The federal government’s nursing home staffing mandate as a whole may be a nightmare for providers. But there is undeniably also a vein of good in it. Operators are being forced to find, train and keep workers better than ever before.

It’s not as if they haven’t been trying to do these things well for the last umpteen years. But now, as the street vernacular goes, stuff is getting real. 

Pressure has always done wonders for many athletes in training, students getting ready for the big test and project managers on deadline. Welcome to the club, senior care operators, fair or not. 

While there may have been some sense of urgency to build the best work rosters you could in the past, and include incentives to keep those qualified employees roaming your halls, you now have to do even better.

This is not a bad thing. Whether or not legal or legislative challenges to the staffing mandate are successful, whenever the smoke clears on it, you still will need to have better recruiting, onboarding and ongoing employment practices. Period.

There will be little saving grace for those who would take these things for granted, at any level. And there is no going back.

So what’s so good about that? Certainly not the rising wage pressures or cutthroat competition to get the relatively few candidates that exist in so many places.

What’s refreshing is the energy and creativity already being shown to improve the staff-sourcing status quo. The hue and cry over the mandate has accelerated the creation of new programs to find potential job pools and candidates. One small example: Along with that static recruiting poster at the local high school, you better bring a quality value proposition and the promise of career ladders and real nurturing.

There have been many instances over the last year of ramped up efforts to find, hire and train future nurses, administrators and other key personnel. Our archives are getting crowded with stories about schools, providers and government entities devising them, in fact.

One of the most recent intriguing ones is a new human resources model that Minnesota-based Empira has been trying out this year. It involves using state-program money to hire specific onboarding and retention specialists for each building. If they prevent one or two nurses or aides per year from leaving, they pay for themselves, an Empira exec pointed out. 

This is not a particularly high bar to clear, given the astronomical turnover figures many places endure. Any specialist who can’t meet that goal should be sent packing. Don’t count on any of them losing their jobs, though. One has to think this labor management innovation has legs. 

Rising to the occasion

Some might argue that all HR specialists should be onboarding and retention specialists. It’s not a viewpoint without merit. But special times call for special measures and we all can agree we are currently in a unique era that requires extra attention.

For those who might think today’s younger generation is simply too soft or too needy, consider a recent survey that found just 1 in 5 professional caregivers called their onboarding experiences excellent. In this hiring and staffing climate, it’s hard to believe an employer would put out anything less than outstanding in this area.

By comparison, that’s less than a third of the 68% of administrators who proudly rated their onboarding process either “industry-leading” or ahead of the competition in the same survey.

Somewhat shockingly, only about half of the employees who said their onboarding processes were good or excellent, nonetheless said they did not get a “warm” welcome.

You know what they say about making poor first impressions and the likelihood for good relations and productivity after that. One doesn’t produce the other.

So while the staffing mandate may be tone deaf about requiring certain certified or licensed individuals, such as registered nurses, in greater numbers than what may exist, it does have some value and you must pay attention to it.

As a catalyst for upping one’s overall recruiting and retention game, there may be nothing better. Providers are learning this every day, all too many of them the hard way, unfortunately.

This is not a storm they can just sit back and hope to ride out, either. Change is in order for the future of staffing practices, one way or another.

James M. Berklan is McKnight’s Long-Term Care News’ Executive Editor and a Best Commentary award winner in the 2024 Neal Awards, which are given annually for the nation’s best specialized business journalism.

Opinions expressed in McKnight’s Long-Term Care News columns are not necessarily those of McKnight’s.