Staffing is turning a corner in 2023, and with a new year just over the horizon, senior living operators are taking advantage by honing strategies to boost retention and hiring.
Companies including Commonwealth Senior Living, Atria Senior Living and 12 Oaks Senior Living are finding success trimming the use of staffing agency workers and bringing new workers into their communities. As they do so, they are grappling with both new and old challenges ranging from still-elevated wages, shrinking talent pools and “ghosting” from new candidates.
As the year begins to wind down, these companies are shifting the focus to better improving the existing staff to try and fill roles from within, rather than expanding efforts to bring on more staff and are utilizing the budget they are saving from decreased reliance on agencies in order to do so.
Grappling with ghosting, changes in hiring
Although staffing is by no means a solved issue in late 2023 for the senior living industry, operators are finding certain challenges have let up somewhat since the darkest days of the pandemic.
For example, employee turnover spiked at Commonwealth two years ago as the pandemic shifted into crisis. But in 2023 that turnover rate has come down significantly, according to Tommy Comer, chief HR officer at Commonwealth Senior Living.
Part of the general improvements come from staffing being an issue that “has the full attention of executive leadership teams,”Comer said,, and that more resources are being directed to filling positions where they can.
“You’ve never seen more resources and personnel aimed at this issue,” Comer said.
Atria Senior Living has seen a higher number of qualified candidates for various positions this year than during the pandemic, according to Vice President of Employee Development Meg Pletcher. But wages continue to be the Louisville, Kentucky-based operator’s biggest ongoing staffing woe, she said.
“And when you think about those geographies where minimum wages have increased significantly, it becomes really difficult,” Pletcher added.
Potential employees are also now “ghosting” recruiters during the hiring process, meaning they disappear with no explanation. While one might naturally guess ghosting is a problem primarily among younger workers, workers across the age spectrum are ghosting recruiters, Pletcher added. And 12 Oaks Senior Living Chief People Officer Melissa Labor said that even applicants vying to become recruiters themselves are doing it, too.
“It’s even in home-office and corporate-level roles that we’re seeing some of the same behavior, so it’s been interesting to see how that’s shaping up,” Labor added.
Across the board, Commonwealth, 12 Oaks and Atria are grappling with hiring for caregivers, nursing roles and sales positions,Part of the issue for nursing staff is the requirements for the position, which vary from state to state, and that competition for new employees is stiff among all of the different communities in a given market.
“When you think about some of the things that are important to them, like flexibility and pay scales, it gets really, really tough,” Pletcher said.
Additionally, wage expectations have changed since before the pandemic. Although an executive director in a rural market might have previously earned less than a counterpart in an urban market, rural executive directors are now asking for similar pay rates, according to Comer. And in states like Virginia, where Commonwealth is headquartered, executive directors are already hard to come by. ,
“We have to get very creative with building that pipeline,” Comer said. “You have to take some chances. Sometimes they really pan out and you’re really happy with it, and other times it’s someone who deals with a lot of adversity right out of the gate.”
Getting creative, making it personal
The challenges of the last three years have forced senior living operators to get creative in all that they do, especially in staffing. For instance, some operators have embraced flexibility as a core tenet of their staffing philosophies in order to win over workers.
In fact, it was the need to be flexible that led Comer and Commonwealth to borrow an idea that has worked well for staffing agencies: The ability to float among many different communities instead of working at just one.
“They like the variety, they like the concept that [they] might be able to pick and choose [their] schedule,” Comer said. “As soon as the agency hours dry up, they’re gonna cut [them] out, whereas we won’t.”
The company has tested the method of staffing to success in both rural and urban markets, he added.
Another strategy that senior living operators are using to reach new workers is by “making it personal,” which Labor described as a top focus at 12 Oaks. While the goal is to learn what motivates employees, it does not always take deep soul-searching, either. Labor said that even something as simple as bringing and handing out candy to workers can help make a personal connection.
“I know that sounds so simple, and that’s not going to motivate everybody,” she said. “Your leaders need to employ those same thoughts and practices so that they are paying enough attention to know what matters to their people.”
As 12 Oaks, Atria and Commonwealth grow and evolve as companies, they are challenged by their need to integrate staffers in these changes.
During an acquisition,training and onboarding existing staff and integrating them into a new company culture will inherently cause some friction. Staffing was a challenge when Atria significantly scaled up in 2021 with its acquisition of Holiday Retirement.
Training played the key difference in getting buy-in from all of the company’s new employees, Pletcher explained. For new executive directors at Atria, there is virtual training with “a ton of info given to them” in the first weeks of being in the position with the goal that they can find directions to accomplish the task rather than expecting perfection. For new employees, partners in the field are brought in to help mentor them until they understand.
“It’s less about staffing versus getting them integrated with the culture and making sure their training is really good,” she said.
Comer added there needs to be flexibility with training and that he has a philosophy of “seven times seven different ways” in order to have different ways to approach training, as “what works for somebody might not work for another.”
“I won’t say that we’re perfect at it, but I will say that we’re intentional,” Comer said.
12 Oaks is another fast-growing company in senior living, and Labor noted that following an acquisition there needs to be a period for the employees to “grieve.” During this time, she said, companies can show the new employees what makes it special to work for and what makes it stand out compared to others.
Staffing new developments requires hiring and training new workers, with a timeline for staffing depending on the brand that is being built so it is ready to go before opening.
What has helped leadership with staffing as a whole has been the prospect of getting employee buy-in, which has been noted to largely come in the form of interviews and one-on-ones between staff and leadership, which helps iron out what goals both sides can be working toward and hold each party accountable. Better communication has been helping address employee issues as a whole, Pletcher said.
“We require one on ones that our people leaders in the communities are having one on one conversations on a regular cadence with our employees,” Pletcher said. “And we have a system where the employee can go in and talk about … goals, and the manager can then assign them training.”
12 Oaks is looking to pilot “reverse mentoring” into its training, where employees of various generations focus on mentoring each other and establishing career paths for employees so they can feel like they matter as a retention tool.
“The people that are here are here because they care about their residents … but they care about their career at the same time,” Labor said. “They want to know what the next step is for them.”
As the year is coming to a close, companies are working on trying to increase their budgets for staffing in a variety of ways. At Commonwealth, more of the staffing budget is being planned around employee appreciation within the first 100 days of employment, which Comer said comes from not necessarily needing more staff at the moment.
For Atria, the budget will be more dedicated to training and growing staff internally, which is going to be utilizing the funds coming from decreased reliance on agencies.
“They already know the system, they know the culture, they are the best people for us to be promoting and putting in positions,” Pletcher said.
12 Oaks Senior Living is also putting an emphasis on an “emerging leaders” program that will be developed in coordination with staff that have advanced within the company so other staff can advance as well. The company’s leaders also will place more of a focus on employee retention and how to best retain staff, which Labor said she found that over the past year has been around six months.
Pletcher added there is an emphasis on measuring and evaluating what efforts are being impactful for the company and whether or not they are helping employees want to stay.
There is also likely going to be an increased focus on hiring outside of the traditional staffing pool, particularly by shifting to recruiting from the hospitality industry, Labor said.
“There is a lot of people out there looking for what we offer,” Comer said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to engage entirely different talent pools.”
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