​As long term care providers grapple with staffing shortages and turnover, one group may hold the key to their future: Generation Z. The tens of millions of young adults entering the workforce, as well as high school and college students preparing to do so, have the potential to solve the industry's woes. Attracting them, however, requires providers to abandon some of their old habits in favor of more innovative strategies that meet young people on their own playing field.

Campus Outreach
Fortunately for providers, members of Generation Z aren't hard to track down. Many organizations have partnerships with high schools and higher education institutions, where they send representatives to make direct pitches at job fairs and in the classroom.

Debbie Petras, director of corporate soul at third-party operator Priority Life Care (PLC), said PLC has recruited “amazing talent" through its outreach programs on college campuses, including many people who never would have considered the industry otherwise. Her daughter, CEO Sevy Petras, said that PLC is developing certification programs for smaller one- and two-year schools in the region. They find that these efforts are a particularly effective way of recruiting talent for various non-health care operational roles, cutting through the perception that the only jobs in senior living are for caregivers.

"There's all these different ways that you can get involved in our industry," Sevy said. “I don't think that we do the best job at helping younger people who are looking at career options at the ways that they can have such an impactful and meaningful, purposeful career that are doing something that's making a difference in everybody's lives." She added that her brother, COO Bobby Petras, likes to tell undergrads that if they want to make six-figure salaries right out of college, there are plenty of opportunities available in senior living administration and marketing.

Vitality Senior Living CEO Chris Guay takes a similar approach, recruiting at high schools and college campuses. He also connects directly with students in the classroom at Washington State University, where he and Vitality's COO, Kelly Lindstrom, teach in a senior housing certificate program as part of the institution's hospitality school. The goal, he said, is to “tell younger professionals that are looking at career paths that, hey, there's an opportunity here."

"I'd love to get more universities in tune with programs like that," Guay added. "The more we connect—whether it's hospitality schools or business schools—and create an educational path to what senior housing is, I think it'll help." He said he's also working on creating an apprenticeship program for young adults, providing more intensive, hands-on experiences that will open more doors into the field.

With 20 communities in 11 states, Erickson Senior Living goes beyond the job fair, bringing local high schoolers directly into the community with its student dining program. "Students at 14 years of age can start gaining valuable employment experience as hosts and hostesses," Nicole Walker, Erickson's senior vice president of human resources and chief diversity officer, explained. "These students enjoy a flexible schedule, so they are able to balance work with school and extracurricular activities. College scholarships funded by resident contributions are available to these students, and many of our leaders began their careers within this program."

Finding the Right Value Proposition
Persuading young adults to pursue a career in senior living depends on careful, effective messaging. When Senior Lifestyle—which operates 130 communities across the country—sends representatives to high schools and church groups, they stress the potential for long-lasting job security. “One thing that does set us apart is that we are recession-proof," said Nancy Salerno, director of talent acquisition. "Some will say we're heading towards a recession, but this industry is going to continue to grow and flourish for the next decade."

At Vitality Senior Living, Guay encourages his team to lean hard on the unique value proposition of a career in long term care. To reach young adults who could make the same pay at a grocery store as they could in a caregiving role, providers have to connect with their desire to do purposeful work. The pitch, at its heart, is simple. “It's a profession where you actually can make a difference if you do your job well," he said.

Similarly important is conveying the breadth of career paths available in a senior living community. In addition to running Priority Life Care, Sevy Petras is an advisory board member at the Cornell Institute for Healthy Futures, which exposes hospitality students to the wide range of dining careers outside of traditional restaurants. "The restaurant world may sound sexy, but check out the fact that you may be able to have a career as a leader managing a kitchen that is 365 days of the year, seven days a week, and it's breakfast, lunch, and dinner—and you always know exactly how many people are going to be coming into your dining room," Petras said. "And by the way, you're going to be working normal business hours."

Work-Life Balance
In addition to competitive pay that rewards tenure, a healthy work-life balance is an increasingly significant concern for young adults, which is why many providers are offering flexible scheduling models, as well as remote work options for back-office employees. "We have to be flexible to accommodate different people's schedules," Salerno, at Senior Lifestyle, said. "It's become just a different workforce than how it was 10 or 20 years ago."

Capri Communities, a Wisconsin-based provider that operates 25 communities around the country, recently launched an especially innovative approach: a four-day workweek. Inspired by Alex Soojung-Kim Pang's book Shorter, Capri's leadership applied for a grant from the state's Department of Health Services, ultimately receiving funds for a pilot program it implemented at two communities in January 2023.

According to regional director of operations Megan Kirchner, the experiment swiftly bore fruit. Capri's Grafton, Wisc., campus saw a tenfold increase in applications for a single job post; its Port Washington campus, which rolled out the program in its kitchen department, saw a 3,000 percent increase in applications, filling all of its positions within three weeks.

Asked whether there have been any friction points in the program, Kirchner could only think of one: “Other communities asking, 'When is it their turn?'"

Meeting People Where They Are
Recruitment is only half the battle when it comes to staffing. To build a workplace where young professionals want to stay for the long haul, providers are finding new ways to accommodate generational differences. “You've got to meet people where they are," Guay said. "Ten years ago, if you let an employee walk around with their cell phone, it would be, 'That's unheard of, that can't happen.' But now, you really can't tell people they can't have their devices with them. I think it's about understanding the younger generation and meeting them where they are."

Of course, there's more to it than relaxed cell phone policies. Guay said he also challenges his team to find innovative ways of making compensation and benefits packages more attractive to younger professionals. One solution: a daily-pay platform that gives employees access to as much as half their wages before payday. “Maybe you're in a situation, especially with our caregiver workforce, where something happens and they have an emergency," he said. "They may have their transportation affected and they don't get paid until up to two weeks from when it happened, and they need money."

Creating Room to Grow
Young professionals are also looking clear, meaningful advancement trajectories. To that end, Erickson Senior Living is designing continuing education programs to give employees the skills they need to take on more responsibilities, including a new training program for assistant directors of nursing. “Today's workers are looking for more than just a job," explained Walker. “They are seeking meaning and purpose in their career path."

At Priority Life Care, the “Pathways to Promotion" program helps employees identify and achieve their own goals, whether it's rising from a weekend server to a business office manager or from a caregiver to other roles in the industry. “My full-time job is to help provide opportunities to advance," Petras said, arguing that providers could do a better job identifying burnout and helping their workers find the right fit—even if it's with another company.

Seth Simons“We need to do about retaining people within our industry versus just saying, oh, they have to stay in this one position for the next 20 years," she said. "Somebody's education and experience from working in a community is outrageously valuable for somebody who then goes to work at a tech company that supports senior housing, or a food service industry company that supports senior housing. We need to be better about doing that."

Steve Manning is a journalist based in New York City.