Although big challenges and headwinds remain, the outlook for senior living staffing has taken a more positive turn in recent months — at least for senior living operators willing to be proactive and seize the opportunity at hand. Recent survey data has shown that, although most senior living operators are experiencing staffing shortages in their operations, those shortages have gotten less severe over the course of the year. Overall, the talent pool for employees, including first-time senior living staffers, is expanding as the industry once again competes with hospitality sector employees by offering stability and certainty, according to Aegis Living President Sandra Preyale. Advertisement “Our business is driven by people,” Preyale told Senior Housing News.
“It’s our ongoing and greatest focus to have the right people in the right position on the right team, and there will continue to be a real opportunity to bring people in from other sectors if they embrace the purpose of our work and embody grit.” Sinceri Vice President of Human Resources Michelle Shelton noted, “The labor market is definitely cooling in favor of employers, but it’s still challenging.” “We’re starting to see a little bit better qualified applicants and a little bit better labor pool,” she added. Advertisement Aegis Living, Benchmark Senior Living, Ecumen, LCS and Sinceri are getting creative in solving staffing issues as operators balance a recent influx of applicants and increased effort on internal leadership development against wage compression and a competitive talent pool. Operators get ‘smarter and flexible’ In the last year, senior living operations have become “more complex,” requiring employees to have, or be trained in, new soft skills and competencies compared to just four years ago, Preyale said.
Those qualities — a mix of passion and resiliency –are why Preyale said senior living staff needed to embody “grit” to navigate the many headwinds facing the industry. With employees moving through positions at a quicker rate than in the past, Preyale said operators have needed to become “smarter and flexible” to accommodate scheduling and,to balance the differing preferences of older employees versus their younger, Gen Z counterparts.
At the company’s home office in Bellevue, Washington, Aegis Living is moving to a new schedule where employees will come to the office four days a week, with one day designated as work-from-home days. That new schedule kicked off this week after the Labor Day holiday. Benchmark Senior Living Chief Human Resources Officer Kris Martel noted that in order to ease the pain on staffing, Benchmark hired six additional recruiters to hunt for candidates across the company’s 65 community portfolio.
In the quarter after the recruiters were hired, Martel said net new hires across all markets increased 10%. “These numbers are trending toward even greater increases in the coming weeks and months,” Martel told Senior Housing News. Sinceri’s recruitment team was started last year, Shelton said, and has helped widen the flow of talent to the Vancouver, Washington-based senior living provider across its 77-community portfolio. “We’re always looking at ways to be creative and leverage our recruitment team,” Shelton said. Martel said that Benchmark intensified its communication and exit-interview process with past associates, particularly with nursing staff to let those qualified nurses know of additional shifts, part-time or per diem opportunities and wage increases.
That led to a flood of past employees returning in some capacity across the company’s portfolio of communities, with Martel noting that in the last 12 months, 510 associates have returned to work for Benchmark. Waltham, Massachusetts-based Benchmark Senior Living operates 65 senior living communities across seven states. In the last six months, Shoreview, Minnesota-based operator Ecumen reported a greater influx of applicants, with more interest in senior living careers from colleges and universities helping to drive that interest through mentorship and apprenticeship programs, according to Senior Vice President and Chief People Officer Melanie Sullivan. On the whole this year, Sullivan added that Ecumen had seen across its portfolio long-term staff make a “recommitment” to senior care coming out of the pandemic, as the organization in 2023 has focused on retention. “We’ve seen a reduction in our open positions and we prioritize our people-first culture and we’ve improved our integration strategies,” Sullivan told SHN.
“We’re trying to create a faster integration strategy to really focus on our purpose and the purpose of our work.” That focus on integrating new staff is important given that senior living often comes with a steep learning curve that can cause someone to quit in their first 90 days. In the last 18 months, Sullivan said that wage compression has evolved into a greater challenge of employee retention. LCS Vice President Director of Human Resources Donna Boetger said she feels “positive about staffing as a whole” as the Des Moines-based operator had seen improvement through focusing on recruitment and retention strategies. “Overall, we’re seeing some improvements in applicant flow,” Boetger said.
“Instead of the global candidate shortage we experienced over the last few years, there doesn’t seem to be that panic throughout the organization.” Boetger added that the “current financial landscape” that is causing wage compression, could be keeping prospective frontline workers from applying, conceding that the industry was “not always able to compensate” those tough-to-fill positions on tight salaries.
That’s led LCS to focus on internal career opportunities through career advancement via apprenticeships, Boetger said. Another way operators are overcoming challenges is through internal talent development, Preyale said, and she compared the issue of having a well-staffed community to public transit by ensuring “each person is in the right seat on the bus.” “That means taking a closer look at each person’s skill set and the specific needs of each of our teams and communities and aligning both,” Preyale said.
“It’s our job to ensure this alignment is happening and the same for all positions, nursing to culinary, and more.” For Bellevue, Washington-based Aegis Living, the company is in its fourth year of its Elevate program aimed at offering staff leadership and operational training to “high-potential team members,” Preyale added. Filling positions to ‘get in front of burnout’ Operators also shared that certain positions were still challenging to fill, from frontline staff to care coordination, operators nationwide are struggling to find the right people to fill the gaps. Aegis, Benchmark, LCS and Sinceri reported issues in hiring care staff –more specifically, hiring nursing and certified nursing assistants (CNA), while the need for nurses since the Covid-19 pandemic has “remained high” as health care organizations battle for the talent within the shallow nursing pool, Martel said. “One thing we are doing is focusing on retention and continuing to find ways to address and get in front of burnout,” Preyale said. Another tough area to staff is culinary services.
Particularly hard to hire are frontline workers, including servers, multiple operators told SHN. “We continue to see significant competition in the market for those roles and in some geographies, I also feel like we have experienced more candidates requesting remote work and in our field, that’s not an area we can accommodate,” Boetger said. Preyale has taken a laser-focus on staffing by visiting communities each month and working an 8-hour shift in various community roles, including in the dining room, hosting activities or as a caregiver.
C-suite executives at the company are doing this to “stay connected” with frontline employees, she said. Aegis also in 2021 created Kalon Care, its own staffing agency, to reduce the use of agency staff and engage with nursing staff who want to work non-typical schedules. The in-house staffing agency alleviates the burden of Aegis team leaders needed to train and onboard agency staff. Through Kalon Care, Aegis has added 40 people on staff and reduced its outside agency labor spend by 80% compared to the same time last year, she said.
By outsourcing administrative work overseas, that’s helped reduce the burden on staff and reduce burnout, Preyale added. Another way operators are succeeding in fighting labor challenges has been through heading upstream to find talent, specifically marketing senior living careers for young people.
Sullivan said Ecumen was establishing career pathways for clinical teams and frontline team members to outline “a sustainable career” journey for new employees. That pairs well with Ecumen hosting job fairs targeting high school-age students to highlight senior living within the broader health care landscape. Ecumen also has a partnership with the Minnesota Department of Health to foster relationships with universities in the region, harkening back to Sullivan’s past career as a professor at the University of Minnesota prior to jumping into health care. “A lot of us are trying to use our networks to promote and enhance our relationships with those younger populations so that we can encourage them to try [senior living] out,” Sullivan added.
“It’s a beautiful way to think about how we honor and really respect older adults so that’s the narrative we’re working to change.” Situation still ‘precarious,’ but improving Even with wage compression still a concern and the competition for talent greater than ever, operators say the labor environment in senior living is improving, markedly so since the dark days of 2020. Preyale said she expects pressure around wages to continue, with an additional focus on talent development needed. “We need to continue focusing on building the talent we need through 2024, especially with the most recent news on the Covid-19 variant,” Preyale said, referencing the newly circulating Covid-19 variant dubbed BA.2.86.
. The senior living industry has for years touted immigration as a solution for senior living staffing shortages, with the idea that allowing more people into the country would in turn increase the number of available workers. But Boetger said that the senior living industry had a “lack of viable solutions” to push immigration reform that would bring eligible workers to fill frontline staff. “We need solutions around more accessible and streamlined paths for highly skilled workers from other countries as well as the introduction of a realistic and timely immigration pathway for entry-level workers,” Boetger said. Shelton said she anticipates the labor outlook for senior living continuing to “soften and cool into next year” even as base wages increase. “But I do think that we’re in kind of a precarious situation,” Shelton added, based on the employment exodus in the wake of employee burnout from the pandemic that led to the talent pool shrinking, albeit temporarily. In order to bring more people into the industry, Sullivan said it was “incumbent upon all of us as leaders” to advocate for the industry and bring awareness to the careers possible in senior living. “I’m really optimistic because I believe that we are gradually and incrementally making changes in our sector that are going to have a positive influence for years to come,” Sullivan said.