‘Competition is Everywhere’: How Memory Care Operators Are Tackling Staffing in 2024

‘Competition is Everywhere’: How Memory Care Operators Are Tackling Staffing in 2024

By: Lara Unnerstall

The pandemic. The “great resignation.” And now, in 2024, a tight labor market. All of these health and economic forces have hit senior living operators hard, with those in memory care feeling the pain both acutely and cumulatively.

Unfortunately, the problem isn’t going to go away overnight. Recent projections say many more workers – more than one million – are needed to meet the projected demand for memory care services in the years to come.

Memory care operators are responding to those challenges with a mixture of investments in technology, investments in both new and existing staff , and optimism that memory care as a sector will draw in the right people.

For both Renee Fath, vice president of HR and operations at Vi in Chicago, and Donna Boetger, vice president of human resources at LCS in Des Moines, hiring clinical staff skilled in memory care continues to be a challenge. But so does hiring other staffers, especially food and beverage workers.

“The competition is everywhere,” Boetger told Memory Care Business. “Restaurant worker wages directly impact how we pay our people, because that’s our competitive market. So, if [fast food restaurants] are paying 25 dollars an hour, in some ways we have to match that or prove that we’re competitive in that arena.”

That isn’t to ignore the challenges of recruiting clinical staff, another career path fraught with competition. Not only do Vi, LCS and their peers have to compete with hospitals and other healthcare facilities for clinical talent, they have to compete with staffing agencies and other companies that supply senior living communities with workers.

“Some CNAs would prefer to have the flexibility to work when they want to work, and maybe don’t need benefits, or don’t need the stability of working for a company. I think that’s a challenge our industry needs to confront,” said Fath.

Both LCS and Vi increased their staffing budgets in 2024, but Boetger and Fath see that as mostly a response to economic inflation, minimum wage increases in different states, and staying competitive with overall senior living sector wage increases.

Making staffing progress

Despite the many challenges faced by senior living and memory care operators, there have been some positive advancements this year.

Vi found significant improvement in their recruitment efforts, bringing their numbers back to pre-pandemic norms for the first time since 2020. The company did this by embracing technology and trying many different platforms and vendors until it found the right combination.

“In the fall, we moved to a unified system that’s our applicant tracking system, our candidate relationship manager, our career site, and our onboarding platform. So we have one streamlined experience for both candidates and recruiters, and we’ve seen a lot of success with that,” said Fath.

The company also landed somewhere between a decentralized model, where recruitment happened at Vi’s individual communities; and a centralized model, where it happened at the corporate level. Now, the company recruits workers both at the corporate- and community-level, a process that  is tracked entirely within the company’s unified HR system.

Fath also touted Vi’s employee referral system, which brings in around 30 percent of the operator’s talent; and local hiring events, where multiple positions, hiring managers, and candidates come together in person on one day. But where they find that to be most successful is over time, on a regular cadence.

“You build awareness over time. Maybe the first [event] isn’t well-attended, but then the second and the third and the fourth one are,” Fath said.

For Boetger and LCS, they’ve focused on “executing a red-carpet orientation and onboarding experience so that people feel good about the role they just accepted. We really want them to understand what their new role means and what our expectations are.”

A home-grown solution

With national staffing challenges less dire than in the preceding last few years, both LCS and Vi are shifting their focus to retention and “growing their own” staff, something they haven’t had the time to invest in since the onset of the pandemic. The operators have identified many of the trends that lead to burnout and a preference for agency work in their clinical staff, and are applying every tactic they can as an internal solution.

Boetger and her team at LCS have worked on offering more flexible schedules and more growth and development opportunities such as apprenticeship programs, and developing robust leadership and development training.

“We offer such a great opportunity for people to make a difference, and there’s so many opportunities within our communities. We want to hire people that have the right heart and mindset, and we’ll train for the skill level. There’s some roles where you can’t do that, but for a lot of our roles, we can take you and mentor you and help you get to where you want to go.”

Other options range from tuition reimbursement programs to assistance with outside certifications.

Boetger and Fath emphasized the importance of staying engaged with their workforce and preventing burnout before it becomes a major problem.

“We track how people are feeling with engagement surveys and then take action based on that, whether that’s at the local level or across the company,” said Fath. “But we are also evaluating our mental health benefits and our employee assistance programs.”

Employee assistance programs and insurance coverage for mental healthcare have remained largely the same since 2020, and Fath believes that this year it was essential to evaluate where the gaps were between these standard benefits and where employees feel they still need help.

“Are all of those [benefits] doing enough? How do we kind of take care of the whole person?” she said.

Both Boetger and Fath are optimistic that the key to overcoming the one-million-plus worker deficit within the memory care sector is in hiring, nurturing, and retaining staff that are driven by a purpose: the humanizing mission of caring for seniors with various forms of dementia.

To accomplish that, they want to focus on raising awareness of senior care as a viable career path to candidates as early as possible, such as high school and college, and through less traditional pathways, such as veterans networks, refugee groups, and through programs like JobCorp and Job Centers of America. And they think everyone in their industry should be doing the same.

“I love the stories of people who started as a server and ended up as an executive director,” said Boetger. “The career pathing is amazing. The opportunities are unlimited. And you get to have an impact on people all the way through that journey. It’s like people say: you get a house full of grandparents every time you walk in the room or the building. And who wouldn’t love that?”

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