March 20, 2024Thoughts & Insight

The secrets to success for healthcare staffing firms: An SIA analyst’s perspective

The U.S. healthcare industry is facing serious challenges as practices across the country struggle to hire and retain staff. In fact, according to one recent report, healthcare employment still remains below pre-pandemic levels. And the problem seems persistent: According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the industry needs more than 275,000 additional nurses by 2030 to meet healthcare demands.

Worker shortages present an opportunity for healthcare staffing firms but also mean competition for workers is stronger than ever. 

We recently sat down with Staffing Industry Analysts’ (SIA) healthcare staffing analyst Crystal Fullilove for an episode of the Gigging Out podcast

By understanding how healthcare staffing has changed in recent years and the tactics top staffing firms are using to win the war for talent, you can take proactive steps to solve challenges you face.

How has healthcare staffing changed in recent years?

Every now and again, the U.S. healthcare industry faces widespread staffing shortages. According to Fullilove, nursing crises date back to at least the 1930s; most recently, the country faced a nursing shortage at the turn of the millennium. In the aftermath of COVID, the industry is in the midst of yet another shortage, with the supply of registered nurses (RNs) shrinking by more than 100,000 professionals in 2021 alone.

The current worker shortage is driven by a confluence of factors. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, 49.9% of healthcare staffers say they’re burned out. Who could blame them? 

Other drivers of the worker shortage include an aging population, difficulty training and onboarding staff, and an uneven distribution of healthcare professionals; it’s easier to staff a practice in New York City than in a remote rural area, for example.

Unfortunately, this dearth of qualified talent is putting strains on remaining staff.

“I think the concern is really the increase in strikes, suggesting that healthcare working conditions haven’t really improved over time — or maybe they haven’t improved quickly enough or meaningfully enough,” Fullilove says. 

According to Fullilove, workforce growth from 2018 to 2022 occurred almost entirely in “non-hospital settings, the ambulatory setting, which brings us back to pre-pandemic levels.”

“But the issue is that we’re still hearing some hospitals who are talking about shortages of RNs despite that overall workforce growth that we’ve seen,” she says.

Flexibility is paramount

In addition to pervasive burnout, this reduction in workers can be attributed to the fact that employees today want flexible schedules. Many studies indicate “the growing desire for flexible scheduling among healthcare professionals,” Fullilove continues. 

“Staffing firms that were able to provide their workers with flexible work arrangements [during the pandemic] — whether that be accommodating block scheduling or not working holidays, no weekends, or even per-diem and on-demand, which we’re seeing — it provided a better work-life balance,” she explains. “And that can ultimately reduce burnout and improve employee satisfaction.”

A rise in on-demand platforms

In response to the demand for flexible scheduling, the industry’s seen the rise of on-demand staffing platforms, which empower workers to pick and choose their jobs. “They can accept their jobs, they can search for jobs, and they can manage their own schedules,” Fullilove says, adding that younger workers — millennials and Gen Z — are more likely to use staffing platforms as older workers continue partnering with traditional staffing firms.

“As the population ages, meeting workers where they are and meeting their expectations are really going to be paramount to reducing the effects of the shortage,” Fullilove explains. “Over the next 10 years, millennials are actually going to make up about half or more of the workforce, and Gen Z is going to enter the workforce. So staffing platforms are actually providing a means to reach healthcare workers who don’t have that typical nine-to-five working hour schedule, and they may have a greater success and have a great impact on minimizing the effect of the shortage.”  

How to overcome healthcare staffing challenges

By taking a proactive approach to address worker shortages and understand what talent expects today, staffing firms can overcome these challenges.

1. Prioritizing reputation management

In an age where 80% of job searches take place online, prospective candidates can find information about companies after a quick search. To increase the chances your firm makes a favorable first impression, it’s critical to prioritize reputation management.

“It’s crucial to maintain a strong brand and a positive image through reputation management,” Fullilove says. “That could mean increasing social media followers or providing consistent communication to not only your current employees but to prior employees, trying to bring them back, talking about open positions you have, opportunities that they may be interested in, and then always negotiating on their behalf. That just establishes a foundation that’s necessary to attract and retain those healthcare workers.” 

Fullilove also advises firms to understand what sets them apart from the competition. For example, does your firm focus on niche operations or a certain segment of the sector? 

“It’s about knowing your value proposition.”

2. Communicating more effectively with staff 

Speaking of communication, Fullilove suggests that many healthcare staffing leaders overlook the importance of timely, effective communication with staff, which “creates tension.”

“It can be overwhelming and confusing, especially for frontline workers, and especially if leadership isn’t communicating timelines appropriately,” she says. “I think that starts with listening to staff and ensuring there’s an open dialogue. It includes creating a culture of transparency; staff have to feel safe expressing concerns or talking about challenges that exist. It includes streamlining communication but [ensuring] important messages are received in a timely manner by all staff, regardless of where they work, regardless of the hours that they work.”

3. Optimizing workplace culture, pay, and benefits

Another way to solve staffing challenges is by making your firm stand out from the rest. To do that, leaders should strive to engage with their staff, developing rapport and working together to identify areas where improvements can be made.

“I think it’s important that frontline workers are included in that process improvement,” Fullilove continues. “Feedback should not just be taken, but acted on. And that includes considering ideas from temporary staff, not just core employees, because they shouldn’t be excluded from that process.” 

Since 66% of healthcare workers are living paycheck to paycheck, staffing firms can also overcome staffing challenges by paying workers faster.

“We found speed to be the name of the game, particularly for temporary staffing platforms,” Fullilove says. “Rapid worker pay cycles or same-day pay can really vastly improve candidate selection. While weekly pay does still remain the norm, staffing platforms are increasingly offering daily pay or on-demand or earned wage access. We’ve observed a growing number of platforms that are already offering it or who actually have it on their product roadmap, so we anticipate further advancements in that area.” 

The better you make the worker experience — the more you make workers feel valued — the easier it will be to overcome staffing challenges.

“So many healthcare workers admitted that the reason they’ve been with their healthcare staffing firm for so long is actually because of their loyalty to the recruiter, not the firm.” 

4. Modernizing technology and business processes 

If your firm is struggling to attract talent, it may be time to reassess your tech stack and business processes to identify areas of improvement. 

The way Fullilove sees it, a first logistic step is making sure you have the right customer relationship management (CRM) or applicant tracking system (ATS) in place. Additionally, Fullilove suggests firms should look to automate as many repetitive tasks as possible.

“There’s really no better time to increase efficiency by using the automation tools that we have that reduce those manual redundant tasks,” she explains.

In response to staffing shortages, Fullilove suggests the industry’s staffing model will evolve considerably; firms faster to adapt will have better results.

“I think the ways in which hospitals partner with firms is going to change, including a more total talent model,” Fullilove says. “There may be more collaboration between firms and hospitals or outpatient facilities that might include permanent staffing or recruitment process outsourcing.”

Fullilove also expects that digital transformation will persist across the industry.

“It’s just the growth trajectory may be more of an increase to staffing platforms, which may ultimately be driven by younger workers who are entering the workforce as they’re the ones who are more comfortable with technology and they like the self-service model,” she concludes. 

To learn more about the state of healthcare staffing, including challenges and tips on overcoming them, listen to the full episode.