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Filling Student Housing’s Labor Gap

Housing Labor Gap

By Les Shaver

Through social media, career fairs and poaching from other industries, student housing firms find badly needed onsite talent.

When you ask Tana Lee Higginbotham, Senior Vice President Asset Management for Pierce Education Properties, about the top challenge facing her company today, it doesn’t take her long before she answers.

“Similar to all of the top 25 student housing management companies,” Higginbotham says, “we are looking for peak performers who we can either mentor from within our organization, grow through mentorship programs or by bringing in new team members.”

Higginbotham isn’t wrong. Each guest who visited the Listening Lab at CampusConnex identified labor as their top concern.

“Without great employees, things can easily fall apart,” says Ronda Puryear, Senior Vice President for Management Services Corporation. “Finding those employees who fit into our team culture is one of our biggest challenges in this market."

For Heather R. Sizemore, CAPS, Vice President, University Relations for The Michaels Organization, Student Living, finding good site-level employees—from part-timers to community managers—is essential.

“They are the ones who will be interacting with our customers,” Sizemore says. “We have to make sure that they’re providing that great in-person user experience even though our residents are very high tech and they do a lot of things without us. They sign their leases without us and enter work orders without us. But when they come into the office, they still want a human experience and you have to have the right person for that.”

In markets with a lot of supply coming online, the challenge of finding good site-level people is multiplied. “There are a lot of new student housing developments in almost every university market,” Puryear says. “That not only brings increased competition for residents, but also increased competition for the great employees who make it all happen.”

But finding these onsite stars is not easy. To start with, the vetting process is very important. “We see lots of resumes and do interviews,” Sizemore says. “As much as you try to be as thorough and accurate in describing what the job is, what it entails and what the expectations are, sometimes it’s not a fit. I think just finding that out sooner rather than later is important for both sides.”

The search for quality onsite staffers has led student housing operators to several different, somewhat unlikely, places. Pierce has found success finding employees online and through social media.

“The younger generation is utilizing social media and LinkedIn,” Higginbotham says.

Career fairs—for both college students and employees transitioning out of other industries—also can be a good place to find onsite talent.

“We have attended a lot of career fairs and found people that were interested in being in this field,” says Barrie L. Nichols, Vice President of Leasing and Marketing for The Michaels Organization. “We’ve had really successful hires who have come in at basic level positions and worked their way up. So, I think college career fairs is just an awesome way to get people.”

If you want more seasoned employees, poaching from other industries can be an even better way to find talent. For student housing firms and apartment companies, that usually means the hospitality industry. Nichols says Michaels has hired found front-desk employees who previously worked for hotels. Some of those then stayed with the company for more than a decade.

“We’ve had a lot of success with employees who came from hospitality,” Nichols says. “One, the customer service and the interaction is obviously there. Two, our training and operations are similar. They know what they're getting into as far as the administrative-type functions.”

Michaels has also had a lot of success pulling leasing and sales associates from Enterprise Rent-A-Car, which has a strong training program.

Whether Michaels finds employees in hotels or the rental car desk at the airport, these hires usually share a key trait—customer service skills.

“When you walk into a hotel or you pick up a rental car, you think about the experience that you’re receiving as the customer,” Sizemore says. “Then it makes you think about what [from the experience] we want to take back to our teams and how we can implement those types of things in our business functions too.”