Defining Your Career Pathway

January 2, 2019 |

Updated January 7, 2021

5 minutes

To move ahead in the student housing business, well-rounded operational experience is important. But it isn’t the only thing that will define success.

Heather Sizemore, CAPSFor student housing professionals, such as Heather R. Sizemore, CAPS, Vice President, University Relations for The Michaels Organization, Student Living, the world has changed a lot during the past two decades.

As the asset class became more institutionalized and new companies entered the fray, career opportunities have grown.

“The pure number of management companies and student housing owners that are looking for operators is exponentially higher than it was 15 years,” Sizemore says.

With a tight labor market and more companies, student housing pros are constantly grappling with whether they should stay at their current, comfortable job or explore new opportunities elsewhere.

As someone who has been in the industry for 18 years and has made career sacrifices to stay in one location, Sizemore is familiar with the difficult career choices that property management pros face. She will share those experiences and share how people are advancing within the sector during her “Career Pathways for Student Housing Pros” talk at CampusConnex, February 12-13, in Orlando. Here’s a sneak preview.

What is the state of the labor market in student housing right now?

Sizemore: The job market is tight. It is very hard to recruit solid employees at the regional manager level and below. It’s competitive everywhere for different reasons. It’s competitive in large markets, such as Gainesville, Fla., because you’re constantly fighting for the best employees. Wages have gone up because of it.

In the smaller markets, it is the same problem for a different reason. When there isn’t much purpose-built competition, finding good operators in secondary and tertiary markets is more difficult because you don’t naturally have a big pool of candidates with experience. If you find a good candidate, you’re lucky. If not, you’re convincing someone to relocate from a larger location into a smaller city, which can be challenging.

The winners in all of this are property managers, facilities managers, regional managers and regional support staff. Companies are looking for the best of the best and, they’re willing to pay for it.

It ultimately comes down to compensation and how you treat your employees. If they are not happy, they can leave at the drop of a hat and find another job.

What are things people need to consider when deciding whether to take a new job?

Sizemore: Most people agree that no job is perfect. You’re going to have good days and bad days and even the best company isn’t perfect. Employees have to consider their situation overall, and if it’s one that makes them happy. When you’re generally happy at a company, employees have to really think hard before deciding to make a switch. It’s a big move to switch jobs, especially if it’s going to require relocation.

What skills and attitudes are necessary for younger employees to work their way up the ranks and achieve success and happiness?

Sizemore: Time management is huge. There is more work to be done every single day than there are hours in those days. Finding folks with good time management skills and who know how to prioritize what needs to be done today versus what can wait is very, very important. That plays into a work-life balance.

It does us no good to have someone who works 10 to 12 hours a day. In six months, they will burn themselves out. We want folks who are hard-working and who are willing to put in the hours when necessary, but also know that it is OK to stop work at 5 or 6 pm on other days.

Flexibility is also key. This is something that I take personally. I’ve been inflexible during my career and I have not been willing to relocate out of the Orlando area. That was a conscious decision -- and a personal one. I’ve been lucky to get where I am today, but I could have gotten there a lot sooner had I been willing to relocate.

Finally, the folks who are accelerating their careers are the ones who have a very solid understanding of operations. Many times, you have folks who went from either the leasing and marketing side or the operations and accounting side to become a manager. That is fine, but the people who were able to do all of those functions prior to becoming a property manager tend to be more successful because they have fewer areas of weakness. That is helpful when it comes to operating a property or portfolio as a regional manager.

Switching gears to managing a workforce, if you are a regional manager or a community manager, what are things a manager can do to inspire their staff to function at the highest level?

Sizemore: Get to know as many of the employees as possible.  Take time to speak with them one on one, and form a connection.  Learn what motivates them to be successful, and use that to inspire people individually. They say people leave manager, not companies, and I firmly believe this to be true.

How much easier is it to learn about a company you might move to, given Glassdoor and all the transparency that is shared online?

Sizemore: Although the industry has grown, it still feels very small. People still have colleagues and connections through past jobs, so it is really easy to find something out about other companies. You don’t necessarily have to rely on these websites to learn about companies -- if I want to know something, I’ll pick up the phone and call someone.