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With the rapid emergence of COVID-19 as a global healthcare crisis, it’s easy to get lost in the news and perhaps even to be a bit dazed about what’s happening around us – however, it is critical for talent professionals to be at their best in this moment. Healthcare organizations will need significant support from their HR leaders across all facets of core HR and talent management: hiring, onboarding, training, communication, policy definition and re-definition, benefits, pay and retention.

A key immediate area of concern is hiring and planning for hiring demand.

In the coming weeks and months, a massive rift will develop between the overall economy and the healthcare sector. The overall global and national economies will likely dip into recession and rapidly, with the potential for a deeper recession in the second half of the year depending on the world’s ability to respond to this crisis as well as the financial markets’ various responses. Job losses in the hospitality and retail sector will be severe.

As the rest of the economy contracts and reduces headcount, it is very likely that the healthcare sector will need to add headcount – and perhaps significantly. In Italy, healthcare workers including both doctors and nurses have been called out of retirement to meet the massive increase in clinical demands. Italian healthcare leaders estimate that they need an additional 2,000 – 3,000 nurses to combat the outbreak and meet the growing demand for care.

Unfortunately, another key driver of healthcare worker demand is driven by the degree to which healthcare workers themselves are sidelined by the virus. In China, more than 3,000 healthcare workers were infected by COVID-19 and were unable to continue working. While there are some creative ideas about ways asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic workers can continue to care for infected patients, a significant portion of workers will be sick enough themselves that they won’t be able to continue working.

Taken together, these two challenges will create a tough staffing situation in the U.S. As we see rapidly increasing needs for more healthcare workers, we’ll likely see staffing reductions as a result of infections among healthcare workers. Complicating matters? Healthcare staffing is at historic lows with average hospital reporting staff vacancy rates at 8%.

While these issues will drive most of hiring demand, a rogue wave challenge could also emerge: demand for environmental services workers to focus on sanitation. This virus has proven to be very contagious, roughly twice as contagious as the seasonal flu. When epidemiologists have tested hospital rooms of infected patients, they have found the virus “everywhere.”

This complicates the delivery of care in hospitals or long-term care settings that have a mixed population of healthy and infected patients or residents. While an organization can do everything possible to isolate known patients, the risk of asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic patients who are now believed to be a major contributing factor in the spread require that healthcare organizations sanitize everything as deeply and as thoroughly as possible between patient or resident exposures.

This especially includes all the shared equipment or services in a hospital or long-term setting. These areas of shared use require deep sanitizing cleaning between each patient or resident, and the same is true anytime a patient or resident vacates a room. Collectively this represents a massive increase in person hours for the environmental services team, and if not handled efficiently and with a high degree of quality, a big driver of inefficiency or a transmission within a healthcare location.

The above issues are largely about what is happening to us. Yet in any crisis, the first goal should be to move from reacting to acting and eventually to anticipating and getting proactive. So what could hiring professionals do to get proactive in the midst of this crisis? Anticipate where you might see an increase in local labor supply that you can tap into.

In this crisis, the sectors that will be hardest hit will be hospitality (all sub-sectors) and retail. They will be rapidly looking for ways to reduce costs and, like healthcare organizations, their largest costs are headcount. Accordingly, we should expect to see significant job losses in these sectors.

For healthcare organizations, a softening of the labor market in other sectors represents an opportunity to more proactively recruit and hire for roles in environmental services, food services, and other non-clinical positions. Depending on the messaging, there may also be other opportunities to position healthcare as more recession and “shock” proof than other industries, potentially creating a halo effect for healthcare employer branding that could be beneficial once the outbreak has passed. Lastly for those with existing training and develop programs that include “clinical onramps,” this could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to hire really good “raw material” at scale, potentially alleviating future talent shortages, while also helping stave off the worst impacts of job losses for some members of your local community.

Given the preceding arguments, here are the three key takeaways and a suggested list of actions:

  1. Assume you are going to need more clinical workers and quickly.
    • Tap into your network of recently retired, but still credentialled nurses and doctors. Contact them now. Don’t wait. Determine who is willing to come back and stay in contact with them as your local situation changes.
    • Tap into local nursing schools – if someone is nearing the end of their education, can you leverage practicum rotations to support your staffing needs in specific, targeted ways?
    • Tap into your staffing agencies – have strategic conversations now about anticipated needs, especially short-term staffing needs if you face shortages due to infections. Also discuss infection control education and training. If necessary, provide access to free learning infrastructure and free courseware to provide training to these workers *before* they are needed.
    • Make sure everyone is willing and enabled to practice to the top of their licenses, so you get maximum utility of each asset on your team.
  2. Assume you are going to need more non-clinical workers and quickly.
    • Work with environmental services teams and clinical teams to identify how many additional workers you might need as your COVID-19 case load rises.
    • Build hiring campaigns to attract displaced or at-risk hospitality and retail workers. Focus on service orientation and the “call to arms” nature of this crisis. In doing so, you will not only solve your short-term hiring needs, but you will attract those with a strong service orientation who may be well suited for long-term healthcare careers.
    • If you have “clinical onramp” curriculums or development plans, now is the time to showcase these in your recruitment messaging. Use these programs to attract individuals who are interested in a healthcare career and who now find themselves in a position to explore this option.
  3. Overcommunicate with your labor market.
    • Now is not the time to poach your local competitor’s talent. Leaving aside the ethical considerations, we will likely see turnover drop during this crisis as people stay put out of loyalty and a sense of duty. As a result, your main source of hire (your local competitors) will dry up – but so will your pipeline of the dysfunctionally departed.
    • Instead, focus your efforts on becoming a trusted source of news and information to your local labor market. Share what steps you are taking to ensure the health and safety of your workers. Share what you are doing from a community outreach perspective. Share stories about what your best and brightest are doing to make an impact at your organization and in your city or region. In the process, you will be sharing valuable information to help your local communities while also educating and supporting your future workforce, which will help build a strong employer brand foundation that will yield dividends for years to come.

This is a trying time for healthcare workers. The healthcare workforce of the U.S. is about to be tested in ways it’s never been before. Your job as a talent management professional and ours as a vendor is to do everything in our power to support them. We need to make sure they have what they need to get through this safely while delivering the highest quality care to their patients and residents. Job number one in that battle is to make sure that healthcare organizations are appropriately staffed to meet the coming demand.

About David Wilkins

As Chief Strategy Officer at HealthcareSource, Dave leads marketing strategy, overseeing corporate marketing, product marketing, and strategic alliances. Previously, he co-founded the Oracle Sales Academy, a sales enablement organization serving Oracle’s global sales team. Prior to Oracle, Dave was Head of Taleo Research where he was recognized as an industry thought leader in the field of Human Capital Management. Dave has also served as VP of Product Marketing for and as Chief Strategy Officer for Knowledge Impact where he spearheaded OEM relationships with PeopleSoft, Clarify, and Witness Systems. In 2010, Dave keynoted the national Training conference, and in 2011, the ATD Chapter Leaders Conference. Dave received his bachelor of arts from University of New Hampshire.