Panel highlights thriving careers, coming boom in senior living industry

From left to right, moderator and WSU Alumni Association Membership and Marketing Director Kelly Brantner, Patrick Dooley, president and chief development officer of Milestone Retirement Communities, and Merrill Gardens President Tana Gall.
From left, Kelly Brantner, panel moderator and director, WSU Alumni Association; Patrick Dooley, president and chief development officer, Milestone Retirement Communities; Nancy Swanger, founder and director, Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living; and Tana Gall, president, Merrill Gardens.

In the realm of post-college career prospects, few students envision the senior living industry as an exciting field teeming with opportunities. However, industry leaders are challenging this perception, saying they have seen a surge in career opportunities and demand for young talent as the Baby Boomer generation ages into retirement. 

In a panel hosted by the Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living, industry insiders discussed the challenges in recruiting students to a field constantly marred by misconceptions.

Contrary to expectation, they said the senior living sector offers exciting work that makes a real difference in the lives of the people they serve. They said with a new wave of residents on the horizon, the industry is experiencing remarkable growth, paving the way for ambitious graduates to make a significant impact.

Senior living is more than just nursing homes

Among the panelists was Nancy Swanger, founding director of the institute. Swanger said when she was first approached about creating a curriculum within the business college surrounding senior living, she wasn’t sure she understood the connection. However, the more she interacted with leaders in the industry, the more she came to realize such organizations are a natural place to use skills and knowledge honed while earning a hospitality business management degree. Swanger worked to implement the first senior living major in the nation within a hospitality school at an accredited business college. 

“At the end of the day, these are still businesses and people need to understand how to read a profit and loss statement,” Swanger said. “Granger Cobb used to always say ‘No margin, no mission.’ You can have all the best intentions and the things that you want to do, but if you’re not running a profitable business … it doesn’t matter what you want to do.”

Swanger was joined by panelists Patrick Dooley, president and chief development officer of Milestone Retirement Communities, and Merrill Gardens President Tana Gall.

A major barrier to attracting new talent to the industry, panelists agreed, are the misconceptions that swirl around senior living. 

“When I got into the industry, I thought it was going to do nursing homes,” Gall said. “That was what I knew of senior living. And I remember going into my first community, and it was, for me, an aha moment.”

Dooley said he had a similar experience when he first got into the senior living industry. He said his presuppositions of gloomy nursing homes—”that place that serves bologna and applesauce,” as his brother puts it—were shown to be wrong with one visit to a retirement community.

Dooley said he was impressed with the quality of life and high level of service provided. With offerings like filet mignon on the menu, housekeeping, entertainment, and an in-house concierge for those retirees who wish to travel, he said it was more like a country club than a nursing home. 

“I think the biggest misconception is people come to us to die. They don’t. They come to us to live,” he said. 

Demand and career potential expected to skyrocket in coming years 

Despite the promise of high-paying careers and the impending boom the industry expects as one of the largest generations in the country’s history begins to enroll in senior living communities, it is rare for students to fully understand that potential as they consider their post-college prospects. 

Gall said senior living programs like those offered through WSU’s School of Hospitality Business Management are helping to change this, and demand for young talent is expected to continue to soar. She said this is an excellent opportunity for students to take aim at ambitious, long-term careers in senior living. 

“How lucky are they at 22-ish today—in 20 years, when they’re in their early 40s, at kind of an earning peak, that’s actually when all the baby boomers are going to be living in our communities,” Gall said. “Their opportunity for professional growth, for ownership of buildings, is enormous, and it’s very exciting.”

Swanger said while familiarity with the senior living industry among students is becoming more common, it will be important for that to continue to grow—and quickly. She said it’s going to be important for hospitality schools across the country to start growing similar programs if they are to meet the coming demand, estimating off-hand that the industry will need to add another 1.5 million employees in the coming years. She noted this also illustrates opportunity for those willing to reach for it. 

“We need that awareness for those students to ramp up. They need to know about the career opportunities they have,” Swanger said. “If they have a lick of initiative, I’m guaranteeing you, for the next 40 years, they can write their own ticket.”

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