Assisted living’s occupancy challenges are no secret. Occupancy is hovering around 85%, according to National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care data released Thursday. That level is near its lowest point since 2006.

And yet NIC founder and Strategic Adviser Bob Kramer thinks something else should be operators’ top priority. As the industry prepares for the influx of baby boomers, culture is vital, Kramer told those attending NCAL Day on Sunday.

“There are going to be a lot of companies that will have a great strategy, and they’re going to have lots of capital, but they’re not going to be able to executive because they don’t have the people,” he said during the closing session. “The battle for labor, and the ability to attract and retain labor, is going to be key. You don’t create culture overnight, and in our industry, we now have to be, in the future, the most attractive employer across all industries at the price point at which we are recruiting. Not just in our industry. That won’t cut it. It’s got to be across all industries.”

American Health Care Association / National Center for Assisted Living President and CEO Mark Parkinson agreed. He and Howie Goff, president of Tealwood Senior LIving, participated in the panel discussion with Kramer.

“I’m not sure, if I gave people one piece of advice, what it would be,” Parkinson said, “but really, really important is to have employee engagement.”

The CEO pointed out his personal experience in this area. As an owner of assisted living communities with his wife, he said, “It turned Stacy’s and my operation around when we got very aggressive about our employee engagement scores.”

And employee engagement and that other challenge — occupancy — are related, Parkinson said. He said he had been motivated by the NCAL Day lunch, at which awards were presented. “I think about the 26-year-old man who won the Administrator of the Year Award. He took the employee engagement to 95%, and he took the occupancy from 76% to 93%, and those things go hand in hand,” he said.

It was Sahar Edalati who won the award. Reading Edalati’s biography makes it clear that he was engaged with the field even before he started working at Sunrise Senior Living, where he is the executive director at Sunrise Villa Culver City in Los Angeles. He earned his undergraduate degree in aging and a master’s degree in gerontology from the University of Southern California. During his practicum, he chose to live in an assisted living community, where he affectionately was known as “the youngest resident.”

Working at Sunrise, he contributes to the community’s social activities with a monthly poetry class for residents. In addition to accomplishments related to engagement and occupancy, the community has earned a Bronze – Commitment to Quality award through the AHCA/NCAL Quality Award Program.

Accepting the award, Edalati said he hoped it would inspire operators to hire millennials.

“Some of us are great,” he said, eliciting laughs from his peers.

Explain to millennials what senior living is, and tell them it “is not just an industry; it’s a profession, Edalati advised. “They’ll come, and they’ll be some of your greatest workers,” he added.

Earlier in the day, Tealwood’s vice president of human resources, David Lucia, Ph.D., had discussed employee retention and a 7/30/60-day employee feedback program. The program focuses on retaining employees by homing in on points at the beginning of their employment where they make a decision about whether to stay.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has tools and templates that all types of employers can use to assist with retention issues, he said.