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Argentum 2020 Takeaways: Building A Sustainable Workforce During The Crisis & Beyond

Building A Sustainable Senior Living Workforce During The Crisis And BeyondHow do we make senior living a career of choice? That was the question posed by Argentum President & CEO James Balda during the last main session of the Argentum Senior Living Executive Virtual Conference.

Kicking off the discussion this way makes perfect sense. After all, the industry has been historically plagued by high turnover and a shortage of workers. And the recent pandemic has only magnified the need for a stable workforce.


As Argentum’s Corporate Partner for Workforce Development, OnShift sponsored the workforce track and conducted several polls during the sessions to gain a better understanding of the industry’s top priorities and challenges. In one of these OnShift Hot Topic Polls, 62% of respondents said they believe the pandemic has worsened senior living's reputation, specifically for recruiting and hiring employees.

The senior living industry is often a magnet for negative publicity, and this has proven to be the case throughout the pandemic. However, the crisis has also served to highlight just how important and fulfilling this line of work can be.

So, how can we combat the negative perceptions, showcase the positive nature of our work and hire the people we need? Here are a few of the innovative strategies and success stories providers shared throughout the sessions.

Getting The Message Right

“How do we take the challenges brought on by COVID-19 and turn it into an opportunity?” Balda asked. “How do we get the word out that senior living offers not only a career but a career with unlimited opportunities for growth?”

According to panelists in the session Insights From The C-Suite: How COVID-19 Accelerated Cross-Industry Staffing Solutions, it starts with the right messaging.

“It’s a bit of a secret how incredible some of the opportunities in senior living are,” said Helen Zarba, Senior Vice President, Human Resources, Benchmark Senior Living. Her organization wasted no time reaching out to those who had been displaced at local hotels, restaurants and casinos. She reports that the time to hire for these individuals was too slow, so they worked with agencies to fill openings instead. This allowed them to then focus their efforts on keeping residents and staff safe.

Now that they have a better handle on the virus in their community, they are able to be more strategic with their message and better recruit these individuals. And that message includes their commitment to the safety of their staff and residents, the opportunities for professional development and the meaningful work and human connections one is able to build with those they serve. They also highlight the continuity of care in senior living settings, as opposed to hospitals.

Zarba says you need to be realistic with job seekers since the pandemic has essentially changed the nature of the work. This is also an approach they took with their current staff members to boost retention. They say this transparency and open lines of communication with staff have worked well for them. In fact, employees have communicated that they really appreciate all they are doing to keep them informed and make them feel valued.

Now, Zarba says, in addition to mitigating the spread of the virus, they are focused on helping their employees deal with stress, PTSD and the other trauma-related effects brought on by the pandemic.

Amplifying Partnerships With High Schools

In the session titled Students Speak Out: Making Senior Living a #1 Academic and Career Choice, Todd Schmiedeler, Ph.D., Chief Engagement and Innovations Officer at Trilogy Health Services, said when it comes to recruiting, “It starts with the kids.” Their organization is exposing these kids to career options in senior living early through strategic partnerships with high schools. Their Fast Track Apprenticeship Program provides 1,600 scholarships to participating students each year.

When establishing or building upon a program of your own, Schmiedeler recommends identifying where you need pipeline growth before you craft your pitch. For Trilogy, their program began with a focus on aides and dietary workers.

Schmiedeler says the most important thing is that when you approach these schools you don’t give them too many options. Outline a structured program that really paints a picture of the career path they would embark on. Their stackable credential model provides a timeline and shows students exactly how the program works.

And this has really proven successful. They currently partner with 120 high schools and word of mouth is working in their favor. Other schools that hear of the program through the grapevine approach Trilogy wanting in. Which makes sense, Schmiedeler says, since schools in most states receive funding on making kids college- or career-ready on their report cards, so there is incentive there.

What’s more, of the 541 students in the program last year, 57% stayed and worked with them while they attended college (most of which were nursing schools). And since the program gave these students their first step to nursing school, Trilogy has the potential to recruit them for full-time positions once they’ve completed their degrees. This gives them a leg up on the competition, especially local hospitals. As Schmiedeler noted, hospitals don’t give high school students interested in careers in healthcare hands-on experience. That is, however, something that senior living communities can and do offer.

Recruiting From Other Industries

Another OnShift Hot Topic Poll found that 48% of respondents have been only slightly or not at all effective in hiring recently displaced workers from hospitality, retail, etc. However, on the brighter side, 75% of respondents believe more students will choose a career in senior living within the next 5 years. The session titled Students Speak Out: Making Senior Living a #1 Academic and Career Choice shared some of the best practices and programs that are helping organizations, and the industry as a whole, get there.

Nancy Swanger, Founding Director of the Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living at Washington State University, said that many people, especially recent graduates that were headed into careers in hospitality and hotel management, are in fact choosing to transition to careers in senior living. The onset of the pandemic has made the stability that our industry can offer very attractive.

She says this transition also makes perfect sense since working at a hotel is a lot a like working at a community in the sense that you are providing meaningful experiences for guests. “People just move in and stay longer in senior living,” she explained.

Session panelist Lydia Terjeson, acted as a perfect example of someone who made the switch to senior living. Now an Executive Associate at Touchmark at Fairway Village, she shared her journey when she was a teenager and worked as a food server at a nursing home in her hometown. She eventually went on to earn a degree in hospitality management and began working at resorts before being recruited by Touchmark for their executive development program. She raved about her new career and wants others to know about the incredible opportunities senior living can provide for hospitality folks. “Senior living is so vibrant, and I am helping people live their best life,” she said.

Another target market for recruiting efforts are what Swanger referred to as “second career professionals.” And this group is growing increasingly more critical since about 70% of senior living executives are set to retire soon. Washington State University’s partnership with Georgetown’s Graduate School of Art & Science program is targeted towards those with 5+ years in a budgetary/supervisory role that want to apply their experience and skillset in this field.

An important piece of the puzzle is then, of course, to partner with providers and figure out how they can slate these experienced executives in at the right level.

Tapping Into The Older Workforce

The older worker population is untapped and has the potential to help stabilize the senior living workforce. That was the focus of the session titled Are We Reaching Older Americans as Employees as well as Residents?

Here are a few of the statistics shared during the session that paint a picture of the prevalence of older Americans in the workforce:

  • By 2024, at least 25% of the workforce will be composed of workers 50 and older.
  • The number of US workers working past 65 has doubled since 1995.
  • 2019 was the first year in US history where there were more people over the age of 60 than under the age of 16.
  • It’s projected that by 2060, our population will experience an increase of 40 million people over the age of 60 and only about a 10 million increase in people under the age of 18.

Clearly, the industry has an opportunity to actively recruit these older workers. However, only 44% of OnShift Hot Topic Poll survey respondents believe their organization is successful at employing this group.

Vi Senior Living recognized the opportunity to recruit older workers several years back, says Judy Whitcomb, SVP, HR and Learning & Organizational Development. And their employee retention has thanked them for it. The company’s attrition rate of full- and part-time employees is less than 20% and trending downward. They have a tenured group of employees, 40% of which are 50 or older, 16% of which are 60 years or older, 3% of which are 70 years or older and they currently employ 9 workers 80 years and above. Whitcomb says employing older workers has played a significant role in their high retention rate.

To successfully tap into this pool of workers, Whitcomb says to focus on two areas: your message and the channels you use to share that message. She says you don’t have to spend a ton of money on advertising but should pinpoint the areas in your community where seniors congregate, such as senior centers.

Vi Senior Living says their partnership with AARP has also been instrumental. Organizations can take the “AARP Employer Pledge” to show they are committed to employing and developing older workers and the display the badge on their careers page to attract folks.

Vi Senior Living even has an entire careers page dedicated to job opportunities for older workers so they can really focus on the messaging that resonates with this group. They advertise the opportunity to make a difference, that they are a Great Place to Work, as well as their part-time job options and commitment to training and development. Panelist Cal J. Halvorsen, Assistant Professor and Faculty Affiliate at the Boston College of Social Work and the Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, points out that luckily, older workers want many of the same things as your younger employees: meaningful work, an inclusive culture and flexible hours.

Remember, while some opt to continue full-time work, many will want to move to part-time status, which comes in handy when filling gaps in the staff schedule. Still, Halverson added, we also need to dispel the common myth that older workers only want to work for a few years after retirement since research shows that many continue working for about 10 years.

Whitcomb also recommends sharing success stories in your recruiting efforts. Vi Senior Living captured a retired law enforcement professional on video sharing why he loves his new role as the community security manager. Halvorsen also recommends using imagery that includes older workers on your careers page and other recruiting efforts to show you are genuinely invested in hiring a multi-generational workforce.

So, what are the benefits of hiring older workers? Well, it certainly extends beyond that high retention rate that Whitcomb mentioned. Panelists agreed that hiring people of all ages makes your organization more attractive to job seekers. Halverson added it even boosts engagement in younger workers, a group that is less engaged if they perceive age bias. Whitcomb confirmed and said that employees regularly praise Vi Senior Living for their age-inclusive environment in staff surveys.

Halverson also noted that research has proven multi-generational teams are more innovative than age-segregated teams and that being inclusive – both when it comes to age, race and other areas of diversity – leads to better organizational performance.

Moderator John M. Bremen, Managing Director, Human Capital and Benefits; Global Head of Thought Leadership and Innovation at Willis Towers Watson opened the last session by laying out how pandemics of the past have been the catalyst of positive change. “Out of pandemics come broad-scale growth and innovation,” he said. The industrial and agricultural revolutions, personal computers, ATMs – these are just a few of the products of previous pandemics. And while it will take some time to realize the innovation spurred by the pandemic, I’m confident that senior living providers are on the right track.

Balda sums up what we’ve learned so far: “COVID-19 has shown us that our workforce has never been more important. It’s underscored that strong teams are essential for providing the quality care and service that residents and families deserve and expect. And it’s shown us that there are even more opportunities to connect career seekers to this mission-driven work.”

Click below to get the full OnShift Hot Topic Polls survey report.

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