We may be missing a huge opportunity that is under our noses

By Robert Kramer

In today’s business environment, senior housing and care leaders are able to access capital with a phone call or a single meeting. They can develop strategy on a weekend leadership retreat. When it comes to solving workforce issues, however, no easy solutions have arisen, leaving the industry with a constant problem that just doesn’t seem to be going away.

When you look five or ten years into the future there will likely be companies with access to plenty of capital and who have terrific strategic plans – but won’t have the people needed to execute. We’re seeing that even now in local markets, where providers and investors are tabling projects because they just can’t find the workforce. Couple that with the often-observed fact that new projects are often staffed by workers cannibalized from existing local communities, which drives up wages while simultaneously raising the costs associated with losing valued workers to competitors.

I recently had the pleasure of attending the Milken Institute 2019 Global Conference in Los Angeles to present on the NIC-sponsored “Forgotten Middle” study that has the senior housing industry discussing innovative solutions to serve this large and fast-growing market. While there, I had the opportunity to hear from some of the world’s leading thought-leaders, policymakers, and business executives. Although a number of the sessions I attended were not focused on the future of aging and senior housing and care, the perspectives and insights I heard will certainly bear on the sector, particularly regarding the workforce and culture in the industry.

What I heard provides hope that there’s a viable solution to the sector’s workforce challenges sitting right under our noses, while adding the additional wrinkle of how I believe the sector should approach meeting its staffing requirements.

The AI Workforce is Coming

One session I found particularly fascinating was “AI Past and Future: A Conversation with David Siegel and Kai-Fu Lee.” Moderated by Bloomberg Businessweek’s Joel Weber, the co-founder of tech investment manager Two Sigma. David, discussed the challenges and opportunities AI offers to individuals, companies, and societies with Kai-Fu Lee, who is one of the world’s leading authorities on artificial intelligence – and a highly accomplished figure in the world of tech business.

Lee talked about AI, explaining how over the next 10-20 years many routine functions will be replaced by AI-enabled technologies. Human beings currently working in back-office functions, assembly line work, and truck driving occupations, for example, will become obsolete. In another session, there was discussion about those same truck drivers. Truck driving is a middle-class job providing a decent living for millions, it is one of the top jobs in 32 states. As autonomous vehicles and drones come online, most of those jobs are likely to go away, lost to the superior performance of computers, sensor tech, and AI.

Finding New Purpose

Mr. Lee was talking about all these assembly line workers, clerical staff, and drivers, and how we need to repurpose and retrain them right now. When Weber, the moderator, pushed for examples, I was shocked to hear Lee’s immediate response. He said you have to differentiate between routine, mechanized tasks and creative, or human interaction work.

The area he gave as an example was elder care. China will overtake every other region, in terms of how fast they age, and there’s an awareness of the massive scale of the problem of caring for their elders, many of whom have only one child to care for them. Lee expressed his belief that folks who have worked in routine assembly tasks will find personal gratification in the way they can make a difference in people’s lives, particularly as they move into jobs that require personal interactions and caring for the personal needs of fellow human beings. His point was that those jobs that require human interaction will be the least likely to be replaced by AI-enabled tech, and his first thought was elder care.

What do we do with all these truck drivers, whose average age is 47? Imagine the image of a burly 47-year-old truck driver doing lifts and transfers for frail seniors; or a 57-year-old grandmother providing care and companionship rather than doing clerical tasks. There is a fantastic opportunity for someone who’s spent 20 or 30 years on assembly lines, or in a driver’s seat, and who knows their job will be replaced, and quick. There is plenty of need within the senior housing and care sector, with the added benefit of the satisfaction of human connection – and of helping to improve the lives of others. You do not need a lot of schooling to work in senior housing and care. Retraining should be relatively simple, efficient, and quick.

. . . and who finds the idea of learning new technical skills to oversee the automated processes they used to do manually unappealing.”  

Our workforce is not 25 years old. Many will be in their 40s and 50s and will have gained enough life experience to value not only a new means to make a living – but to make a difference. Perhaps we’re not thinking out of the box by only going after young people. We may be missing a huge opportunity that is under our noses. At the very moment in which senior housing and care faces a burgeoning need for workers, millions of workers will be out of their jobs, displaced by technology. They will be mature and will have the benefit of years of life experience. Many will be attracted to the idea of making a difference in someone’s life, and to the idea that they can bring joy to others as they work. That human connection provides value in both directions.

If the word spreads in states like Ohio, Indiana, and Wisconsin, where manufacturing plants will go idle and trucking jobs will become automated, we may benefit from a massive workforce shift – and improve the lives of many more Americans than we may have ever anticipated.

An earlier version of this was first published by the National Investment Center for Seniors Housing & Care, with a link to https://blog.nic.org/blog/the-impact-of-ai-on-seniors-housing-and-care-workforce-shortages.