Spokane Journal of Business

New WSU program aims for innovation in senior living

Institute helps elder services keep pace with evolving industry needs

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An estimated 75 million baby boomers born in the U.S. between 1946 and 1964 are winding down their careers and heading into the next phase of their lives.

In Washington state alone, there are about 1.6 million people over the age of 60, and nearly 200,000 of them need help with everyday tasks. In the next 30 years, these numbers will only grow, and the reality is, our current senior-living industry is not entirely prepared.

Gone are the days of senior citizens living in traditional nursing homes. Seniors are living longer, healthier lives, and thus need communities that can keep up. This includes more activities, social opportunities, hospitality-oriented services and technologies that improve their lives. The senior-living space must adapt to keep up with these trends, including how we educate and train the next generation of senior-living specialists and leaders.

A highly-skilled workforce, innovation, and collaboration among industry giants are three things the industry desperately needs. Colleges, universities, and technical education programs are primed to prepare this next generation of professionals and help bridge the growing workforce gap. At Washington State University’s Carson College of Business, the School of Hospitality Business Management is working proactively to solve these issues through the recently approved Institute for Senior Living. The institute is proposed to be formally named Granger Cobb Institute for Senior Living.

Granger Cobb was a pioneer in the senior living industry, leading several companies, including Emeritus Corp., which until 2014 was the largest provider of senior living care in the country. Cobb was passionate about growing the future senior housing workforce and started working with the WSU Carson College of Business to excite and inform people about the growing need. In partnership with companies like Aegis Living, Merrill Gardens, and Leisure Care, Cobb helped build the senior-living management program by collaborating with industry executives.

Though Cobb died in 2015, his passion lives on at WSU through the Granger Cobb Institute. The institute will focus on industry partnerships and research while developing a diverse, highly-skilled workforce, industry leaders and practical solutions to problems.

To fill the growing demand for a skilled senior-living workforce, WSU is expanding its senior-living management program to equip students with real-world knowledge and industry-expert connections before they enter the workforce. Unlike other programs that focus heavily on geriatrics, gerontology, or policy, the WSU program is preparing students to manage new dynamic communities.

Over the past three years, WSU’s senior-living management curriculum has expanded from a single introductory course offered as an elective under the hospitality business management major, to courses offered across the state, and a new online senior-living certificate option. To continue meeting the needs of the industry, the program is looking to expand further by adding a senior-living major.

Developing the right academic programs is just the first step in building a workforce. Perhaps the bigger challenge can be getting people interested in senior living in the first place. Students who traditionally pursue a degree in hospitality business management are looking to run hotels and restaurants, and senior living might not even cross their minds. They may not be aware senior living is now one of the most entrepreneurial spaces in hospitality, with greater opportunity for career growth. Through classroom, experiential learning, and partnerships with senior-living companies, the school is showing students that senior housing isn’t what it used to be—it has evolved to become more comparable to hospitality businesses, such as hotels. In the words of Granger Cobb, the institute is “looking to make senior living sexy.”

Developing the senior living workforce is only one piece in the puzzle. To help the industry create more agile and innovative approaches to  meet the needs of an aging population, the Granger Cobb Institute will focus on research to improve senior-living practices. That will include researching emerging technologies, as well as how to improve seniors’ overall quality of life. Currently, the program is researching impacts of farm-to-table practices in senior-living communities and management training programs to create the next generation of senior-living leaders.

Furthermore, understanding the implications of “senior tech” on the overall efficiency and safety of senior-living communities is a growing interest. Research into the effectiveness, acceptance and return on investment of these technologies will enable seniors to live safely and independently longer and allow senior-living operators access to more data to make more informed quality-care decisions.

At the apex of academics and research sits industry partnerships. Not only would WSU’s senior-living management program not exist in its current state without those partnerships, but they are the best way to create an industry-led, academic program that funnels students into the industry’s talent pipeline.

Partnerships with organizations such as Aegis Living, Merrill Gardens, NIC, Argentum, Milestone, and Blue Harbor serve two purposes. First, they ensure content being taught in the classroom reflects the actual needs and trends in the industry. The program at WSU frequently brings experts from the industry into the classroom to serve as experts on topics such as sales and marketing, financial management, lifestyle and dining, operations management, and others. Second, those organizations give students the opportunity to build real-world skills through work experiences in senior-living communities. That helps students develop the relationships they need to find careers in the industry after graduation. 

In the meantime, the senior population will continue to boom, and the industry must prepare adequately the next generation of leaders, managers, and caregivers who will serve it. While the workforce gap won’t be filled in one semester of college or through one online certificate program, proper training and research can help to fill the void.

Scott Eckstein is a clinical assistant professor and senior-living executive-in-residence for the Hospitality Business Management program at Washington State University. 

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