pay periods to avoid triggering overtime and ballooning costs. Summit Vista also applied for and received funds through the paycheck protection program (PPP) in order to pay the difference in hours.
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Those new staffing strategies in response to the pandemic effectively reduced turnover to zero while they were in effect, as the company’s employees valued the flexibility, Hardwrick added.
Today, Summit Vista still uses an altered staffing schedule in certain departments where employees can work four 10-hour shifts a week and get three days off. The community also is spearheading a new internal rotation program so that employees can learn about the senior living industry beyond their respective roles.
“What our younger generation likes is more time off,” Hardwrick said. “They want more time to themselves, they like that flexibility.”
In addition to implementing a new staffing schedule, Summit Vista also worked to broaden its talent pool by forging closer ties with local high schools with a scholarship program for students.
The community is currently partnered with four local high schools and works to recruit students as young as 15 years old to fill part-time PRN and per-diem positions, with typical workloads of about 10 or 15 hours a week during busy holiday or summer seasons. Specifically, Summit Vista has a scholarship program for students who work a total of 1,000 hours in two years.
“Some schools need their students to have work release credits when they’re in high school, and you can recruit students by offering those work release credits,” Hardwrick said. “We also have a really nice … referral bonus ranging from $50 to $150.”
Summit Vista even includes the students’ parents by holding meetings with them to explain the job and the industry.
“Make sure that they know what your organization is about what your culture is about … so that when their child is saying, ‘I don’t want to go to work today,’ that parent is behind their kid to make sure they are getting in that car and going to work,” Hardwrick said.
Era Living — which is based in Seattle and operates a portfolio of eight communities — also believes in the power of forging relationships with academic institutions. The company has a partnership with Washington State University, and is working on ways to more closely involve its Granger Cobb Institute.
“We’re trying to build out a way to have some internships so that when these folks graduate from college, they are more prepared to come and be a director,” said Matt Bromen, human resources director for Era Living. “There are many other programs around the country, so we’re trying to build a career pathway from college right into senior housing.”
With so many senior living providers using job-hunting sites like Indeed and LinkedIn to find new talent, there is value in taking a different approach. One way to do that is to target niche job boards that have smaller but more engaged applicant pools. And that’s a practice Louisville, Colorado-based Balfour Senior Living has had decent success with. Balfour’s portfolio numbers 10 communities in Colorado and Michigan, and the company is growing through a partnership with real estate investment trust Welltower (NYSE: WELL).
In addition to using bigger job boards, like Indeed, the company also embraced smaller ones that include Handshake, Purple Briefcase, Barefoot Student, FastMatch and OnShift, and MyCNAjobs.com. Doing so increased the number of people who clicked on a job posting and actually applied, according to Nora Brandon, Balfour Senior Living’s vice president of human resources.
“We increased our conversion rate … from 1.2% to 3.4%,” Brandon said during Thursday’s webinar. “And that was under 60 days.”
Balfour also utilized non-traditional job pathways, such as the AARP Job Board, to recruit workers who might not normally find their way into senior living. For instance, the company recruited seniors and retired people to come into its dining rooms during a campaign it called “Seniors Serving Seniors.”
“We had remarkable success, because we were targeting a specific population,” Brandon said.
Career paths and mentorship
Another strategy for keeping workers on the job is giving them meaningful ways to advance. At Era Living, this is achieved by filling roles with employees who are promoted from within.
“Right before Covid, we started tinkering around with the idea of purpose, and really tapping into an employee’s purpose rather than just trying to carve out a career path that may or may not be useful for that person given where they are,” Bromen said.
The company’s workforce development efforts include an executive-director-in-training program where two employees spend a year learning the ropes of being an executive director for the provider. The position is full-time and salaried, and is always filled by an Era Living employee.
While employees aren’t guaranteed a job as an executive director, Era Living did create an assistant executive director role to keep them from looking elsewhere for work after they exit the training program.
“We have an executive director now, she started with us after she graduated from Washington State University, as a food server,” Bromen said. “Now she’s a highly successful executive director for us, and we have many, many success stories like this.”
While the training program is an extra investment on Era Living’s part, it is useful for getting fresh talent into the company and keeping the executive director job from being a revolving door.
“You have an executive director out there in the market with 20 or 25 years of experience, they’re going to be earning a very high salary. And our experience has been that some of those folks make the same mistakes [at every company],” Bromen said. “So would we rather hire someone at a really high salary to make those same mistakes again with us, or would we rather pay someone who’s a brand-new executive director?”
Balfour also has had success with its mentoring programs, thanks in part to its attention to detail. The company gives mentors a formal guidebook on how best to foster their mentee’s talents — and it’s not a short book, either.
“If you start to look at the benefits of these career pathways and mentoring programs, over time, there’s a distinct impact to both your recruitment spend relative to turnover, and to retention,” Brandon said. “And there are some ancillary benefits that come along with it [in that] you create a learning culture within your company.”
Balfour also has a new, formalized training program for CNAs, and is working to recruit candidates for it from both inside and outside the company. Currently, the operator has four internal applicants from across the company’s different departments.
“They’ve applied because they see that growth with our organization and what that could mean for their future,” Brandon said. “And I think it’s very exciting to partner those internal applicants with external applicants, and really promote that learning culture.”
Brandon added that Balfour has employees who, upon recognizing the company’s internal promotional opportunities, “start to say, ‘this is my career.'”
“We are proud of this,” Brandon said. “It’s a career, not just a job.”