Industry leaders discuss staff attraction & retention: BOMEX

Attracting and retaining staff are among the biggest challenges faced by companies in the property-management business, according to an executive roundtable discussion held at the BOMEX 2012 Conference & Exhibition in Ottawa last week.

Leaders at this annual conference of the Canadian branch of the Building Owners and Managers Association (BOMA) lamented that there are few people that actually plan careers as property managers.

“It's not a profession where people go into college and say, ‘I want to be a property manager,’” said Joseph Markling, chairman of BOMA International and a Camarillo, Calif.-based managing director for CBRE. “Most of us just end up here.” He added that most of those who are in property management have longer-term aspirations to become brokers or developers.

“We have a hard time attracting people to this industry from the get-go,” said Martin Lefebvre, vice-president of facility management for SNC-Lavalin O&M in Ottawa. “I can speak for myself; at first I was not aiming for a career in this industry at all.”

Attracting people and keeping them

Lefebvre said the industry needs to work harder at attracting people and keeping them. He said this could involve more effectively communicating to people in school the opportunities that exist in property management, and also providing younger staff with more “meaningful challenges.”

Discussion moderator, Brett Miller, president of Jones Lang LaSalle in Toronto, said modest pay levels in the industry could be part of the problem. “Here all the service providers are, beating themselves up, responding to RFPs and pushing margins lower, and as a result paying people less,” he said. “So, (there’s) no surprise they can’t recruit.”

Keith Major, senior vice-president of property management with Bentall Kennedy (Canada) in Toronto, said compensation is not the biggest factor in recruitment and retention. “It’s about culture, life-work balance, appreciation for employees and what they’re doing, communication so that they understand where the organization is going and what the goals and objectives are,” he said.

Markling talked about giving employees a long-term vision of the role they can have within the organization. “Build an environment that they want to be in, that they feel good about being part of, a company that they feel good about being part of,” he said. Markling said when this is done, even if other companies are offering more money, “you’ve got vision for their future, real or not. It’s all about perception.”

Lefebvre said because of the outsourcing nature of property management, much of the issue with retention is linked to the uncertainty surrounding a company at the end of a contract. “What it creates is quite a bit of uncertainty,” he said, adding that he tends to see higher staff turnover at times when contracts are coming to an end.

All four speakers said they are looking to expand their operations and add staff in the coming years.

Major said Bentall Kennedy, like many other firms, cut back staff during the 2008-09 recession and has not brought employee levels back up since then. He added that there’s no shortage of work to do, but each person is now doing more than they used to. “I see that pressure throughout the organization,” he said. “People are generally, I think, overworked. . . . You never want to be quote-unquote ‘overstaffed,’ but somehow we’ve got to start tweaking (staff levels) up a little bit.”

Older workers are delaying retirement

The panel participants also talked about how, with the weak performance of markets in recent years, many older workers have delayed retirement due to a lack of savings, thus taking up positions that might otherwise be filled by younger employees.

Lefebvre said there is value in having experienced workers on staff, because they can be there to “mentor the younger ones.” However, he added: “It’s difficult because you want to push your younger talent to leadership positions while these guys are still holding the positions. There’s no easy answer.”

Lefebvre said it’s best when the older employees are open about when they intend to retire, allowing the company to plan around certain timelines. Major suggested transitions in which older works gradually reduce their hours can work well for both the individual and the company.

“In perfect world, you hope that there’s a clear role where (older workers) can start to ramp down, maybe work three days a week, maybe take more of a mentoring role, leadership, working with the staff to bring them up in the organization,” he said. “But frankly, it doesn’t always happen.

“There are some that will wait until they’re 70, but maybe they can’t produce the full job requirements you’re looking for.”

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