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  • Writer's pictureLev Deich

Kitchen Staff Shortages in Senior Living – It's worse than you think!

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I spent the better part of 2023 researching how labor shortages affect the senior living sector, particularly in food services. Throughout this journey, I met incredibly dedicated people including chefs, culinary aids, managers, human resources, and executives and listened to their stories and struggles to deliver high standards of care for their seniors.

I felt compelled to write this article to raise awareness about the alarming situation in senior living facilities and to highlight the severe repercussions on their residents, employees, and overall business performance.

How bad is it?

The labor force in the food services industry experienced a dramatic decline due to a mix of an aging workforce, challenging working conditions, and an exodus of skilled workers during the pandemic.

Senior living was hit especially hard. It experienced the most significant employee loss from pre-pandemic levels in the food service and healthcare segments.

Source: US Bureau of Labor Statistics

The Adverse Impacts

The inability to find, train, and retain skilled labor is the root cause of most of the issues facing senior living operators. The most severe consequences are:

  1. Quality: Many operators had to simplify their menus and use more processed ingredients to reduce preparation time. More meals are being served cold when teams fall behind schedule. Poorly prepared and assembled meals contribute to malnutrition, a fact backed up by a recent study from the University of Guelph in Ontario showing that 20% of served food remains un-eaten in long-term care facilities.

  2. Operating Costs: Virtually all the surveyed facility operators reported running over budget on food services due to fast-rising wages, overtime, recruiting, training, agency fees, and food loss due to poor execution. These increased costs are not offset with extra funding, especially in the long-term care segment. Finding ways to reduce operating costs without affecting resident care is the top challenge for management.

  3. Team Culture: Desperate to fill positions, many operators have to lower their hiring standards, adding unmotivated and inadequately qualified employees. Many are seeing higher levels of absenteeism, poor communication, and apathy. A negative team culture reduces productivity and demotivates team members who care about their work. It creates a snowball effect that increases turnover rates.

Source: 25th annual Assisted Living Salary & Benefits Report by Hospital & Healthcare Compensation Service

A Tough Problem

Most senior living operators are offering more competitive compensation and benefits packages. They are implementing training and development programs to foster a supportive and empowering work environment. We have also seen more collaboration between industry stakeholders, such as senior living communities, educational institutions, and government agencies to help with recruiting and training.

Despite all these efforts, 77.2% of nursing home facilities reported a flat or increasing turnover rate this year. To make matters worse, the pool of available talent is shrinking. The ITHQ, Quebec's leading culinary and hospitality school, reported a 40% drop in applicants in 2021.

Senior Living Operators are competing for the same resources using identical strategies. The war for talent is a zero-sum game.

The senior living sector must also deal with the realities of a limited budget, the extra burden of regulatory requirements, and the obligation to operate food services 365 days per year.

They are fighting this battle with two hands tied behind their back.

Increasing labor productivity is on everyone’s radar.

The market is full of software applications designed to optimize operations. Despite large investments, most facilities have failed to demonstrate significant productivity increases. It is unrealistic to expect that apps can eliminate work shifts.

Modern automation technology offers the most promising path to success.

Hands-on support with physical tasks is the only way to achieve a productivity leap large enough to offset the negative impact of labor shortage.

This approach has already transformed industrial processes and can do the same for commercial kitchens in senior living residences.

Working at Chef Jasper, a food robotics company, I have been fortunate enough to witness first-hand the incredible progress in kitchen automation.

Perhaps robots won’t completely replace kitchen staff in the short term. Cooking is an art that still requires a human touch.

It is possible for culinary teams to leverage robots to get extra help during peak activity periods. Robots can also help offload repetitive kitchen tasks and coordinate the cooking sessions using carefully crafted algorithms.

Chef Jasper's Robotic Kitchen

An optimized collaboration between humans and machines has already been proven to achieve efficiency, quality and consistency levels that would otherwise not be possible.

Can this be the solution to labor shortages in senior living? This type of innovation is worth exploring and offers an opportunity to transform senior living facilities into more attractive workplaces where quality care is never compromised due to restricted budgets.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on this topic. Feel free to share your comments or contact me on LinkedIn.

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