Retaining Employees at Your Student Communities
By Les Shaver
To improve retention, companies need to develop a career path and training programs, which includes mentors for their onsite professionals.
Landmark Properties has undergone some major changes during the past decade. The student housing developer, owner, builder and manager had previously operated under more of a traditional merchant-build model. It would typically develop and construct student housing, lease it up, stabilize it and then sell it. But the company’s co-founders wanted to move to a different, and more long-term hold model and found equity investors to support that goal.
“During the past three years, we’ve shifted to become more long-term holders of these assets,” Kevin Howe, Senior Vice President, Operations at Landmark said at the Listening Lab at CampusConnex in Orlando. “As a result, we’ve almost tripled our portfolio size.”
For Landmark’s onsite professionals, that change meant no longer having to worry as much about finding a new job with Landmark if their community happened to be sold. “Now, our management team members see that there are clear growth opportunities for them,” Howe says.
Opportunity is one thing. Providing training that allows employees to be prepared for those opportunities is another. The challenge for Landmark was finding a way to help its employees prepare for these newfound opportunities.
“We must make sure that our team members understand that there's a great career path for them, and that they’re not going to be stagnant in their job,” Howe says. “We want to make sure that they’re getting the necessary training, experience and proper leadership so they have that ability to grow.”
While other student housing owners have not undergone some of the same dramatic change that Landmark has, they also see the benefit from keeping their onsite team members happy. With a low unemployment rate and plenty of new supply, there is lots of competition for good community managers, leasing agents and maintenance professionals. To improve retention, companies need to develop a career path and training programs, which include mentors, for these professionals.
As Landmark develops training to fit its new business strategy, other firms are enjoying the benefits of mature programs.
At American Campus Communities, Regional Vice President, Management Services’ Emanuel Gunn says one of his biggest priorities is making sure that onsite team members have training opportunities along with ensuring that they know their markets, who their competitors are and how to provide the best experience for students in their communities.
In the process, they can move grow and develop at the company.
“At ACC, we really try to develop our teams from within, as well as promote them from within,” Gunn says. “A lot of our managers start out as community assistants and then we really pour a lot into them. As they grow with us throughout the years, we’re able to give them more opportunities and allow them to shine and take on more ownership.”
It is also important for student housing firms to not forget about providing training opportunities for student employees. While a fair number of students don’t stay with Michaels after graduation, the company works to identify the ones who see student housing as a career.
“If there is something about the business function that is interesting to them, whether it’s the sales piece or the accounting or just general management and operations, we will provide training,” says Heather R. Sizemore, CAPS, Vice President, University Relations for The Michaels Organization, Student Living. “For those folks that show true interest, then it’s a great opportunity to grow and cultivate potential long-term employees.”
If a student shows an interest and aptitude for marketing, Michaels might involve them in corporate initiatives or national campaigns.
“From a marketing and leasing perspective, they can literally drive things because we’re trying to market to college students,” says Barrie L. Nichols, Vice President of Leasing and Marketing for The Michaels Organization, Student Living. “We have presented on the customer digital journey and one of our part-time staff members put together what a customer journey looks like from a student perspective. I think the key is getting them invested and having them do something that they love.”
ACC’s training program the Inside Track Program sends Assistant General Managers, Leasing Managers and Bookkeepers that have the potential to eventually run their own community to company headquarters in Austin for a few days. In addition to training, they learned from industry veterans.
“They get to mix and mingle with the home office staff there,” Gunn says. “They get to dive into a few more topics in greater detail and learn about the overall ACC business and student housing in general. From that program, those graduates are usually right in line for their next promotion to general manager.”
Pierce Education utilizes a mixture of hands-on and online training, including courses offered through NAA and Grace Hill. The company also complements its training with a robust mentorship program.
Pierce developed a mentorship training program for community assistants, assistant executive directors and executive directors. Additionally, it is getting ready to launch a program for maintenance professionals.
“The programs involve working closely with someone already in that position,” says Tana Lee Higginbotham, Senior Vice President Asset Management for Pierce Education Properties. “We have senior level executive directors that will also help in the training process.”
Pierce’s program begins during the hiring process. “Once they are onsite, if they’re not able to reach their regional manager or their property manager, there is someone at another property that they can call and ask questions or get additional assistance,” Higginbotham says. “They can also call them with a question if they might not feel comfortable asking their Regional Manager or their Executive Director.”
Not everyone is cut out for being a mentor. Higginbotham says Pierce seeks outgoing types who “love to train and teach” to serve as mentors. “[Mentors] are peak performers who love to travel to other locations to support other properties and team members,” she says.