Condominium and community associations, like many businesses, are finding it increasingly difficult to find and retain qualified employees. Our webinar, Ask the Experts: Addressing the Labor Shortage, presented a panel of experts to share best practices for addressing staffing challenges. The discussion topics included: factors contributing to the labor shortage, challenges to finding qualified candidates in the COVID-19 era, short-term strategies to fill open positions, long-term strategies to retain quality talent, and more.

One of the most important topics affecting communities today is the current staffing shortage. For condominiums and community associations throughout the country, a critical challenge is finding and retaining qualified staff in today's market. Hiring and training the right team is key to the success of every community and its service delivery. The labor shortage isn’t just an issue in the property management industry; it’s prevalent across the country in all industries.
At FirstService Residential, our goal is to meet (and ideally, exceed) the expectations of the residents we serve. Having the right talent and properly training them is essential to deliver on our mission of enhancing property values and resident lifestyles. For this reason, it is imperative to understand how to best address the current staffing shortage.

What do we know about the current labor shortage in the US today?

The labor shortage is a national issue and challenge. It's not specific to any industry—cruise lines, airlines, utility services, health care and technology companies are all facing a labor shortage. This issue is affecting everyone. There are fewer willing candidates available to fill open positions. For the positions that are filled, an organization also needs to focus on retaining employees, keeping them engaged and happy.

Recently, the US unemployment rate has been at 6.1 percent. Georgia’s unemployment rate was better than the national average, at 4.3 percent as of April 2021. Contrast that with the pre-pandemic figure of 3.5 percent, and it represents a massive swing that equates to almost 10 million Americans out of work, today. Those are big numbers across all industries, and no one is immune to this in today's market.
The fact is there is a challenge in finding qualified people. One can debate the causes, but no one can dispute that it's happening. It is prevalent with vendors, suppliers, and even the ancillary companies that support service-based industries. One of the unique challenges is the extremely competitive pressure in the property management industry, affecting maintenance, janitorial, administrative, hospitality, reception and front desk teams.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, the labor market was experiencing growing pains, making it difficult to find qualified candidates. A 3.5% unemployment rate played its part. 2019 witnessed an escalation of hourly rates. People are heading back to work, but because of the pressures of the pandemic, some have learned to adjust to a different income level and lifestyle. Jumping back into work is not something that all are eager to do, as many are faced with new challenges, such as daycare and summer camp availability for their children.
Fortunately, Florida is starting to see a decrease in COVID-19 cases, but some are still fearful about going back to work and risking exposure to the virus. Some families prefer to stay home until school starts in the fall to get a better grasp on what the future climate is going to look like.
Another factor is the CARES Act, which extended unemployment benefits for millions of Americans. One study found that of those who qualify for unemployment benefits 75% would earn more from unemployment than they would earn from working. 
There are many different impact factors, including wage inflation and the challenges for families with school-aged children.
Families today are faced with a new marketplace with unique challenges in childcare. For instance, daycares are having difficulty finding caregivers, causing them to shorten their hours. Employees with children need daycare for their children to return to work. If they lack the flexibility that long hours of daycare afforded them, they must make tough decisions regarding available daycare that matches their work schedule.

How is this showing up in condominiums and communities?

The property management industry is considered an essential workforce, and as a result, it didn’t experience discouraging levels of layoffs caused by the pandemic. However, it is one of the industries most challenged with filling current roles.
Longer wait times to fill open positions impact the entire staff. The existing staff is working overtime to meet the expectations of the residents in a condominium or HOA community. The vendors who serve these communities must do the same when they're unable to fill their staffing requirements. Employees are doubling up, working weekends and asking those around them to fill in any gaps – not a sustainable strategy. 

What are some of the creative strategies for hiring?

Our industry continues to offer steady work, unlike the hotel or restaurant industry, which can be quite seasonal. Having a steady work environment is increasingly important, especially considering the competitive labor market. There is no simple solution, but here are several holistic approaches to address this.
FirstService Residential has made adjustments to face the labor shortage. We’ve increased our social media presence as a means to reach more qualified associates. We activated a referral bonus program, providing an incentive for current associates who refer a candidate to the organization. This has motivated associates to refer qualified people to our company.
A strong talent acquisition team is necessary to continuously work to fill open positions as quickly as possible while making sure to find top-quality candidates. It's important to make potential associates an offer quickly in this highly competitive market. There are still lingering effects of the pandemic. Some might not feel comfortable enough yet to leave their homes. This, combined with wage wars, labor competition and taking care of family are some of the challenges that many are facing.
In the past, we would consider two or three candidates for a position, but in today's market, a qualified candidate can be lost if you’re practicing old habits of waiting to see what else is out there. We must change the way we manage that process. This is a new world, which requires a new method of doing things. “When you find someone talented, speed up the hire,” said Paula Allen, vice president of human resources for FirstService Residential’s South region. “We’re bringing on 8-10 new associations a month in our region, with a majority requiring a full-time manager and staff starting within a relatively short period of time”, added Robert G. Smith, president of South Florida Condo - HOA for FirstService Residential’s South region.
People value culture, work experience and feeling valued for their accomplishments, and feeling positive towards those they are working with. It’s difficult to replace associates who leave. If you're able to retain and keep qualified candidates on board, that's working smarter, not harder. Organizations need to promote good work culture ­– making sure associates are happy. There's still fear, people are still reassessing, so making sure they feel supported, promoting good work culture and team building activities, is critical.
We all must recognize and strive towards making sure the work environment is right. We need to offer a steady work environment with a caring group of people. That has a big influence on the ability to find and retain quality associates. In our business, caring for residents, their families, homes, and communities is our mission. It’s important for every community to think about the culture at the community as well as at the company level.
We remind our associates every day of our caring culture, not just during their training, but as part of our ongoing process in everyday engagement with our communities, residents, and staff. This team mentality must be part of the commitment to provide excellent service delivery. It is an important ingredient for recruiting and retaining top talent.
At FirstService Residential, every morning, we connect during FirstCall, align the team, and remind our associates that they are all an important part of something bigger. Daily virtual team calls have proven very successful in connecting associates across Florida, during a time when many may feel isolated or disconnected from their employer and work colleagues.
FirstService Residential has over 19,000 associates on the ground every day. Work culture among those 19,000 associates becomes very powerful. If they're engaged and they enjoy what they do, they will refer top talent. If they're excited to come to work and they're enjoying what they do and the residents they support and serve every day, they're going to tell their friends and family, and help us recruit top-tier talent.

What are long-term strategies for retaining the right people?

Besides hiring, we know that retention of top candidates is critical. If successful at keeping the best talent, you won’t have to worry about backfilling that position.
One of the main aspects for retention is professional growth – most associates are looking for personal development. The ideal situation is to stay at a property they love where they enjoy growth and new opportunities. We offer our associates one-on-one training, regardless of their position. FirstService Residential also provides invaluable learning and growth through FirstService Residential University, offering more than a thousand online courses available to every associate, and each month we focus on a core set of courses to allow for continuous learning, skill enhancement and growth in diverse areas. This is an important and unique differentiator that we offer our workforce.
The opportunity to grow professionally in their role and financial betterment are important, but these are not always as important as the opportunity to learn something new, to be a part of a new committee or team, and problem-solve a situation. These are not immediate fixes, but long-term strategies to help reduce the number of open positions.
Another necessity is to clearly understand wages and benefits. It’s important to understand your market. FirstService Residential benchmarks by position and region to understand what actual market wages are for each area. We are also flexible in factoring in any unique skillsets, experience or any special needs or circumstances new associates may bring.
This flexibility is huge. When associates come back, they're going to have different needs – for example, childcare. Associates are going to need flexibility to adapt to the modified services that they rely on in their day-to-day. As an employer, if we can be the leader and maintain flexibility, that will help us attract top talent.
Succession planning doesn’t get enough attention. You can do that at the community level by identifying high performers who want to move up and creating a plan for them. Once you have transition, a succession plan is in place. You still must hire, but you're hiring for different positions.
One recommendation is to let the property manager be the captain of the ship. Empower the general manager to make hiring decisions on the spot, because speed to hire is huge, especially now. Candidates are out there making decisions very quickly, and hiring managers must assume that they have competition, meaning that the person has other offers. Acting quickly is very important.

How do you create a deep bench?

In addition to hiring externally, FirstService Residential is focused at promoting from within – developing internal talent for diverse positions. These could include administrative personnel who can transition to property staff positions, maintenance associates that can become maintenance supervisors, and assistant managers moving into property management roles.
Most great people want to learn and want to grow both professionally and personally. We offer a focused development program for certain roles that follow a virtual path and in a group setting. We also have one-on-one individual development plans where you work with your manager on your specific skill set. Developing people in their role while they're doing their job also helps from a retention perspective.

What can we do about employee burnout and turnover?

Burnout and turnover is a reality. Other industries are seeing this, too. At a property level, the most important thing is to recognize the problem, and for the team to come together to problem solve. We recommend collaboration. We bring the entire team together – from property manager to front desk, housekeeping, and maintenance, to address the labor shortage. What we find, is the teams will come up with solutions. Again, the theme here is flexibility.
Strong teams are skilled at recognizing the labor issues and can immediately focus on options and solutions. The Board of Directors can effectively endorse and support their team’s solutions and creativity, even if it may be outside of the norm. The key is to ensure that services are being delivered, properties are properly maintained and cleaned, and the residents are well cared for.
Everyone in the workforce is striving for balance. If we can get together, communicate our challenges and our needs, our teams will step up. We've seen it all throughout this pandemic. They'll step up and they'll adjust their schedules. If everyone continues to communicate, be flexible, and be creative in how to structure positions and hours, then we can get through this and end up in a better place.

What happens when vendors struggle to meet a community’s needs?

Vendors that serve the property management industry are experiencing the same labor crunch. They're trying to figure out how to hire quickly, get good people on the site, and deliver their products and services. We've seen success stories in associations where the boards and the staff have identified an issue and restructured their schedule and the immediate short-term needs. Vendors are also experiencing burnout. They're losing members of their workforce, so there has to be flexibility with our association vendors. Reducing the scope of work for a short period of time can still be very effective, while at the same time keeping that vendor on the property and keeping work continuity at a constant.
Creating a stronger bond can result in a greater performance from that vendor and can have great benefits, because when times were tough, you worked together. They're a key part of making everything work. Everyone is part of a team, whether they're FirstService Residential associates or third-party contractors – we're all in this together, trying to meet achieve the same goal.

When will the labor market normalize?

It may not normalize. Our normal today may become a new form of normal. And we're going to have to adjust to that and evolve with that process. A new normal will involve staying fluid in both strategy and implementation – and redefining a new normal together is key.
People are waiting for things to go back to normal, for the pandemic to be over. When will that happen? Companies are hiring again, and there's a light at the end of that tunnel, but it looks different. People want flexible schedules, they want to feel safe, they want to feel supported. Flexibility and creativity are key.
The labor shortage mandates a holistic approach – creative hiring approaches, training and development, staff and associate engagement, refining the culture of the organization and community, discerning facts and data in order to properly benchmark, flexibility and retention, all attracting new talent to your community.
We may not be sure when everything will get back to normal, but in the meantime, we at FirstService Residential are ensuring that the communities we serve continue to receive the exceptional service and solutions they’ve come to expect from us.

Monday June 14, 2021