Attracting Top Talent: Recruiting and Retaining the Industry’s Best and Brightest

by Katie Sloan

With the student housing industry continuing to grow in both size and institutional clout, demand has never been higher for qualified staff. A devoted and talented on-site team can set a property apart from the pack, leading to greater lease conversions and a stellar reputation in competitive markets.

“Over the past several years, market-rate multifamily has largely caught up to the student housing sector in becoming highly amenitized as a means of attracting renters,” says Josh Logelin, managing director at Specialty Consultants, a firm which specializes in recruiting real estate and construction executives for major companies. “In many geographies, that product is in direct competition with student housing for the same tenants — and that has resulted in a tug of war for talent as well, particularly in the area of marketing and leasing. We are seeing attrition in those areas more so than in property operations.”

Moving up the corporate ladder, efforts to retain staff begin as early as an employee’s first day. Providing proper training, opportunities for growth and a positive, success-oriented workplace atmosphere are all paramount to attracting and keeping a talented and passionate roster of employees.

Attracting Talent

The first step in recruiting top workers is investing in the company’s image. “We believe the ‘attract’ phase is one of the keys to recruiting talent and we are always looking to get our name out there, even prior to a position opening up,” says Peter Lynch, head of people and culture at Cardinal Group Cos. “A strong social media presence is really important. We like to make sure that our talent advisors and other thought leaders are out talking about what makes our company different and creating an employee-value proposition. This ensures that we are finding employees that are a good culture-fit because we are sharing our story.”

One of the most commonly touted keys to success in recruiting and retaining talent is allowing for growth within an organization. While hiring from other companies or industries can bring fresh perspective, internal promotions are highly sought after and bolster a higher level of retention.

“Recruiting and finding great talent is becoming more and more of a challenge,” says Julie Bonnin, COO of Asset Living. “Part of our growth is creating opportunities for our employees to move up within our organization, and that means training strong talent organically from the site level. Our regional site team is required to identify one or two bright stars within their portfolio and we will invest a lot of time into grooming those employees for success. We’re also constantly interviewing individuals — even when positions aren’t open — because we recognize how difficult it is to find talent in the industry today. ”

Lynnette Mouton, vice president of business processes at Aspen Heights Partners, also points to the importance of helping employees advance their careers. “Our secret weapon to recruiting top talent is truly our people,” she says. “Open spaces are often filled by candidates referred to the opportunity by a current employee or by current employees interested in advancing their career within the company. Referrals and promotions are an optimal recruitment tool because they provide a balance of incorporating outside perspective and leveraging in-house experience to continue evolving our company.” 

A large percentage of available positions at Peak Campus are filled by existing employees. “We know it is vital to our success that we develop and grow our internal talent,” says Jennifer Hill, the company’s chief people officer. “We have programs that provide a variety of opportunities for continued growth and development to get our people ready for their next opportunity. When we do recruit externally, we target our Peak alumni and also rely heavily on employee referrals.”   

Referrals are a large piece of the recruiting puzzle for Campus Advantage as well. “Much like the basic principles of leasing where word of mouth is golden, the biggest key we have found in this industry is relationships and referrals,” says Erin Oltersdorf, corporate recruiting manager at Campus Advantage. “While we have a dedicated recruiting team, we constantly tell our teams that recruiting is a team sport. Just like our residents, it ultimately comes down to the fact that if people are happy, they will tell their friends and networks, so we strive to create experiences that enable people to thrive and love doing what they do.”

When looking for passionate on-site team members, satisfied residents are a great place to start. “Our on-site managers are always on the lookout for great talent,” says Sara Clark, vice president of property management at The Preiss Co. “They fill a lot of open roles by recruiting residents living at the property to join their staff. This provides an immediate authenticity to a resident or parent since that staff member can share their own personal story of living at that property.”

Training For Success

From competition in the maintenance department to the tricky endeavor of recruiting passionate student employees, curating a strong on-site team can give operators a bit of a headache. Providing an early roadmap to success can be the spark that keeps a staff motivated to succeed and eager to stay within an organization. 

“Our training process for on-site leaders focuses on a 30-day onboarding where new employees are paired with a variety of resources to get a 360-degree understanding of their role and the company,” says Mouton of Aspen Heights. “We also believe in a continuous learning model, so while we invest a lot of energy upfront to support the success of new employees, the support extends beyond their first 30 days with bi-weekly webinars, various annual conferences, and a suite of online resources for self-guided learning.” 

Fostering a group bond is an important piece of the puzzle at Peak Campus. “For our leasing teams, our goal is to hire twice a year so that the team can be onboarded together,” says Hill. “Orientation occurs before the first day so that the first day experience can be meaningful and fun. It is helpful to build camaraderie through that shared experience of learning about the property, team and company together in the first 30 days.”

“We put a focus on our mindsets and how they apply to our everyday interactions and culture, and explain how each employee can be successful in their day-to-day performance,” continues Hill. “Time management is often a challenge, and learning how to stay organized and execute on the various responsibilities of each role. The most successful people have a system to stay on top of all the details while prioritizing the important ones.”

Campus Advantage utilizes a 90-day method for jumpstarting new employees to a successful tenure with the company. “We call our process CAlibrate, which is a collaborative effort between the hiring manager, human resources and learning & development,” says Oltersdorf. “From that first point of contact through the first 90 days on the job, the CAlibrate process ensures we get our team members off to a great start. This includes a variety of components including their own curriculum bundle based on position and even something as basic but important as a checklist of daily, weekly and monthly responsibilities they can use as a roadmap.”

“As we have grown, we have also shifted from just having manuals and courses to an as-you-need it model of resource delivery,” continues Oltersdorf. “We are all used to searching for information when we need it and having that information at our fingertips. We strive to do the same thing, so that no team member ever feels at a loss when it comes to being able to carry out their job responsibilities.” 

Retaining Talent

Once you’ve recruited the cream of the student housing crop, the focus turns to keeping talented employees from being lured elsewhere. One technique utilized by several companies in the industry is offering flexible, remote employment opportunities. 

“We heard the call and growing demand for remote employment opportunities, so over the past few years we’ve made a commitment to making that a reality,” says Mouton. “Our focus has been on adapting our technology to assure that the connection we value as a company can be achieved even when our workspace extends past the walls of our central office. Incorporating this flexibility into our employment structure has allowed us to retain talent who encounter location conflicts, but otherwise love being part of the company.” 

“While we don’t have remote opportunities for site level roles, the remote element to advancement has allowed on-site leaders to step into corporate roles without having to relocate, thus extending our pool of talented in-house candidates who can continue to grow with the company,” continues Mouton. 

Allowing for remote employment is a focus for Cardinal Group, as well. “In today’s day and age, the work force is very transient,” says Lynch. “People can do their jobs remotely. One of the key things that our founders recognized was that an employee’s life needs are subject to change — for example, someone who has just had a child might not be able to travel as frequently as they once did. We thought, ‘why don’t we create more flexible opportunities so that those amazing employees that we want to keep in our workforce have the opportunity to work remotely?’”

“With the tightening labor market, it’s becoming harder and harder to find employees in specific areas,” continues Lynch. “We have low unemployment in the Denver area and there are so many talented workers in other parts of the country, if the role can function in a remote environment, why wouldn’t we want to broaden our options to fit the needs of these talented workers?” 

Another lynchpin in retaining talent is making sure the employee feels valued and primed for success from their very first day with the organization. “We know that retaining talent starts before the first day of work — It starts with the candidate experience and continues through the very important first 30, 60 and 90 days of the new hire experience,” says Hill of Peak Campus. “We are focused on creating a new hire experience where the environment supports open dialogue and opportunities for continuous feedback.”

Oltersdorf of Campus Advantage agrees. “We see employee retention as being very multi-layered and it requires a holistic approach as a team,” she says. “In general, we really do see the employee lifecycle in a very similar way to how we see our residents. We need to have the fundamentals in place in both examples. We need to provide a compelling reason to join us in both cases. We need to look at every touch point in both cases. Day one needs to be flawless and memorable in both cases.”

“The first weeks of the experience will shape the rest of their time with us, and they decide early on whether or not they want to stay,” continues Oltersdorf. “Finally, just like residents, there will be employees who move on, and we know that is the reality, but we always strive to have them leave better for having been a part of our team and we often see those folks come back when the next chapter allows for it.”

— Katie Sloan

This article was originally published in the January/February 2020 issue of Student Housing Business magazine. To subscribe, please click here

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