With the senior living industry facing a workforce crisis, it’s becoming increasingly urgent to draw talented students to the sector. Two different projects, one involving non-profit provider Mather Lifeways and the other involving commercial real estate firm JLL, showcase the potential payoffs if senior living professionals and residents can engage with college students. The projects also highlight some of the challenges in reaching a critical mass of young people.
Inspiring the next generation has been a major goal of the Future Leaders Council of the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care (NIC). Last year, members of the Council launched a “Connect the Ages” campaign to recruit young talent to the industry. In addition, Council members have set a goal of each speaking at one college every year.
That’s what took Joel Mendes, a senior vice president in JLL’s seniors housing capital markets team, to the Ohio State University last fall. There, Mendes participated in a presentation on senior living to students in the university’s real estate program. About 50 students attended, making it a standing-room only event. A handful of students then decided to make senior living a centerpiece of their submission to the eighth annual Eisenberg Real Estate Challenge.
For the challenge, students had to devise plans for an actual parcel of land on the Lake Michigan shoreline just north of Chicago, in the community of Waukegan, Illinois. The OSU team consisted of five students representing different disciplines, including architecture, real estate and finance. They put together their proposal, received further mentorship from Mendes to help shape it, and in April learned that they had been awarded an honorable mention—essentially taking second place in the competition.
While this is just one example of a senior living professional doing meaningful outreach to students, there are several positive takeaways.
For one, there was the large turn-out for Mendes’ presentation. This reflects that students have a strong interest in learning about senior living, according to Seth Brennoch, who was on the team that submitted to the Eisenberg competition. He recently graduated from OSU with a double major in finance and real estate.
“That was one of our best-attended events,” Brennoch told Senior Housing News. “It does seem likely that it was a topic [students] were interested in.”
This interest likely stems from several factors. One is that OSU’s real estate faculty does a good job of explaining a variety of property types to students, including senior living, said Brennoch. Another reason could be that students are having personal experiences with family members entering senior living, he noted. He himself was familiar with typical rents in senior housing because of a family member in assisted living.
There’s also the fact that senior living is gaining more visibility through case competitions like the Eisenberg; some members of the OSU team themselves had gotten interested in senior living when they saw it included in a case competition at Villanova.
“When we saw that, we saw that the financial aspect of it was interesting, different than what we were used to seeing with other types of properties,” Ray Herrera, a finance and accounting major who was on the Eisenberg team, told SHN. “I kept it in the back of my mind for future use. When Joel came to campus, it solidified.”
Despite the successful outcome of his visit to OSU, Mendes has some concerns about student outreach. While visiting individual colleges is certainly worthwhile, there needs to be a larger-scale, concerted effort to recruit young people to the industry, he believes. And that has proven a tough goal to make progress on.
He and other Council members have done outreach to organizations such as the Department of Labor, Department of Education and national guidance counselor trade associations, but have not been able to get much traction, he said. In part, volunteers in the industry—even highly motivated ones—simply might not have the bandwidth needed to make an impact with these types of groups, he said.
And the industry also needs to think carefully about its ambassadors; he suspects that as an investment banker, he faced an added hurdle in trying to convince people that his outreach was truly motivated by good intentions and was not meant to directly make him or his firm money.
So, he’s encouraged that senior living trade associations are taking a more focused and methodical approach on this front. For instance, Argentum recently hired Brent Weil as vice president of workforce development. LeadingAge launched a Center for Workforce Solutions last year.
And NIC itself may be aiding the effort by carrying out and expanding its mission of gathering and distributing robust data about the senior living industry. This is something that the OSU team craved, according to Herrera.
“Information is not readily available,” he said. “And different projects have different dynamics [than ours], the pro formas are more complicated, [so] I think having resources to give more guidance to figure out the economics behind a senior living development, that would help.”
Aged to Perfection
While JLL was engaging with college students interested in the real estate aspect of senior housing, Mather LifeWays was connecting with students focused on social work.
Mather Lifeways operates one life plan community in Tucson, Arizona and one just north of Chicago in Evanston, Illinois, where the organization is based. The nonprofit also runs the Institute on Aging, a research organization that studies and develops best practices in aging services.
In 2016, the Institute awarded a prize to the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, which had developed a course called “Aged to Perfection.” That course was held at Saint John’s on the Lake near downtown Milwaukee, and featured residents of that CCRC leading classes on a range of topics related to aging.
The Institute on Aging then decided that Mather LifeWays could replicate the course, providing an opportunity to more formally evaluate how the class influences students’ interest in pursuing a career in aging services, and what unique learning aspects might be occurring with older adults being the course instructors, Senior Research Associate Roscoe Nicholson told SHN.
So, the Institute partnered up with Loyola University in Chicago to offer a version of the Aged to Perfection course. It was offered as an independent study this past spring semester. Residents of The Mather, in Evanston, planned the curriculum along with Marcia Spira, Ph.D., the associate dean for academics in Loyola’s School of Social Work.
“Resident interest in participating was high, we had a waiting list for residents who wanted to participate,” Nicholson told SHN.
Generally, residents led class discussions on topics in which they had some particular interest or expertise—a pastor led the class on spirituality, for example. The students were a mix of undergraduates and graduate students, some of whom were already interested in working with older adults and some who were interested in learning more about aging topics.
Initial feedback indicated that both residents and students found the course rewarding.
“I think on the student side, some of them expressed a bit of surprise at how open and willing the older adult instructors were to sharing, to discussing these topics, to really bring out the depth and nuance to their experience of aging and really share some quite personal … life details as these topics were being discussed,” Nicholson said.
Operationally, it’s a relatively easy proposition for senior living providers to facilitate these courses, Nicholson said. Costs might include transportation for bringing students to the senior living community, but costs in general are minimal, Nicholson said. One challenge is going through the necessary steps with the university to add a course to the official catalog—it’s a goal for The Mather to have this listed as a regular class rather than an independent study in the future, and to grow enrollment.
“In the experience of Milwaukee, the first time they had enrollment around what we had with just under 10 students, and now they’ve got waitlists every time they offer it,” Nicholson said.
A more formal evaluation of the course is underway and will be produced as a report that is shared through senior living industry channels, to encourage other organizations to start organizing these types of classes.
Like JLL’s Mendes, Nicholson believes that more systematized and widespread outreach to students is needed to bolster the senior living industry in the future, and he believes that the Aged to Perfection model is promising in this regard.
“You have so many senior living options in proximity to colleges and universities,” he said. “It’s absolutely scalable and reproducible.”