Knock Research: Apartment industry faces near-crisis on hiring challenges (and what you can do about it)

By: Paul Bergeron 

Hiring and retaining onsite staff has reached a near-crisis situation for many apartment companies.

A persistent problem that many were dealing with before the pandemic has expanded given the odd work environment nationwide that blends too many jobs for too few employees.

Exacerbating the issue is the new mindset that insists on flexible and remote work. A recent LinkedIn survey shows half of all workers want to be self-employed – they want the freedom that comes with it.

Even still, U.S. job growth in September was at the slowest pace of the year. Pandemic-related policies continue to crimp job expansion. Many workers gave up their job search that month – yet, help wanted signs can be found on many storefronts or even posted on signs on street corners.

A record number of U.S. workers voluntarily quit their jobs in August, led by bar and restaurant employees as well as retail staff, according to figures released Oct. 12 by the U.S. Department of Labor. 

Quits that month totaled an astounding 4.3 million workers, or nearly 3 percent of the entire workforce. The increase of 242,000 from the previous month represents the highest figure in data that goes back to December 2000. From January to August 2021, the national quit rate was a staggering 25%, according to people analytics firm Visier.

Apartment industry hiring and retention pains

A recent Knock survey of 700 multifamily professionals shows workforce headcount has risen to No. 2 on corporate’s list behind only the “renter experience.”

Three-quarters of multifamily corporate teams report they are concerned that today’s labor market shortage will impact their ability to hire and retain leasing teams. And the top challenges identified in the survey focus on the difficulty with hiring, training, and retaining staff.

Visier’s survey shows that nationally, across all industries, the rate of experienced, tenured employees (5 to 10 years) leaving is up 56.8% compared to 2020; for employees with a 10-15 years tenure, it’s 54.6%.

Employees aged 30-35, 40-45 and 45-50 have all increased their resignation rates by over 38%; and the resignation rates for women across the board is 17% higher than men.

COVID-19 confluence of challenges

COVID-19 brought a confluence of major challenges such as maintaining workplace and apartment living health environments; vaccinations; generous, lengthy federal assistance through employment insurance benefits; the eviction moratorium; and wages not keeping up with inflation, which has failed to fizzle so far in 2021.

According to National Apartment Association’s Q2 Job Snapshot, which measures job listings nationally and by market, 37 percent of real estate jobs in the United States are from the apartment industry, which is ahead of the five-year average of 33 percent.

There’s no comfort in knowing that, according to multifamily workplace consulting firm Swift Bunny, the current annual turnover rate is 55 percent, well above the 33 percent average industry turnover rate from 2010 to 2019, according to CEL & Associates.

Job availability differs per market

According to NAA’s Q2 Job Snapshot, the same major cities with openings were fairly consistent with openings during Q2. These metrics are further clouded and become more complicated given shifting state and local pandemic-related mandates, which disrupts the hiring process (offices closed, mask mandates, vaccines required, etc.)

One large West Coast-based operator says the entire industry has had difficulty filling onsite roles, especially with stimulus checks and supplemental unemployment benefits being distributed.

It says competing with various organizations and industries that are offering large hiring bonuses makes it more challenging and it has been forced to adjust onsite staff salaries and hiring bonuses in some markets by 15 percent to 20 percent.

Maintenance workers “extremely difficult” to find  

Efrem Reid is Vice President of Human Resources for apartment operator Paradigm Companies, with a portfolio based in the Mid-Atlantic.

“Finding maintenance workers has been extremely difficult, and that was the case even before the pandemic,” Reid says. “Technicians would walk across the street to make 25 or 50 cents more an hour at another job. Some are choosing to leave the maintenance profession altogether.

“Finding entry-level technicians is harder than hiring established ones,” Reid says. “These techs are now front-line workers and they are asked to enter peoples’ homes who they don’t know, and don’t know the residents’ health situations.”

Given the unemployment insurance situation, we are receiving a lot of applications from people who are wholly not qualified. They are applying because they have to. They have none of the skills we ask for.”

Reid said that for one recent leasing position, he received 100 applications, 14 made it through the initial review process and that number was narrowed that to six candidates.

Companies struggling to fill positions often are forced to give existing staff additional duties (and extended hours) on top of the mental and physical challenges the pandemic that bore into them.

Onsite employees “more stressed than ever”

Stephanie Puryear Helling was a long-time executive for Greystar who now leads her own leadership and change management coaching and consulting firm.

“COVID-19 has created onsite employees who are more stressed than ever,” Puryear Helling says. “Many of their residents are pretty much home 24-7, and they are looking around for maintenance things to be done, so work orders pile up.”

She says empathy is in great demand right now for onsite employee hiring, and it can be hard to find candidates who are qualified to do the job and have that level of emotional intelligence that they need. 

Puryear Helling says she’s hearing of more apartment companies that are hiring full-time recruiters who are assigned to help solve staffing shortfalls.

Multifamily operators turn to tech to help ease search woes

One company is using the product Circa to provide Office of Federal Contract Compliance Programs (OFCCP) management and recruiting technology solutions to deliver qualified candidates. Circa specializes in promoting an organization’s jobs to target diverse groups through a network of over 15,000 community-based organizations and niche diversity sites.

Through Circa, it has sent jobs automatically to:

  • Diversity Organizations
  • LGBTQIA+ Organizations
  • Minority Organizations
  • Individuals with Disabilities Organizations
  • Veteran Organizations
  • Women Organizations

That company also uses an AI-driven tool called JobTarget that is programmed with a proprietary algorithm that is comprised of 20 years of data from its applicant-tracking system and job board partners.

The tool places the company’s requirements on the correct job board based on job title, vertical and geographic location. It is a job board like Indeed, the company says, but JobTarget is more efficient and cheaper than Indeed, and reaches a wider audience, it says.

One company is thinking about job postings from the candidate’s perspective, looking for unique ways to engage with them such as messaging on LinkedIn, giving applicants an “easy apply” option to send in resumes, and increasing referral bonuses.

Pre-employment assessments are continued to be necessary, the company says. It uses the assessment tool Infor Talent Science, a cloud-based talent management solution that helps companies identify, select, retain and develop talent across the employee life cycle.

Apartment operators need to move fast on potential hires

At Carroll Management, Vice President of People, Melanie Brasher, says she has to move quickly when identifying potential job candidates because many are considering working in similar, other industries. She’s also looking outside the apartment industry for hires because “people are moving around, looking for new opportunities.”

Given the aforementioned data about a record number of workers from restaurant and retail jobs quitting in August, that could expand property management’s candidate pool. 

Brasher is also partnering with local colleges such as Valencia College in Orlando, which has apprentice programs in maintenance. 

Jennifer Staciokas, Executive Managing Director at Western Wealth Capital, said her company mostly struggling to fill maintenance roles at its properties in Phoenix, Las Vegas, Houston and Dallas. 

Western Wealth Capital, she says, has been adjusting its benefits to entice additional maintenance candidates by offering a 50% discount on rent to technicians who are on call; providing a branded, fully equipped tool backpack upon hire, offering certifications and training, offering increased employee referral bonuses, hosting employee recognition events and celebrating successes on an all-hands bi-weekly call.”

Ian Mattingly, CPM, President, LumaCorp, in Dallas says hiring for maintenance has always been a challenge, but whereas pre-pandemic he had about 90 percent of his positions filled, that number has dropped to about 78 percent today.

Communication and value are musts for current employees

For the leasing team, according to Knock’s survey results, while the hiring challenge is pronounced, the data also shows that companies that make their associates feel valued are handled the situation better than those that aren’t.

Knock’s survey showed that about one-third of onsite respondents feel extremely valued, one-third feel very valued and one-third feel somewhat valued; only 7% report not feeling valued.

While leasing agents who feel “extremely/very valued” still deal with challenges at similar rates as their “somewhat valued” peers, those who are “very valued” are less likely to be looking for a new job. They also are more likely to report their renters are “very highly satisfied” with their experience with the onsite staff.

Survey data provides several ideas on how companies can make their employees feel valued.

Focus on communication and recognition: While some of the ways leasing agents want to feel valued are financial, such as increased salary and a better commission structure, there are several ways corporate teams can help onsite teams feel valued that don’t cost anything.

For instance, half of those who report feeling somewhat valued would like better communication from management, better work-life balance, and recognition and appreciation.

Creating work-life balance is a complicated issue with no magic bullet. However, the automation of key and time-consuming tasks can help leasing teams with some of their jobs’ burdens.

Innovative technology has played an important role for another large West Coast apartment operator, and it also has helped the company find the best hiring fits for its positions. The firm brought in new tools, namely a CRM, to use at the regional level of operations.

“The CRM is saving us time and helping us to analyze data the right way and make good decisions, but some people just want to stick to printing things out, having paper on their desks, etc.  When you lose parts of familiar management processes (by changing them), you can lose some people who are not willing to adapt. When that happens, they take their overall, general knowledge of history at the properties with them and they can be tough to replace.”

Here’s where employees who feel valued and their ability to make decisions through innovative technology come together to better serve themselves and their companies.

Value and data go hand in hand

The Knock survey finds that those onsite teams who feel very valued are much more likely to report they are extremely/very confident the data used to make decisions is consistent across reports and systems. And this makes sense: when you have the right data, you can be more confident in all areas of your work.

With this, employees become more interested in potential new career opportunities at their companies. The survey shows that provide opportunities for career advancement can lead to better retention rates.

Stephanie Anderson, Senior Director of Communication & Social Media, Grace Hill, offered other best practices in the battle for talent.

  • Using data for decision making – send anonymous surveys to employees for meaningful feedback
  • Exit interviews – employees are leaving and you need to know why to better understand the changes that should be made. Formalize this process.
  • Pay transparency.
  • Hiring packages – we get more creative with hiring packages for new employees than we do with retainment of talent.
  • Toxic culture – one that dismisses employees’ feelings and concerns.
  • Demand for flexibility
  • Meet employees where they are.
  • Pathways to advancement – defined career paths for all employees.

Get Knock’s Multifamily Leasing Performance survey. 

For more research and data-driven strategies from Knock, sign up for our monthly newsletter.