Apartment Industry’s ‘Unprecedented’ Hiring Challenges Persist

Magazine ,

By Paul Bergeron

It’s not just your company that is struggling mightily to hire and sometimes train and retain employees. 

“What our industry is seeing now in terms of hiring demand is unprecedented,” said Michelle Chapman, a Florida-based branch manager with The Liberty Group-Multifamily Staffing Company, who has worked in the apartment industry for 27 years (22 of which were at the on-site level).

Part of the demand has been created by workers choosing to leave after having taken time during the pandemic to reevaluate their lives and careers, often wanting to reinvent themselves or readjust priorities, Chapman said. 

Others are leaving their jobs or apartment careers, having fallen victim to burnout stresses.

Swift Bunny in January issued a report based on employee satisfaction. Its chief communications officer, Kara Rice, said results show “very high stress levels” in employees – and not just for on-site staff. 

“Regional managers, too, are burning out,” Rice said. “This hadn’t been the case a while back, but it’s alarming. Turnover leads to more stress, and those operational challenges just snowball. It’s very disruptive, and we’re in a disruptive state already.”

Rice said regional managers are expressing a lot of frustration about their corporate offices’ inability to get information they need to pass on to their site teams within 24 hours. This concern increased from 9% in 2020 to 24% in 2021. 

“Positive testing for the Omicron and other variants has just made all of this worse, including with supplier partners and their product delivery times,” Rice said.

Flexible Work Schedules 

Companies are looking for ways to increase flexibility in their workers’ hours to satisfy those workers, Rice said.

“Maybe an employee can be just as effective working from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and one or two days per week at home, given their outside, personal responsibilities,” she said. “Companies are even considering four-day workweeks.

“The disruptions of the past two years have proven that working from home some or all of the time is possible for many jobs, and employees who have experienced that are reluctant to give it up. The pandemic experience has revealed that it’s important for employees to be able to take care of the things they have to do in their lives outside of work. 

“Employers should consider accommodating employees’ desire for flexibility if they want to retain and attract team members.”

Stay Interviews 

Stay interviews are proving to be one effective way to help retain workers and prevent the need for exit interviews.

Regular one-on-one meetings between supervisors and their reports help to keep lines of communication open and encourage transparency of feelings and ideas.

Stay interviews can also help leaders identify team members who may be at risk of quitting,” Rice said.

As for job tenure, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics said the average is about four years, and yet every category in property management registers lower than that, according to Swift Bunny’s results. On-site management’s average tenure is 3.3 years; on-site maintenance is 2.6 years; and on-site leasing is 1.3 years. (For regional managers, it’s 6 years, and for corporate operations, it’s 6.6 years.)

Swift Bunny reported that 81% of rental housing employees say they are “likely” or “very likely” to remain with their companies for the next 12 months.

On-site leasing has the greatest uncertainty about staying, followed by on-site managers, and 57% of on-site employees “strongly agree” they are interested in a new role in the next year.

Focus on Retention

Stephanie Ingram is chief operating officer at Mahaffey Company, a third-generation family operator with 21 apartment communities and nearly 17,000 apartment homes.

Mahaffey has many long-term employees (some with 20-plus years) and Ingram said it is focused more on employee retention than recruitment.

“We’re a long-term-hold type of company and our employees tell us that they appreciate that,” Ingram said. “In this buy-and-sell community environment, they know they won’t be surprised to come to work one day to learn there’s a new owner or they’ll have to transfer to another property.”

Nonetheless, Ingram said wage pressures are real and job candidates’ desire to work has been unsteady; several who were invited for interviews didn’t even show up, she said.

Mahaffey has had success using quarterly reports from the Economic Research Institute, which breaks down jobs and salaries by ZIP code, description, and years of experience of the worker. She benchmarks her employees’ salaries with that and uses it when determining wages with her employees. 

She said recently she’s seeing the trend to offer “stay bonuses” to employees in high-transaction markets for real estate. Jacksonville is one market that has experienced heavy transaction volume lately, Ingram said.

Mahaffey has also focused greatly on identifying employees who have high growth potential and is making sure those employees can see a career path with the company.

Trends in Training

Proper training, especially at the onboarding stage, is crucial for companies’ retention strategies.

“We’re hearing from employees that onboarding has not gone well; 45 percent are saying that their first week was disorganized, especially at the site level,” Rice said. 

“This is dangerous, especially when it comes to retention. Employees feel like they can’t contribute because they don’t know what to do, and some are even being ignored by other workers. This can cause new-hires to think they made a poor choice and even head for the exit.”

Aside from onboarding, Katie Wrenn, director of training and development with WRH Realty Services, Jacksonville, said COVID-19 has pushed the industry along toward more virtual training. 

“Many today are more understanding about how to use these tools because they’ve had to use them the past 21 months during the pandemic, and they saw more of it while their kids were home, taking classes online,” she said. “Most workers are not ready to give up in-person training but are more open to online training.”

Wrenn said trainers have to be willing to be patient and to help the employees through virtual learning. “Many employees aren’t used to learning virtually and need more hand-holding than others.”

As for the virtual or in-person trainers, Wrenn said they’ve had to learn skills that help to make them better presenters.

“In many cases, online training is their only option, so they’ve had to get more creative to make the classes more enjoyable, such as using polls,” she said. “It can be horrible having to just stare at a PowerPoint, so you have to make it more fun. By doing this the right way, the human element isn’t completely gone.”

Ultimately, Wrenn said, how training is conducted and accepted comes back to the company’s culture. “At companies where employees were taken care of and are listened to, they are getting through this because the culture is shining through,” she said. “For those who didn’t, this can be tough.”

Where to Find Workers

The overall workforce choosing to reevaluate their careers has also created opportunities for apartment company employers. 

“As an industry, we might be losing people, but this is a chance for us to find new people and educate them about our industry,” said Chapman, who focuses on the Orlando and Jacksonville markets. “If they have the talent and drive, in general, our industry can train them to use those skills in our industry.

“We can show them that working in property management is not a stagnant career. It’s a stable career in an essential industry — housing. For example, you can start as a porter and work up to maintenance supervisor.”

Once Employee Prospects Are Identified

Bry Carter, vice president of sales and recruitment at The Phoenix Staffing, which has offices in Florida, said hiring successfully will come to companies that emphasize a training mindset. 

“We look for potential candidates who might not have even known that the apartment industry can provide a career track,” Carter said. “We promote the benefits of working in this industry: strong employee benefits in an industry that is recession-proof and COVID-proof. Housing is essential. Unlike other hospitality areas such as retail, hotels, and restaurants, the jobs will always be there.”

She said recruiters are having difficulty finding workers who are certified, “but there are people who have the kinds of skills our industry needs and can be trained further.” 

“For example, we look to strong customer service professionals who might be looking for a career change, and doing that on-site at an apartment can give them that. Or maybe there’s a handyman who can become a more complete maintenance professional.”

The Phoenix Staffing researches and reaches out through Indeed, Facebook, and pop-up stands at shopping malls and local events and invites potential candidates to attend training events in a given market. The training is led by The Phoenix Staffing, and these candidates can see if the industry is a good fit for them.

“We spend an hour or so with potential candidates to get to know them and see if they would like to attend our free three-day training program for make-ready techs — almost like a college admissions process,” Carter said. 

“Often, these potential candidates have the skills; they just didn’t know how to express them ‘on paper’ in their resumes. They want to make a career change; they just don’t know how to get hired into our industry.”

Creativity and Planning 

Hiring demand is and always has been greatest for maintenance workers, said Darrin Rohr, president and CEO of HH Staffing Services in Sarasota. “Now the apartment industry is potentially losing workers to other opportunities outside the industry that pay more.”

He said this is not a short-term problem – and will continue for years – but that property management companies that are doing best during these times are those that are being flexible and creative when it comes to hiring and retaining workers. 

“In the past, our industry looked for people based on their experience, knowledge of our software systems and those who were certified,” Rohr said. “That’s admirable during a fluid job market, but today, the market is taut. We should be looking for candidates with strong customer service skills who we can train. Unfortunately, trainers are in high demand. Many have been ‘YouTubed’ out of their positions because companies believe ‘they can learn anything’ on YouTube.”

He said that companies will benefit from partnering with trade schools and hiring those graduates in apprenticeship programs. 

“It’s not smart to tell these students to get some experience and come back, because if a company is willing to invest in them through apprenticeships, those young workers will stick with that company,” he said.

Rohr said apprenticeship programs are easier to set up than most people think and can be done in 30 days. 

“Sure, the larger companies can do this because they have deeper pockets, but smaller companies must invest in this, too,” he said. “They need to rethink how to allocate their capital. After all, your apartments are getting more wear-and-tear than ever today due to the work-from-home crowd and you need to take care of your residents so they don’t leave.”

He said that smart companies are hiring ahead of their needs “and they need to ‘go heavy’ on this because know they will have turnover.”

Looking longer term, Rohr said companies must move on from the here and now and do workforce planning: Deciding what staff they will need and when as their companies grow. Additionally, they should evaluate their company culture. 

“And you don’t create that just by adding ‘stuff and things’ such as cool office perks and benefits, but instead develop one that establishes trust,” he said. “It must include credible leaders who sincerely show that they have their workers’ best interests in mind. For some, the pandemic exposed their true colors. Companies facing cash-flow problems immediately laid off staff, but the companies that rode it out are faring much better today.”

Also, there must be a sense of “I belong here” among the employees, he said. “Is there camaraderie? Are they treated fairly? Do they feel ‘heard’ and are they respected?” he said.

A company’s employee value proposition must be strong, he said. 

“Companies need to show why someone would want to work there,” Rohr said. “It needs to be branded and posted on the company website and echoed at every opportunity.”

Onboarding is another key factor in creating the right workplace, he said.

“New hires are most vulnerable to leave on their first day,” Rohr said. “You must have a stellar program or they could start looking right away. Most new candidates might have had three or four offers, and those companies will check in with the employee just to make sure they are happy once they start.

“Companies must lay out the onboarding process to that employee on the first day, or even sooner. New hires should be given a ‘buddy’ who guides them through their onboarding.”