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Multifamily Professionals Go Hi-Tech

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“It’s hard to find good people. They just don’t walk in off the street everyday.” Rita Grazda, senior director of human resources at Alexandria, Virginia-based Avalon Bay Communities, captured the sentiment of her peers perfectly with that observation. There are a number of issues facing human resources professionals in the multifamily industry, but for many, recruitment tops the list.

As Cathy Murray, vice president of human resources at WinnResidential in Boston, points out, “Nobody ever said ‘I want to grow up to be a property manager.’ As an industry, we have to do a better job of getting the word out that multifamily provides attractive career opportunities.”

Perhaps the most difficult position to fill (and keep filled) with strong performers is that of leasing specialist. According to data compiled by the National Multi Housing Council, the turnover rate among leasing agents was 70 percent in 2004. That startling figure is having a profound effect on many firms.

Mike Moerschbacher, vice president of people services at Denver-based Simpson Property Group, notes, “Leasing agents create a prospective resident’s first impression of a community. If that impression isn’t positive, the resident may not even complete a rental application. It is imperative to hire high-caliber people to fill leasing positions. Those hiring decisions have a direct impact on occupancy rates, community profiles and, of course, the bottom line.”

As part of a comprehensive recruitment strategy implemented in 2004 to address the need to attract stronger candidates, Simpson Property Group requires all applicants for leasing positions to complete an online pre-employment questionnaire. This innovative screening tool was developed in conjunction with occupational psychologists and is designed to help the company identify candidates who will be both motivated and highly productive.

Moerschbacher notes that smarter recruiting alone is not a solution. His firm prides itself on a set of creative fringe benefits available to employees. He calls these benefits “compelling intangibles,” and they include specially negotiated discounts on health club memberships, auto insurance, and homeowner’s insurance. This innovative compensation package is the result of extensive research, including the use of focus groups, to determine what attracts the most desirable job applicants.

Multifamily firms draw those applicants from many sources. Simpson has begun to focus on campus recruiting in an attempt to find eager college graduates who have not been jaded at previous jobs and who can grow with the company. On the flip side, Murray is quick to point out that WinnResidential has found certain personal characteristics to be much more valuable than a formal education. Her company continues to find good candidates who have already cut their teeth at other firms.

“I’ll take someone with common sense and compassion any time,” says Murray. “They can always learn job-specific responsibilities and company policies, but it’s very hard to change who someone is on the inside.”

If recruitment is challenge one for multifamily firms, then retention is challenge 1A. The reasons are many and varied. Compensation, growth opportunities, job satisfaction, long hours, and the pressure to perform are all factors. Companies are working harder than ever to retain valued employees at every level of the organization, whether it’s a groundskeeper, leasing agent, community manager or senior executive.

“Retention must be woven into the DNA of an organization,” says Avalon Bay’s Grazda. “That’s the only way to keep good people. That’s why we really focus on career growth. It’s a priority for us. We want our employees to understand that there is a logical, compelling career path for them if they are willing to work hard. Nobody wants to be in a dead-end job. We want employees to know that we will invest in their futures. We make it clear that there is no need to leave the company to find growth opportunities.”

Moerschbacher points out that smarter recruiting can also result in higher retention. He says that his company’s online pre-employment screening helped reduce turnover among leasing agents from 85 percent in 2003 to 25 percent in 2004 by helping ensure that the right people are put in the right jobs.

In addition to leasing staff, maintenance positions are proving to be very problematic from a retention perspective. Hiring managers point to the current construction boom in many cities as one of the main reasons it is difficult to hold onto to capable maintenance personnel. Skilled laborers, such as carpenters and plumbers, as well as graduates of vocational schools, can often command high wages from commercial and residential developers. In the current challenging rental market, it is difficult for some multifamily firms to match those wages for handyman positions.

“Multifamily maintenance can also be draining,” says Murray. “Being on call during weekends and holidays isn’t fun. There are a lot of late nights that can put stress on family life. Maintenance work at properties outside of major metro areas can be particularly challenging because there are fewer staff members to share the burden, and it can be harder to find contractors on short notice.”

One way Murray says that WinnResidential is trying to improve retention is by emphasizing training for all its employees, including the maintenance staff. While it’s not a silver bullet for all retention issues, training can address many workplace concerns.

Murray notes, “Training is absolutely critical. It is essential to ensure competency and efficiency, and it is among the most important factors in job satisfaction and employee morale. When you learn, you grow. You don’t feel like you’re career has stalled. Training can only bring positive results.”

WinnResidential sends all new hires to off-site training for one week so they can process a flood of new information without being interrupted by phone calls, emergencies, and daily office distractions. The company encourages employees to pursue professional certifications and designations, and covers the cost of required classes and exams. In addition, WinnResidential provides educational reimbursement for employees that pursue college degrees.

Avalon Bay has also made a significant investment in employee training with the establishment of Avalon Bay University. There are courses designed for every full-time position throughout the company. Courses include property maintenance, management training, financial systems, emergency preparedness, leasing, resident relations, leadership training, and many others. The firm has placed a particular emphasis on financial systems and business reporting in recent years.

“As a publicly traded company, the Sarbanes-Oxley legislation impacts us directly,” says Grazda. “There are a number of statutory requirements that we must follow. It’s absolutely critical that everyone in a position of authority understands their responsibilities vis-à-vis reporting and regulatory compliance.”

The comments about training made by Murray and Grazda are consistent with broader trends in the human resources field. Braun Consulting Group of Seattle examined the top issues among human resources professionals at the beginning of 2005. Workforce skill levels and compliance issues were two of the biggest concerns. Rising healthcare costs — an annual concern for nearly every benefits administrator in the U.S. — topped the list.

Although training is the purview of Operations rather than Human Resources at Simpson Property, Moerschbacher understands full well how crucial it is. He says that management and leadership training can be particularly valuable. He notes, “People join companies, but leave managers.”

That sentiment was echoed by Murray who acknowledges that being a property manager isn’t as easy today as it was years ago.

“Today, managers wear many hats,” she explains. “They must have people skills and administrative skills. They have to know both personnel and resident policies inside out. And they often have to understand complex legal issues, such as tax credits and fair housing. It’s a hard job. It carries a lot of pressure, and it’s not easy for managers to make everyone happy all the time. We have to be sure managers are properly prepared, or we’ll just be asking for problems. Nobody wants to work for a toxic boss.”

Author: Jeffrey Scott