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Bill Pettit struggles to hire front-line staff, the customer-facing employees who are the heart and soul of senior living.

Bill Pettit

“We have an economy that is booming, and the types of people who will do well in our organization also will do well in other industries,” said Pettit, chair of the Argentum workforce development committee and president of the R.D. Merrill Company, parent company of Merrill Gardens. “Many of their skills directly translate, and so we all compete.”

He contends with restaurants for dining staff, while construction firms snap up maintenance workers. Health care companies hire away potential caregivers and so it goes down the line, with competing industries all vying for the same limited pool of applicants.

For many senior living providers, the struggle to hire frontliners seems never ending, but it’s important to look for pockets of opportunity. For instance, the radical downturn in retail has lately cost some 60,000 workers their jobs, according to outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. That’s a big pool of potential senior living employees.

Still, companies across competing industries continue to feel the pinch. In hospitality, turnover rates may run as high as 100 percent, according to the Institute for a Competitive Workforce (ICW), an Affiliate of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, while in health care high turnover may add 35 percent to the cost of patient care. An ICW survey found at least half of employers have a hard time hiring front-line staff.Teri Serrano quote

“This is probably the biggest challenge in the present labor market,” Pettit said. His prescription for success? “You have to do your homework on these other industries, whether it’s restaurants or multifamily or the care industry. For those industries that compete directly, you need to understand the current labor market and current practices.”

Senior Living Executive did exactly that, interviewing human resources leaders from a range of sectors to mine their best practices for hiring front-line workers. Health care and dining, hospitality and customer service organizations: Here is what some of the best had to say about their winning recipes for hiring and retaining those hard-to-find employees.

Being transparent

Beer-and-chicken chain Buffalo Wild Wings (BWW) employs some 45,000 people nationwide. For many it’s a first-time job. Restaurant work isn’t glamorous: Long hours on your feet, answerable to the demands of an often-finicky clientele. BWW’s best tool for attracting talent: Transparency.

“If they want to see what a day in the life is like, we will give them a chance to shadow shift,” said Julie Letner, vice president for talent management services at BWW. “Even for hourly workers, it’s not uncommon for them to talk to at least a couple of managers so that they can get different perspectives and different points of view.”

The more people understand about the business, the more likely they will want to come aboard. As a recruiting tactic, this takes some effort, but Letner says it is worth putting in the extra energy. “We are willing to share anything about the organization, anything about our plans. When there is a willingness on our end to invest the time up front, it helps them to know they are making the right choice,” she said.

Just as senior living must compete against hospitality, retail, and a range of other industries, BWW vies for the allegiance of workers who could potentially serve in diverse settings. How to sell them on food service? The BWW narrative focuses on serving hot wings not as an end but rather as a beginning.

“There is a ton of room for growth and career advancement, so we compile success stories about team members who started as cashiers and now are leading teams, running multi-million dollar businesses. We tell them that if they have a desire and an appetite to learn and grow, this can be a great place for them,” Letner said.

BWW casts a wide net to find such individuals, and they make the search personal. “We look at our general managers and managers to be their local mayors, so to speak. We want them to know what is going on in their towns, to be connected to the businesses and the schools. The more they are integrated into the communities they serve, the better placed we will be to attract talent,” she said.

Managers volunteer with civic groups. They get involved in youth activities, coach sports, make themselves visible among the labor pool. “For a lot of our team members this may be their first job and we want them to feel that they can authentically be themselves and feel accepted and be part of the team,” she said. “The more our leaders can connect with potential team members, the more we can create that sense of being connected, the sense that managers genuinely care about them.”

Building the pipeline

Senior living professionals have been advocating for a renewed emphasis on the pipeline, a need to promote the industry early and often.

To that end, the industry might take a cue from the Mayo Clinic. In addition to its home base in Rochester, Minn., the world-renowned health organization employs some 65,000 people nationwide, many of them recruited from among the same pool of care-minded workers coveted by senior living.

Mayo Clinic’s secret to success in hiring frontliners? “Pipelining,” said Jamie Schmitgen, chair of talent solutions for Mayo Clinic. The organization works with colleges, high schools, and even junior high students, sometimes helping to develop skills but more often just raising awareness of health care as a career option.

“We talk about working in health care and we talk about opportunities at Mayo Clinic. We want to have those conversations long before they are even an active candidate,” he said.

Through the “Bridges to Healthcare” program, for example, Mayo Clinic teams with Rochester Community and Technical College (RCTC) to introduce local high schoolers to the industry while helping them to complete their GED work. In addition to building awareness, the program is a direct feeder for Mayo Clinic, which has hired over 100 graduates out of the program.

Another effort enables local high school students to get hands-on experience in health care career paths while earning academic credits and even professional certifications. This too becomes a feeder, with graduates often moving directly into front-line jobs with the health care organization.

For senior living companies looking to team with local schools in order to raise awareness, Schmitgen says it typically will be up to the potential employer to make the first move. “These institutions are more than willing, but you as the employer have to take the initiative,” he said. “You have to go ask. You have to reach out to them and that means having someone dedicated to building those relationships as part of your recruiting strategy.”

While this may sound like a heavy lift, especially when the focus needs to be on filling immediate vacancies, Schmitgen says that building a pipeline is something that can be done gradually.

“You can go in slowly and take it in phases,” he said. “You can start with a high school observation program. Or you can go to the local workforce board and see if they will help to pay for retraining of displaced individuals. You don’t necessarily need to start a big comprehensive program right away. But you do have to be thinking about the future and convincing people that your industry is the right one to be in.”

In a more immediate sense, Schmitgen also stresses the importance of keeping competitive with local wages. “A lot of it comes down to what you are paying people. If there is a shortage in supply, the entry-level salaries start to creep up,” he said. “You have to stay on top of the local pay and be proactive around that.”

Service mindset

While a large organization like the Mayo Clinic can set its sights on the long game, for Teri Serrano hiring frontliners is all about basic block and tackle: Referrals, word of mouth, carefully crafted advertising. That’s what it takes for the vice president of people services to keep 450 jobs filled at the 16-property boutique chain Broughton Hotels.

In cities like Palm Springs and Monterey, Calif., hourly workers are thin on the ground and Serrano has to compete against a range of other service industries.

“When you meet somebody at a restaurant or a coffee shop and you really appreciate their service level, you approach them. Maybe they are looking for a second job or maybe they know someone else with a great attitude, and so you hand out your business card,” she said.

Serrano will do some paid advertising in markets where labor is especially tight, “but how you write the ad is really important if you want to find people who have the same attitudes that you do as an organization,” she said.

“I use the verbiage that is on our websites, language about having ‘radical ideas’ about how to run a hotel company. If you are someone who connects with that idea, you will respond to my ad,” she said. “In the same way, I look for people who use that same language in their response. That shows me that they have taken the time to research the organization. It tells me they are authentically interested in how we manage and what we want to do.”

Serrano also leverages a tactic familiar to many in senior living, paying referral bonuses of $100 or more. To make the most of that investment, she always tries to dig a little deeper before pursuing the referral, rather than just calling the candidate cold. “I will ask that person making the referral: ‘How do you know John? How long have you known him? Why do you think John would be a great candidate for us?’” she said. Such questions can save time and effort when it comes to vetting the potential candidate.

It helps, too, to think about the type of employee you are seeking, when specific skills are not required. “These are transformational activities, not transactional,” she said. That means an individual with a flair for interpersonal work may be a good fit, regardless of specific background.

“I find that folks who work in theme parks or who volunteer someplace are actually really great in this industry. If you enjoy making people happy, if you enjoy giving back, this is a good industry for you,” she said. The same could be said of senior living, so it’s important not to write off a candidate just because the fit is less than precise.

Even making all the right moves, Serrano sometimes strikes out. She describes a recent effort to hire for a front-line position in Santa Cruz. “We posted on Indeed, we posted on HCareers, and the resumés appear to have the right qualifications. But I’ve interviewed 60 people and still can’t find the right candidate,” she said.

The problem is not with the labor pool but rather with the hotel’s own approach to the position. “I think we budgeted the wrong wage for the position, we undervalued that individual for that market. The price point was off. We may also need to rethink the job description. Maybe we are looking at the wrong skill sets,” she said.

Her point is just this: That if you are doing everything right in a front-line job search and you still aren’t getting the right candidates, it may be time for a review. Is the pay right? Is the job description on target? Finding the right candidate often comes down to making the right offer, in the right way–and that’s something that is in your control.

Working the interview

Senior living knows it’s competing for front-line talent with health care and hotels. But the industry is also up against LaShena Matthews. As talent acquisition partner for software company Sage, she helps to keep some 13,000 jobs filled, and half of them are customer service positions—the same entry-level employees senior living is trying to hire.

Between online ads and referrals, Matthews usually has plenty of resumes to read. What she needs, though, are people who bring the right type of character to the table. “We need people who can think and who are problem solvers. That is the differentiating factor. We need someone who can really make a difference for our customers,” she said.

So how does Matthews find these people? Mostly by listening very carefully. “It’s not that we have set questions. It’s about having a range of questions available that help us uncover those soft skills,” she said. A personal favorite: Why is a manhole round? The answer doesn’t matter. What’s important is the way in which the interviewee reasons through the problem.

“Each person may interpret the question differently. Even if they don’t know the answer, you want to see them think through a creative answer,” she said.

It helps, too, to ask open-ended questions. In a recent interview Matthews simply asked the subject to rate his customer service skills on a scale of one to 10. Instead of just giving a figure, “this person went further: ‘I would rate myself an eight because of this or that experience.’ It showed me someone who was solution-oriented, who could understand what being an eight really means and could help me to understand what it meant to them.”

Bottom line: It takes good interviewing to make good hires. That’s why Sage recently launched a training academy to help managers beef up their interview skills.

Invest in training for hiring managers? It’s expensive and the outcomes seem intangible. But take a step back and listen to all these voices from across these competing industries. They call on hiring managers to invest in training, to invest in long-term reputation building for the industry, to invest in partnerships to build the pipeline. They call for investments of managerial time and effort in community outreach, as a way to build bridges to potential employees. And they call for investing in things like advertising and referral bonuses.

So the short answer is: There is no quick fix.

These leading companies from across a breadth of competing sectors share a common approach to front-line recruiting. They all work on the premise that successful recruiting is neither quick nor easy, but rather the product of a patient and deliberate effort played out over time.


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