James Balda

When James Balda takes the microphone at insurer Genworth’s annual symposium on long-term care today in the nation’s capital, he’ll be discussing what Assisted Living Federation of America/Argentum members have been telling him is the senior living industry’s biggest challenge: workforce development.

“The senior living industry is going to need about 1.2 million new workers over the next 10 years, and a little over 50% of that is caregiver-related,” Balda, ALFA’s president and CEO, told McKnight’s Senior Living. (Sept. 29, the organization announced that it was changing its name to Argentum, effective immediately but more formally on Dec. 1.) “Where are we going to find all of that talent, particularly when you consider how competitive it is in other healthcare settings in terms of competing with hospitals and nursing homes and so on?” Balda added.

Caregiving is the theme of the Genworth meeting this year, and Balda is expected to participate in a panel discussion on the topic with White House Conference on Aging Executive Director Nora Super, AARP Chief Public Policy Officer Debra Whitman, Caregiving Action Network CEO John Schall and Daughterhood founder Anne Tumlinson. Whereas other panelists may focus on family caregivers, Balda plans to bring the industry perspective.

After ALFA’s annual meeting this year, Balda and other representatives from the organization embarked on a “listening tour” as part of its Senior Living 2025 initiative, which has identified workforce development as a central issue for the industry. Indeed, Balda said, in his visits with owners and operators around the country, staffing issues have been mentioned almost unanimously. “Finding the right talent and then training and keeping that talent is just a huge problem for the industry,” he added.

Argentum plans to advocate for public policy solutions to the issue, Balda said. Such solutions, he added, might include testing local and state education initiatives in high school vocational programs and community colleges as well as working with governors to secure funding for training for certified nursing assistants and other caregivers. “There also are opportunities as it relates to immigration reform,” Balda said. “Historically, there have been visa programs for nurses when there were nursing shortages. Is there something that we could pursue similarly for caregivers?”

The current national debate about the minimum wage doesn’t really apply to assisted living, he said. “Typically, our caregivers are paid…considerably above minimum wage,” Balda said, adding, however, that “there’s always opportunity for us to do more.”

The industry must communicate that “career ladder opportunities” exist, he said. “You may come into the industry at one level, but you’ve got an opportunity to grow with the industry over the next several years,” Balda said. “So there are certainly opportunities for us there to create a career path that people can see and follow, and wages certainly would increase as they move up that path.”

Keynote remarks by journalist Maria Shriver and Genworth Financial CEO Thomas J. McInerney will precede the panel discussion at the Genworth meeting. Comments by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Rep. Michelle Lujan Grisham (D-NM) will follow it.

Scott Tittle, executive director of the National Center for Assisted Living, told McKnight’s Senior Living that members of his organization have identified workforce development as a major issue as well. “Maintaining and training high-quality staff is of the utmost importance,” he said. One way to help retain staff, Tittle added, is to start “engaging employees from day one as a part of the overall mission of the facility.”

Several sessions at the Oct. 4 NCAL Day will focus on leadership, retention and related topics, he said.