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The senior living industry has a voice. You can hear it on Bridge the Gap podcast!

Ep. 122: Kimberly Varley

Kimberly Varley, Senior Corporate Recruiter at Retirement Center Management, shares her journey of bringing a hospitality mindset to senior living as she focuses on recruitment of new professionals into the industry.

Lucas: Welcome to Bridge the Gap podcast, this senior living podcast with Josh and Lucas, who got a great show on deck for you today on that topic about recruiting in senior living. We have Kimberly Varley, she’s the senior corporate recruiter at Retirement Center Management out of Houston, Texas. Welcome to the show.

Kimberly: Thanks, Lucas and Josh for having me today.

Lucas: So excited to have you. And I was really fortunate to be on a Zoom call for the young professionals networking happy hour. And I got to hear some of your story. And as soon as we got off of that call, I reached out to Josh and Sara. And I was like, I just had a talk with a very energetic new person to the industry who comes from the hospitality side of the world and really has a great story. And I think it’s something that our audience would really like to hear. And so with that short introduction, give us some of your background and how you got involved in recruiting, HR and hospitality.

Kimberly: Yeah, so I’m Kimberly Varley. I’m a senior recruiter with RCM and all my career’s been in hotels and I went to the University of Houston, the Hilton College. And when I graduated at that time, there were two career paths I could have chosen. It was either hotels or restaurants, and I knew I a hundred percent knew I did not want to go into restaurants. So I knew I wanted to take that hotel path. And I had enough experience in hotels to know that I didn’t want the operation side. I didn’t want to go front desk or food and beverage. Because I had worked in all those areas and I really liked, I was always intrigued with what HR did. You know, being able to select the people that come into the environment into the workplace, being able to control maybe who isn’t the right fit, training culture, all of it. And I said I think that’s where I want to be. And so when I graduated all the companies that job fairs had back then were the Fairmont, the Omni Eva, Starwood at the time. And so I said, okay, this is a career path I have to take. I knew I wanted to make a difference to people’s lives. I wanted to help people. That was the whole reason I got into hospitality;  I wanted to serve others and make a difference in people’s lives. So,  I took that career path. I worked in hotels for over 10 years progressing in my HR career. And then I think these past couple of years, I said what am I really passionate about HR? Because you know, when you are an HR manager or HR director, you do everything. Whether its benefits or employee relations. And what I really always go towards is recruitment. That’s what I’m passionate about is finding those right people for the establishment. And I also felt like I needed a change in my career, that maybe hotels wasn’t for me anymore. And when Retirement Center Management reached out to me about a recruiting position and learning more about senior living and understanding what senior living really is. I felt like it was the perfect career path for me and it’s been exciting. It’s been exciting to see what I can bring to the table and what maybe we haven’t done before that we’re now doing and what we’re going to do in the future.

Lucas: What was your first response when you were recruited by the senior living industry or the nursing home industry? What was your first reaction?

Kimberly: So, you know, I’ve worked in four, five diamond establishments. From Fairmont, Omni to Mountain Shadows and Paradise Valley. When RCN reached out to me, I’m like nursing homes? I’m not going to work in a nursing home. And then I started looking up the company, doing research, like what do these establishments really look like? So you have independent living, assisted living, memory care and getting a better understanding of it is like a cruise ship on land. That’s what one resident even told me one day. It’s exciting and it feels like a hotel, but in a senior living environment. It’s operationational run exactly like a hotel except you have a clinical aspect. Right. So, you know, it’s exciting because I think that, thinking about what you just said, nursing homes, senior living, it doesn’t always have the best reputation or you don’t think about luxury. And when I started looking at our brand new community, we opened last week, the village of South Hampton, you normally don’t associate this word, but it’s sexy. It is similar to a lot of the communities that are hotels I worked with previously. It’s sleek and  modern. And that’s exactly what this community is. I actually went to the community yesterday and walking through it. I was like, I could live here, like sign me up, where do I sign up? And they were like, you are not old enough and can you afford this? But it’s not what I imagined it was going to be. And it’s even better.

Josh: Well, it’s so important. The point that you made about perception, we talk about that so much. And the perception you had of kind of clumping in senior, living with nursing home and things like that it’s often, you know just a wrong perception. And so I’m so glad that you pointed that out to our listeners who also may be new to even considering senior living, that’s a growing group of our listeners. And what you’ve kind of described as what we’ve often said, senior living is, and it’s kind of this perfect world of hospitality meets healthcare, right? And so, your background and many people like you, it’s exciting to me to have the emergence of that young, exciting, new perspective to push our industry into the next generation of senior housing and this industry that we love.

So I’ve got a question for you: as you kind of come in and you’ve gotten your feet wet and you’ve gotten very established and you’re seeing what senior living has done and is doing from a recruitment standpoint. You said you’re very passionate about that side of it and attracting new talent to our industry. What are you seeing? Some of the things that we should be doing, if you, if you were to speak to the operators out there right now, and people that are in your position without, I know you don’t want to give away all your secret sauce, but pull back the veil a little bit and give some insight on what do you think we should be doing from a messaging and from a recruitment standpoint for those that need to join our industry?

Kimberly: Well, I think a lot of it is reeducating, the population of what senior living is. So, you know what I’ve done, it’s not just focusing on CNA classes or nursing, people graduating getting their LVN degree. It’s, you know, going into some of these programs, such as, you know, pathway programs that high schools are offering. So I think that high schools finally got smart and said, not everyone’s going to college or maybe that after you graduate high school, you don’t have the luxury of going to a four year school. So they’ve started doing more programs that are called CTE programs here in Texas or pathway programs where it could be culinary related, it could be clinical, they have all other types as well. Some schools even have hospitality programs. So when you graduate high school, you have a skill set now, or there’s one one high school I was working with recently that when upon graduation of high school, I think they only have a couple of classes left to take, they partner with the local college that they already graduated pretty much with their nursing degree. So imagine being 18 graduating high school, and now I can be an LVN at a community. So what we really have been doing is going into these high schools and getting them early, planting that seed early. Whether they choose us or not at least reeducating them of what senior living is. Because I go in, I ask them, have you ever been to a senior community? And just the responses I get from people: Oh, I visited my grandma or grandpa. And when they started describing the community, I say, yeah that’s not really what we are. And I ask them like, well, what was your experience in the community? And you hear all kinds of stuff from these kids. It’s funny because they’re like, it’s dusty, there’s old people, it smells bad when you walk in. And then I start telling them about what our communities really are and show them the pictures of inside the communities. I showed them real life pictures. I showed them our character and I’m like, Jackson does ice sculptures, the chef there actually does it in house. And you know, they’re just really impressed. That’s not what they imagined senior living was going to be. That’s something they experienced when they went into a community and we’ve gotten interns out of it. We’ve gotten volunteers. I just want to go over and help that maybe the Christmas party that they’re holding or, you know, maybe with life enrichment activities. So it’s reeducating. And even if they graduate high school and choose a different career path, I want to plant that seed early, where they remember us. So maybe the career path they choose, maybe they go skilled into a nursing or hospital setting. And they say, it’s not really for me. I want to be happy every day and what I do. And that’s something I tell the kids, when I go into the classroom, whatever path you take in life, do something you love. You know, it might not always pay the highest salary but you know, go into it doing what you love. And you’re never going to wake up having a bad day at work. You’re going to wake up saying, I love this. I’m excited to go to work today. And it’s more than a paycheck at that point. So, you know, that’s a piece of advice I give the kids when I go in the classrooms, but just reeducating them. And  in colleges we’ve been going into hospitality programs such as Texas Tech, the Hilton College, U of H also has a satellite campus out in San Antonio. So we started going out there to the Hilton College. And I mean, you have food and beverage managers going to school, you have executive chefs, you have activities or in their world, it’s an event planner, but we have activities in our community. So I just have to, you know, show them how it translates into our world. And then sometimes it’s reminding them eventually one day you’re gonna grow up and want a family and a work life balance. And I asked them who in here are servers, bartenders, who’s closing the restaurants at 2:00 AM?  And I get those hands raised. I get you know, yeah, I work six days a week. I closed the bar down at 2:00 AM. By the time you close it down to the inventory, you don’t get home till three, four o’clock in the morning. And then you turn around and do it again. And I let them know, Hey, our residents eat by five, six, o’clock, you’re getting home at eight. You can see your significant other and put the kids to bed. You talk about work, life balance. And we’ve definitely gotten a lot of students that are intrigued by that. You know, they’re thinking big picture future. Not just now in the moment. So we’ve hired a few individuals from Texas Tech, Hilton college, and some others that  see that bigger picture and you know, what more than maybe what they were thinking, but they could have,

Josh: I think you’d touch on such an important piece, obviously, that it’s part of our mission statement, which is education. You make it seem like super easy and conversational and, and give very practical ways. I think one of the maybe barriers mentally for so many people in our industry that are trying to recruit and attract great talent is maybe they just perceive that it’s more difficult than what it is approaching the educational institutions and even thinking. I think it’s really important, so often our focus is probably on college. I think you make a very interesting point of planting that seed even much earlier. And I forgot how you just phrased that, but basically talking about, hey, maybe they’re going to start a first career and they don’t choose senior living and they go somewhere else, but then they come back to us. So to plant that seed, I think each one of us even right now started doing something else that we thought was what we really wanted to do and what we loved. And now we’re here doing actually what we love and what we’re passionate about. So I think those are really relevant points. 

Lucas: So let me ask this with spinning off of your last part of your conversation. Our world has changed quite a bit. And for people in the restaurant business and the hotel business, it has been totally devastated. What is the opportunity that senior living has now, as far as a recruitment effort for those folks?

Kimberly: I’m going to be honest, we’re definitely still hiring. But it’s been a roller coaster and I’m sure some other communities are experiencing this as well. I’m not going to say it’s been a piece of cake by any means, even with all these individuals being laid off for furlough. So I think when everything happened I quickly reached out to a lot of my hotel friends here in the area and said, we’re hiring. If you have housekeepers servers, send them my way. And literally, I don’t think my phone would stop ringing in the morning all the way until like eight, nine o’clock at night, and then I’d have to put on silent. I’m like, okay, you’re calling me that late, leave a voicemail, I’ll call you back in the morning. Because it was like all day long, whether it was a server calling me a bartender, a housekeeper saying, you know, I live paycheck to paycheck.I have to provide for my family. I can’t be without a job. And my jam just gave me your phone number and said that you’re hiring. So I think being Houston based, we definitely have communities, Austin, San Antonio, Arkansas, Oklahoma, we have them all over, but we have so many more communities in Houston that I had more variety to work with. So if you’ve ever been to Houston, it takes an hour to get anywhere. So I was able to find a community, maybe close to them, even if it wasn’t a full time opportunity, part-time PRN to help them out. You know, like I said, it’s been a roller coaster. So all of that came in like right at the beginning, I would post a job and I was getting hundreds of applications. Like I would post a front desk position and within a day have 120 applications for that one position. So at the beginning we were getting lots of applications coming through. We were placing a lot of individuals that needed a job immediately. And then it kinda, it went like this and everyone started getting their unemployment checks and then it was hard to compete with that. And we started as a company, we decided to do hero pay, which bumped everyone up, which helped. But it’s hard to compete with what some individuals, I think we’re getting from unemployment. And then you have to think about if you were in that position and your hotels now been shut down, and your hotel has now told you you’re gonna be furloughed for 30 days. Now you get your unemployment check and you were saying, you know what? I could make it 30 days. You know, I could make it until the hotel reopens. And that’s what we saw a lot of, is we saw some individuals that said, you know, Hey, I think I’m just going to wait it out. And I knew a lot of these people, some, some people did come work at our communities that I knew from previously working with them. And some just were very honest with me and said, you know, I’ve thought about it and it’s just a month break. I’m going to take this month to really enjoy time with my family and do some at home projects and then the hotel reopened. So we saw that where it kind of dipped off with individuals looking for employment. And I asked the question when I go out to restaurants because restaurants are reopening and I’m not much of a hermit if you can tell I’m, I’m not good at staying home. So I definitely have been going to restaurants. I talked to the server, I asked those questions. I went to a restaurant the other day and said, Hey, when y’all reopened, how many individuals actually came back? And she goes 30 of us, six, you know? And she goes, they’re staying at home, kind of riding out and going to wait to see what happens. And you know, I’m starting to see where things are picking back up. I think individuals are figuring out this isn’t a 30 day pandemic. This isn’t going to be a 60 day. It’s going to be longer. So I’ve had my break. Now I’m going to start looking for employment again. So we kind of see a wave take effect. But it’s getting competitive again because now restaurants and hotels are reopening, but like I keep reminding even our staff and our directors that hotels, their occupancy is still low. So let’s say you have a housekeeper come to you and say, hey, my hotel just reopened, they called me and said, I can come back. Hold on; yes, we want you to go back if you’re happy there and want to be there, definitely go back. But would you like to stay on part time with us? Would you like to stay on ERN? Because you know, this week they might have high occupancy, but next week they probably won’t. And I have a lot of friends in the industry. I have a lot of GM friends and I ask those questions. What’s your occupancy look like this week? And I have friends that say, Hey, this week it was 30%, which maybe you need a couple extra housekeepers, but I’m like, well, what’s next week look like, well, it drops at 4%. So what are your housekeepers going to be doing? They’re going to be without work. So that’s why I keep reminding even our directors is that if we have individuals leaving to go back to hotels or restaurants you know, talk to them about that, being honest with them, that, you know, we’re probably not going to see the travel industry bounce back for a little while, and senior living’s not going anywhere it’s a stable work environment. We always are gonna have seniors, they’re always going to need a place to live. This is consistent work, so I’ve been talking to them about this. So that way, hopefully we can retain some of the staff. So they don’t just run away and go back to hotels because what’s going to happen is they’re going to go back and then this week’s gonna be busy and next week they’re not gonna have any work. And they’re going to be back to square one, or they’re going to be furloughed again or laid off. So we’ve seen some waves take place. I don’t know if you’ve heard this from other individuals or not.

Josh: Yeah, yeah. I have. I think you’re giving us a great insight though. So I have another question for you as we’re wrapping up our time here together, but as you have, have been part of the hospitality industry, that’s come into senior living, as you now are also talking with people in the hospitality industry, recruiting them into our industry. What are some things that the senior living industry kind of speaking to all operators? Are there things that we’ve got to do better in addition to educating from even it could be things like salary or benefits or how we’re communicating the education, like what platforms we’re using? Like what do we need to be doing to up our game that we can learn from, from the hospitality industry on how they’ve recruited their talent? Like how can we do better as an industry?

Kimberly: So I will say that you know, I think that the advantage that senior living has is really what I just mentioned is the stability, even during the last recession. Senior living didn’t take that hard of a hit compared to other industries. So you have that working on your side. I think the biggest thing as I’m getting into this and we’re recruiting and things that I think we could work on is the hospitality does a really good job of recognizing they interview a person and how they see the potential in that person, kind of a diamond in the rough, you know. I think about, you know you go back to your first job, like what you did. And you know, I remember I’m from a small town, not many options, my small town where to work. And I worked at a dairy queen for five years because there weren’t options. And when I ran my first hotel. I’m still friends with the food and beverage manager. The person that interviewed me took a chance on me. She saw that diamond in the rough, they had to polish me up a little bit and teach me the ways. But I think that’s something that we can do a little bit better in senior living is identifying those people and providing them the mentoring and the guidance and the training to make them those senior living professionals. And I remind our team, a lot of it is remember like where you started. Because sometimes they come back to me and say, well, they don’t have the experience I’m looking for. I really want someone that already has worked in senior living. I’m like, but do you really because what happens is we just keep rotating between all the different companies that are out there. We just keep rotating the same people. But what you need to do is  look at the potential that someone has and bring them in and train them up. And I remind them, hey, remember, y’all took a chance on me. And so I don’t know if some I’m sure other, some other companies have programs in place. That’s something that we’re definitely looking at, like manager and training programs. I think that hospitality does that really well to recruit those college kids, all those college kids, really like that title manager and training or internship. That’s something that we definitely have in the plans for the future to really help with the recruitment aspect. But I think that that’s something that we could improve upon is, you know, seeing the potential in people and training them.

Josh: Oh, that’s such great insight. And I would, I would kind of classify that as hiring for the heart. You know, I’m hiring for the heart. We have a mission driven industry, what an opportunity we have if we’re not leading the way in hiring for the heart, we should be. So hospitality meets healthcare and hiring for the heart. That’s my takeaway, a couple of them today. Kim, what an awesome conversation with you. Thanks for spending time with us.

Kimberly: Well, thanks for having me. It’s been fun.

Lucas: Yeah. A lot of fun to connect with you and a great takeaway. Josh this is  probably going to be the title of this show is hiring for the heart. So great conversation, a lot of great wisdom here and just some tactics, some practical ideas for people to put into effect right now as our world continues to change daily. Any final comments you’re dealing with a lot of people that have been working very hard for the last couple of months, without very much time off, a lot of heroes out there, any final comments to the people on the front lines.

Kimberly: I just want to thank you for what you do every day. I mean we talk about this everyday. We have daily calls with our teams. And I  get very emotional because I mean they’re literally the heart. They’re the frontline for our residents protecting them every day. And, you know, I admire what they do every day, the courage they have going in. And you know it’s tough some days. I mean, I’m sure y’all hear it from your contacts and senior living. It’s tough. And they literally have to be the person that’s the face of the community, the face for the residents and ensure that we’re keeping them safe and healthy. And you know, just thank you for what you do every day. I mean we couldn’t do it without them.

Lucas: That’s great. Thank you so much. And that really resonates with us and for everybody out there that’s listening. We just want them to know that we believe in them and we’re sending our love and our prayers and our support. And we are committed to continuing to bring on great people like Kimberly Varley, a corporate recruiter at RCM out of Houston. Thank you for your time. We’ll make sure that we connect with you in our show notes. And if anybody out there wants to know more, they can go to BTGvoice.com. Thanks for listening to Bridge the Gap.

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Ep. 122: Kimberly Varley