Covid-19 has created many challenges for the senior living industry, chief among them regaining lost occupancy and hiring enough staff. The severe challenges of 2020 and 2021 have prompted some senior living providers to think creatively and hire for new roles to improve recruitment and retention, and elevate sales and marketing to drive occupancy. One example of this trend is QSL Management, which is rolling out a new “retention specialist” role meant to recruit, train and retain workers amid a challenging hiring landscape with record numbers of people quitting their jobs.
Though QSL has just started to expand the role throughout its 10-community portfolio, CEO Glenn Barclay believes it will make a dent in the company’s hiring challenges down the road. Another operator that added new roles to deal with Covid challenges is Retirement Center Management (RCM), which brought on board a new vice president of marketing and a director of business intelligence in 2020 and 2021. Gayle Michel, who heads up boutique senior living recruiting firm Gayle Michel Search, sees two big trends in the senior living industry. One is that more senior living companies are exploring the idea of adding hourly recruiters to their talent acquisition teams. Another is that more companies are seeking out leadership who can effectively manage marketing for them, in-house. “We’ve talked for years about the labor shortage … and I don’t think anybody expected to see the likes of what Covid has done to the workforce,” Michel told Senior Housing News. “Everybody is in the same situation.”
Staffing up for staffing
Faced with a historic labor crunch, some senior living providers are adding roles dedicated to helping alleviate workforce woes. For example, some operators are hiring recruiters specifically to aid with sourcing hourly workers and help with a process that has become much more painful as of late, according to Michel. “At the end of the day, the nurses are exhausted and leadership is exhausted because they’re filling in for hourly workers … and the hourly workforce is exhausted as well,” Michel said. “I never thought we’d see the likes of what we’re seeing.” And providers must be focused not only on recruitment, but retention, Michel emphasized.
“Everybody always says, we find them, but we can’t keep them,” she said. “And my advice to them is, you always set a clear and realistic expectation [of the job].” Improving the hiring and onboarding process was top of mind for Barclay when QSL Management created its retention specialist role. The position actually has roots in the pre-pandemic period, as the Pensacola, Florida-based operator appointed its first retention specialist at a community in Kingsport, Tennessee around the summer of 2019. The position is “like a move-in coordinator for employees,” according to Barclay, who is also principal of the operator’s parent company, QSL. Primary responsibilities of a retention specialist include making sure employees are completing their training in their first two weeks and keeping them on schedule, along with ensuring that they are engaged and well-equipped for their job. Retention specialists also handle some recruiting responsibilities for QSL.
Another part of the job is making sure employees feel welcome at the community where they work. Retention specialists not only give workers a standard company gift when they arrive on their first day, but also a gift based around a new hire’s hobbies and interests. QSL’s retention specialists also have leeway to come up with their own ideas. For example, QSL’s specialist in Kingsport started an employee incentive program that awards workers points for showing up for work on time, taking on extra shifts or getting good customer reviews. She also founded a community food and supply pantry for employees. When QSL first piloted the position, the company saw a 40% reduction in turnover at Kingsport. Customer satisfaction ticked up as well. Although the Covid-19 pandemic put plans on ice in 2020 and most of 2021, QSL is building the position into its budgets for 2022. “We’re going to train our executive directors on the position,” Barclay said. “We’re going to do that the first week in December so that they can recruit and hire, and then we can roll it out in Q1 of 2022 for all properties.”
Atlanta-based The Arbor Company had a similar notion in mind when it began hiring staff specifically focused on recruiting front line workers. The company hired a leader who held a similar role at another large senior living provider to work with communities in greatest need of help with staffing. Arbor President Judd Harper said the role “serves up” candidates to the communities, helping to more quickly reach job-seekers. “Just like sales and marketing, it’s speed to lead,” Harper told Senior Housing News in September. “Whereas in the past, I think sales leads got a lot more attention and energy and discussion, this has got to have equal weight.”
Despite the benefits that these companies describe in adding new roles, many providers appear to be relying on their existing teams to address workforce pressures. A recent SHN pulse survey of two dozen operators — which included some mid- and large-sized senior living companies — revealed that most have not hired for new positions to manage recruitment in the last six months.
Among the 32% of providers that have added such positions, several commented on the mounting challenges in staffing that they are trying to surmount. “Overwhelming need for front line associates, cost of agency prohibitive, community teams don’t have time to properly dedicate to focused recruitment,” wrote one operator in a survey comment. Another operator reported that “recruiting difficulties and filling open roles is a problem [and an] organization-wide issue.” Still, fewer than 29% of the surveyed operators said they plan to create a new role related to recruiting/retention or sales/marketing in the next six months.
More control over marketing
As operators are hiring new employees to gain greater control over hiring and retention, they are also adding workers who focus on sales and marketing, with the overall goal of increasing occupancy. The demand for sales leaders with the skills to manage marketing in-house has only grown in the age of Covid-19, according to Michel. Historically many operators have hired and developed sales leaders and relied on outside consultants for their marketing. But with such a heavy presence on digital leads amid the pandemic, operators must now go beyond branding, collateral and messaging to focus more heavily on search engine optimization and other kinds of online marketing. “There’s a desire from some CEOs to find sales leadership that have marketing savvy,” Michel said. “And that’s super tough to find.”
RCM was pivoting toward digital marketing even before the pandemic and has been building up its team of in-house experts. The organization hired Justin Yee in late 2020 as vice president of marketing. The company also promoted Lexi Zager to the role of director of business intelligence and analytics in March of this year with the goal of crunching financial numbers and data, according to President David Keaton. The two positions work closely together to analyze data on lead generation, lead sourcing and budget allocation; look for gaps in the market for new opportunities; and then use that information to develop marketing strategies and objective solutions. RCM continues to work with third-party partners such as Attane, but having the in-house talent leads to a more fruitful relationship, Keaton added. It’s a point confirmed by Attane’s Chief Strategy Officer Janel Wait, who spoke with Keaton on a panel at the 2021 Argentum Senior Living Executive Conference & Expo in Phoenix. When providers have in-house digital marketing experts who speak the same language as the experts at companies like Attane, work proceeds more quickly and smoothly, Wait said. For Keaton, hiring for the new roles has been a key to unlocking the company’s future strategy. “We have the in-house capability now to decide … what direction we want to go,” Keaton said. With the in-house digital marketing and business intelligence expertise in place, RCM is seeing improved metrics. In one case study, a community in Bentonville, Arkansas notched increased digital leads and move-ins, with a more optimized and financially efficient strategy. “The biggest piece to me is having good data,” Keaton said. “Having good data really helps you steer your budgets and dollars allocated in the right direction, and you get a much more positive impact.”
As was the case with hiring new roles related to staffing, the SHN Pulse survey reflected that providers are seeking sales and marketing talent to address pressing needs. Almost half of the respondents said they had created at least one new sales and/or marketing role to help drive occupancy in the last six months. “Fewer qualified leads, need for immediate response — we created a 1-800 number we didn’t have before to address response times,” wrote one survey respondent explaining why they added the role. “New opening during Covid – need for additional inside sales” and “low occupancy,” wrote two others. The trend of hiring for in-house marketing experience will not slow down in senior living, Michel believes. If anything, it’s only getting more competitive — particularly for workers who combine sales and marketing know-how. “There’s just not a lot of talent that has both the sales leadership effectiveness and that marketing savvy,” she said. “And typically if they do have those skill sets, their company has them locked in to the point where they’re not taking calls from [recruiters] like me.”