As the senior living labor pool continues to shrink, operators are finding ways to reinvent old tactics for attracting prospective employees and finding new ways to combat staffing issues.
It’s no secret that operators are facing recruitment and retention issues amid a highly competitive labor market. The assisted living workforce contracted 6.7% between February 2020 and January 2022, and employment in long-term care has hit a 15-year low, according to a recent AHCA/NCAL analysis of U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data.
The impact of this shortage on senior living operators has primarily resulted in higher labor expenses as operators have relied on agency staffing and overtime to fill staffing gaps.
Although many operators have also responded to the labor shortage by boosting wages and trying to get a leg up over their competitors while hiring, others are attempting to widen the number of available frontline workers flowing into the industry. Strategies include recruitment targeted specifically at younger workers, efforts to employ refugees from other countries and partnering with affinity-based job networks.
At the same time, there is an effort in academia to increase the flow of leaders into the industry, such as through Boston University’s senior living concentration for graduate students, which launched last year under the school’s hospitality program. Already, that effort is bearing fruit — and Scott Eckstein, who is an adjunct professor in BU’s School of Hospitality Administration, believes future opportunities attracting college students are ripe for the picking.
“If we can’t grab these excited, eager graduates and keep them, then shame on us,” Eckstein told Senior Housing News.
‘Looking for a purpose’
Four years ago, Rowntree Gardens CEO Randy Brown knew he needed to compete with neighboring Disneyland to attract younger workers to the community.
“There were a couple areas of our business where we were having trouble recruiting quality people,” Brown said during a LeadingAge panel in 2018.
So, he met with the leadership team of the non-profit Stanton, California-based continuing care retirement community (CCRC) to come up with a recruitment plan. Brown added a recruiter to the team — a millennial — who was specifically tasked with reaching younger generations of workers.
The recruiter not only brings in and connects with new staff, but also assists with onboarding and training, which helps them remain confident in their roles and stay in their positions longer, according to Brown. After implementing the role in 2018, the community was able to increase the number of younger workers coming through its doors.
“We put it in place to reach younger generations, and it has absolutely been a success,” Brown said.
With the onset of Covid-19 in 2020, Brown said workforce challenges have multiplied and morphed as the CCRC’s recruitment effort shifted into support mode for existing staff.
The need to highlight the culture and fulfillment of senior care has been paramount for getting new workers into open positions in recent months, Brown said.
“It’s not that we can attract people by waving a big fat paycheck around as a nonprofit, but we do have a great culture,” he added. “We can educate them on our values and the benefits of working here and they know what they are getting into looking for a purpose.”
Other operators have looked to affinity-based job networks to bring in fresh faces. That was a strategy employed by Brighton, Massachusetts-based 2Life Communities, a senior housing nonprofit that provides housing and services for low- and middle-income older adults in Boston.
The organization partnered with a handful of job networks catering to different kinds of people, such as veterans or LGBTQ groups, according to CEO Amy Schectman.
“We widened our networks and really have done a great deal of outreach,” Schectman said. “It illustrated that we were reaching a much broader network than one might expect and it’s important to have that.”
To better keep staff on the roster, Schectman highlighted a benefit offered by 2Life that allows a sliding premium health insurance pay scale for employees based on wages. The longtime program is also paired with retirement benefit contributions and a company liaison to handle individual employee health insurance claims or issues.
2Life’s executive team also created a training institute that allows employees to continue their education once on board with the organization.
The organization’s efforts to widen the senior living labor pool even go beyond staff. In its middle-market Opus concept — which is coming together next to the organization’s affordable Coleman House community in Boston — 2Life is developing a volunteer program that will let residents perform tasks in the community, such as by setting tables or staffing the community’s library.
While the model is still coming together, 2Life’s future Opus residents have already volunteered to be music directors or activity planners — positions that are usually filled by full-time, paid employees.
“The volunteerism is turning out to be quite significant in keeping our staffing costs down,” Schectman said
Schectman said Opus will take two years to build after reaching 70% of resident pre-sales, with the goal of opening the newest community in 2025.
Another organization that has looked outside of the industry for new workers is Westminster Communities of Florida, which has 22 communities.
Like Rowntree, Westminster — based on the opposite coast in Orlando — found it hard to recruit workers inDisney’s orbit. In response, the company tailored its recruitment efforts specifically to appeal to hospitality workers, such as those who work at the nearby theme park. Those efforts resulted in approximately 25,000 new applicants for various positions in 2021, Klein said.
Another way Westminster has alleviated staffing shortages has been by recruiting refugees from Afghanistan that have resettled in Florida.
Through a partnership with Lutheran Services of Florida, Westminster hired refugees for various positions while they sought residency. By the end of February, the program helped the operator hire 38 new employees. The company also housed 61 refugees at its properties.
“We have been nothing but surprised by the success of the program,” Klein said.
Students of senior living
With the workforce challenges facing the industry, some operators are partnering with local high schools, and universities to develop new talent pipelines.
For instance, D.C.-area senior housing and care nonprofit Goodwin House Incorporated partnered with George Washington University’s School of Nursing to expand its rotation of geriatric, hospice and palliative medicine medical fellows. Goodwin House’s two life plan communities and its community-based service lines also will serve as clinical sites for nurse practitioners going through the program.
In order to expand the labor pool, senior living providers must work to counter misconceptions held by the public, according to George Washington University Director of the Center for Aging, Health and Humanities Melissa Batchelor.
“The focus of the center has been about creating an age-friendly world,” Batchelor said. “It’s teaching them the basics about geriatric care, but it’s really ageism in my opinion and that’s why students don’t see it as something that is exciting until they get in there.”
Rowntree also partnered with a local community college to help fill gaps in its resident nursing openings, while Westminster works with Florida high schools and Florida State University.
Last February, Boston University launched a new concentration in senior living in its School of Hospitality’s graduate program, allowing students to bring hospitality aspirations to the growing field of senior living and long-term care.
Boston University is among a handful of other colleges specifically catering to senior living students. Others include Washington University and its Granger Cobb Institute and Georgetown University’s senior living administration graduate program.
“There’s a special type of person it takes to do this job and it takes a unique person to do that,” Eckstein said. “There does seem to be less people in the labor pool.”
Boston University is helping to train the next generation of industry leaders through its graduate program, which teaches them the ins and outs of senior living business and how to effectively manage operations. The courses include instruction from industry veterans, such as Eckstein himself, who is a former executive director with Sunrise Senior Living.
Eckstein believes operators looking to expand the labor pool should first look for new ways to market their communities and career benefits to prospective employees.
Serena Lipton is the face of those efforts. She is among the first graduating class in Boston University’s senior living concentration. Although the 26-year-old has had a unique involvement with senior living since her childhood — Lipton first volunteered at a senior living community when she was 15 — the program helped her build upon her skills and realize her aspirations to work in a leadership role in the industry.
Today, she is an associate at Artemis Real Estate Partner and is responsible for supporting acquisitions and asset management activities, with a focus on senior housing across the company’s health care platform.
Lipton said the program at BU is just one way young people interested in hospitality careers can be exposed to senior living and the wealth of occupations within the industry.
“It’s important to educate and make people aware of the fact that these opportunities exist,” Lipton said.
Eckstein added that more operators need to build training and leadership development within their communities in order to grow a stable workforce in the future. That process starts with giving hands-on roles to young professionals entering senior living communities, from key operational tasks to taking on management roles.
“They need to know and understand the business from the ground up,” Eckstein said. “We need managers that can convey knowledge to future leaders so we can have the next generation of leaders.”