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4 Ways to Contend With Intensifying Staffing Challenges

January 2022

Among the litany of challenges facing many industries in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, perhaps foremost is that of the difficulty organizations are experiencing recruiting and retaining talent.

The rental housing industry is no different. Developers, owners and managers are focused on the Herculean task of finding hires for positions at their corporate headquarters and apartment communities they build and manage. Some outsource management to third-party companies that also find staffing difficult.

“It’s a daily conversation for everyone in the industry,” says Steve F. Hallsey, Managing Director and Partner at Wood Partners, an Atlanta-based merchant builder with 20,000 units in 18 states.

Some in the industry, like John Protopappas, President and CEO of Oakland, Calif.-based Madison Park Financial Corp., a developer, investor, operator and asset manager with 1,741 units in California, Portland, Ore., Kansas City, Mo., and Salt Lake City, worry whether “we will ever be able to fill all the jobs open.” 

Numerous Challenges

Openings are at all levels and often for multiple jobs. “It’s definitely been difficult, and we’ve tried to overcome open positions by putting new policies in place,” says Marcie Williams, President of RKW Residential, a Charlotte, N.C.-based property management company.

However, the greatest number of openings are for maintenance positions that require a specific skill set that has to be done onsite, not remotely, says Williams. In contrast, some hires, like a leasing manager, can come from another customer service background and be trained for the apartment sector.

There are a few challenges with filling jobs at the moment, COVID-19 being one of them. “Over the past two years, we have seen fierce competition amongst peers for the same talent, we have also seen opportunities to bring in new people to fill roles and opportunities to develop teams more comfortable with the changes and acceleration of technology in multifamily management. Our property site teams have also faced burn-out due to COVID-19 and the myriad protocols they’ve had to manage during the past 20-plus months on the job,” says Miles H. Orth, III, Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Offer of Campus Apartments, a Philadelphia-based student housing developer that has a presence at 27 colleges and universities across 17 states.

Location also plays into the challenge. Protopappas’ company has had a tougher time filling positions in Oakland, its headquarters, versus its other markets where the cost of living is lower. “We see a lot of people leaving Oakland for the San Joaquin Valley or exiting California altogether,” he says.

For companies on a building or acquisition path, the challenge becomes more intense. Sands Companies, based in Myrtle Beach, S.C., which already is challenged in filling positions, plans to add staff by 30% this year as it increases its 2,000 units with another 500 to 700, says Holly Casper, Director of Asset Management. 

And it’s not just developers and property managers competing against one another, but in many cases they are also competing against other industries such as health care and hospitality for similar staff, says architect Rocky Berg, Principal at Dallas-based three, a design boutique focused on hospitality, residential and senior-living communities.

Even when there seem to be potential recruits, some decide not to work for a variety of reasons. At the same time, two factors may push more to return to full- time employment: The government putting less stimulus money into the economy, says Berg, and rising inflation that eats into purchasing power at the pump and elsewhere, says Hallsey.

The result is that apartment owners, developers and managers are spending more time strategizing to attract and retain staff.

Four Ways to Tackle the Labor Shortage

1. Retention

In the current job climate, many companies are making a more concerted effort to retain existing employees through myriad incentives. At Sands Companies, the superintendent at its construction company now gets together for breakfast with staff, for instance, discussing a book—in this case “Extreme Ownership” by Jocko Willink and Leif Babin—and how its ideas can be incorporated into their work and personal lives.

“While this group is usually out in the field, this type of activity brings them together to work more as a team,” says Casper, whose company develops and builds cottage rental homes in seven communities in North and South Carolina and Georgia. It also orchestrates cookouts, team-building days, lunches and plans to offer bonuses. Because it has recognized that maintaining a work-life balance can be hard, it offers more time off for family events, even if vacation time has been used. “People want to make home life a priority. At work, they seek flexibility and camaraderie,” Casper says. 

Many companies are helping employees perform by giving them tools, equipment and education and helping them train others. That might involve basics such as sharing how to dress, present themselves and communicate, says Berg. Besides increasing salaries, a company such as Protopappas’ discounts its housing because some employees can’t afford to live in Oakland and don’t want to live in more affordable locations that require a long drive, he says.

Murn Management, with 16 properties and 3,500 units in Maryland and Virginia, also focuses on current staff. “We’re old school. The best employee is the one we have,” says its President Keith Gillan. To walk the talk, it takes steps other companies do and lets them use amenities, reimburses tuition and contributes to 401(k) plans.

To celebrate its 28th and most successful year in business, Wood Partners gave all employees one full month of salary on top of bonuses this past November, “no matter their position to help retain people so they don’t go elsewhere,” Hallsey says.  

P.B. Bell, which for 45 years has developed and managed multifamily housing in Arizona, listens closely to what employees say they want. “If we’re not fulfilling some need, we want to know what that is and how we can improve,” says Nicole Gernux, Human Resources Director. The company turned to a solutions provider that specializes in partnering with multifamily companies to boost employee satisfaction and performance. The company learned that many staff members felt isolated during COVID-19, and it feels more confident in safely having in-person events in 2022 with the increase of vaccinations. It also offers “corporate office Friday,” a half day off, Gernux says. The company also changed its employee review system by turning the tables and asking staff their career goals. “What can we do to help you?” says Amy Campbell, Director of Learning.

2. Add new recruitment tactics

For its construction company, where recruiting new staff has proved a huge challenge, Sands Companies has started using Handshake.com to hire construction managers directly from colleges and universities. “Students go online and see a variety of positions,” says Casper. “It’s been extremely useful.”

For the first time last summer, the company hired a paid intern and provided housing. The recruit was offered a job after graduation. This year, Sands will hire three interns. The company also continues to host career fairs. It is considering implementing a referral program, which pays staff who bring candidates to the company. It has also learned to wait to hire the right candidates, which often requires multiple interviews. Once they’re on board, a mentor helps train them so more promotions come from within, Casper says.

RKW Residential, which manages 30,000 units in seven states, including many Sands communities, follows some similar practices. It is doubling its referral reward to $500, attending more job fairs in cities where client communities are located, partnering with local apartment associations, recruiting from more colleges, posting ads on LinkedIn and paying to boost ads to target specific job categories such as accounting. “We’re trying to be more strategic in how we recruit,” Williams says. It also pays a competitive market salary.

Murn Management hosts weekly meetings of its senior teams at various properties to review openings. “We take a top-down approach,” Gillan says. It uses many strategies other businesses do such as referral bonuses and posts on social media and job boards.

Wood Partners has expanded its recruitment efforts to three firms because “one recruiter can’t understand the dynamic of the entire labor pool,” Hallsey says.

His firm is also paying signing bonuses of as much as $1,000 “for positions we never thought we’d have to pay for,” he says. It also pays relocation expenses for all positions rather than just for senior executives.

Campus Apartments is recruiting from its pool of part-time college employees to secure new talent. Once hired, all go through both virtual and in-person training to ensure they understand their positions, Orth says.

3. Beef up benefits

Last year, RKW Residential started adding to benefits, including health care insurance from the first day an employee works at any property it manages. “Most of our competitors have a waiting period, from 30 to 90 days,” Williams says. It has also instituted an assistance program to provide benefits to employees and their family members to help with mental health issues. “We need to take care of them so they can take care of others,” she says. When possible, it allows corporate staff to work remotely two days a week with a supervisor determining which days. Even though many onsite positions can’t be performed off-site, those employees get help with automation tools and artificial intelligence (AI) to make jobs easier and more efficient.

4. Improve company culture and opportunities

Companies are working to make employees feel more a part of its culture by expanding staff diversity. RKW Residential celebrates that richness with more employee holidays related to its staff, from Black History Month to Pride Month and National Hispanic Heritage Month and playing up its company-wide theme posted on its website of “Expert People, Exceptional Places.”

The idea is to gain better employee and resident experiences, says Williams. “In the past, we focused on residents, as we should, but we’re starting to focus more on staff, using The Ritz-Carlton training program as our guide,” she says. Part of that training involves boosting skills so staff can move up to other jobs within the company.

Barbara Ballinger is a freelance writer.