Senior living operators — and long-term care in general — are not alone in their struggles to recruit and retain workers. But there are ways for employers in aging services to offer value outside of higher wages, according to a speaker at a LeadingAge membership call on Monday.

Mark McInerney, director of the Maine Center for Workforce Research and Information, shared alternative ways of thinking about addressing workforce challenges.

“Employers are facing an environment where they are going to have to compete if they want to attract and retain workers,” he said. “There are lots of things workers value from the workplace beyond compensation.”

Today’s workers are looking for increased flexibility to accommodate the caregiving challenges they are facing at home, whether that is childcare or caring for an elderly loved one, McInerney said.

“Think beyond your traditional working schedule, or talk to folks to see if there is any kind of flexibility or reimagining the schedule you offer your workers to accommodate the needs they face outside of work,” he said. 

Today’s workers also are looking for purpose, a mission and a feeling that their work makes a difference, McInerney said. Providing a career path for workers to see ways to increase their skills and education over time, which will help them grow in the workplace, is equally important, he added.

“Offering a career path or the ability to invest in their education while they’re working — envisioning steps beyond an entry-level position that might preclude them from joining the organization,” McInerney said.

He also suggested that providers look to recent retirees in their recruitment efforts. As life expectancy increases and people work later in life, many are returning to the workforce because they “haven’t really found much meaning in their retirement,” McInerney said.

“They’ve gone back and ‘un-retired’ because they are missing that same purpose they found at work in retirement, and they sought to reconnect,” he said, adding that an opportunity will exist to find new workers in the large baby boomer cohort, many of whom expect to work later into life.

Ruth Katz, LeadingAge senior vice president of public policy / advocacy, echoed that sentiment, saying that organizations need to be great places to work. Although the “comeback economy” is beyond providers’ control, what is in their control is offering that sense of contentment and purpose, she said.

“Frontline work is demanding, but the payoffs are real under the right circumstances,” Katz said.

Immigration reform

LeadingAge President and CEO Katie Smith Sloan reiterated that there will be a need for an additional 2.5 million workers in the aging services sector by 2030. LeadingAge is focusing on immigration policy reform to create “sensible legal paths” for immigrants to work in the field.

Sloan called immigration reform a “global challenge” that leaves countries mutually dependent on each other.

“There is no silver bullet, but a range of solutions may well make a difference,” she said. 

LeadingAge Manager of Congressional Affairs Andrea Price-Carter addressed LeadingAge’s immigration reform measures, including participation in a recent meeting between members of the Essential Workers Immigration Coalition and the White House Domestic Policy Council. 

During that meeting, LeadingAge highlighted its IMAGINE (International Migration of Aging and Geriatric Workers in Response to the Needs of Elders) Initiative, launched in 2019. The initiative’s legislative proposals include a temporary guest worker program, changes to the J-1 cultural exchange visa, and ways to modify current authorities to focus on aging services workers.

Price-Carter also touched on the U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 under consideration by the House Judiciary Committee, and the Citizenship for Essential Workers Act, a bicameral proposal providing a path to legal citizenship for undocumented people worked as essential workers during the pandemic.

“Policy solutions take time,” Katz said.