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Aug 02, 2021

The Secrets to Successful Hiring

August 2021

There are many ways to find top talent.

Anecdotally speaking, rental housing firms have historically hired talent already aware of and engaged in the industry.


“It’s challenging to recruit qualified staff and have them stay, especially in maintenance roles,” says Morgan McJunkins, HR Manager for Habitat America. “We use online methods, but really, referrals and internal recruiting are the way to go securely.”


The talent pool is known, trained and experienced. The fabled “fit” is there. But outside hiring becomes bottom-heavy—it’s focused on entry or onsite staff positions. The pool becomes closed and often nondiverse, with the only fresh blood at entry level.


Hiring from within reinforces existing biases, intentional or not. For instance, just before the pandemic, Jana Turner, Principal of recruiter RETS Associates, quoted Commercial Real Estate Women research that women made up only 9% of C-suites and wrote that “people from dissimilar walks of life approach the world from a wide range of perspectives and offer unique intellectual capital to the companies for which they work.”


Besides, managers may have to hone their outside hiring skills beyond entry level. At Flaherty & Collins (F&C), for example, the inside-to-outside ratio has shifted to about 60-40. At Northland Investment, only 15% to 20% of vacancies are filled from within.

Finding talent

In addition to major online job boards, the occasional executive headhunter and their own websites and social media, here are ways management companies find the staff they need:


Diverse job sites. A cursory internet search brings up,,, and Northland partners with CareerBuilder to make sure its postings reach diverse websites and candidates.


Temp agencies. Habitat recently sought a Spanish-speaking associate for a property with many Spanish-speaking residents and found the right person through a temp agency.


Networking. Kelly DeMatteo, Regional Property Manager of Trio Properties, has done well connecting with colleagues in the Connecticut Apartment Association and Chamber groups. “We’re not trying to rob anyone, but networking does work,” she says.


Employee referrals. This “key strategy” brings in more than 10% of Northland’s staff, from entry level to corporate. “They tend to be great hires,” says Director of HR Jay Babbitt. The referrer earns a bonus after the newcomer’s successful introductory period.


At a much smaller firm, Veritas Equity Management, referrals make up about 65% of noninternal hires. A housekeeper referred two people who became top leasing agents and earned two $400 bonuses.


Local newspapers. “We use newspapers in smaller communities if it seems they have a bigger reach there,” says McJunkins.


Nonprofit partners. Habitat has paired with the Housing Association of Nonprofit Developers, which produces and preserves affordable housing in greater Washington, D.C. Member companies can post jobs. Similarly, F&C’s postings reach minority college groups through the Diversity Roundtable of Central Indiana.


Phoenix’s acute shortage of maintenance technicians has led to familiar consequences: Difficulty in hiring, understaffed facilities and unhappy residents. Nearly three years ago, the Arizona Multihousing Association linked with NAA, Job Corps and another nonprofit to get disadvantaged young adults trained in necessary skills, then connected with paid apprenticeships at participating companies, which could then hire them.


Although this pilot program stalled before the pandemic struck, the association is working toward securing federal funding through a new partner and hopes to relaunch this year.


College/trade school career fairs and job listings. Specialized programs such as real estate management and construction management are good hunting grounds.


Internship programs. In-house internship programs can expose young people to the business under your own roof, where you can evaluate potential hires.


Twice a year, Northland hosts three to six Northeastern University co-op students who work for nearly six months on substantive projects like researching new geographic markets. The program, now in its fifth year, typically draws students in finance or real estate studies.


F&C’s interns concentrate in one department and spend a couple of weeks in others. At summer’s end, they present to executives their projects, recommendations for technology use and more.


“We give them a well-rounded experience so they’re not as siloed as an employee—they see how, say, their role as a developer affects construction or property management or accounting or marketing,” says Chris Guess, Vice President of HR. In 15 years, F&C has hired about 20% of its interns; its Executive Vice President was one.


Inside jobs. At Veritas, 15% of noninternal hires are residents, usually new high school grads trying out a career a few hours a week at the front desk or potential maintenance techs starting out as porters. “We can guide and equip them as they prove themselves,” says Vice President of Operations Jackie Aguirre.


Internal training. If you aim to recruit from within, you may want to train future best candidates. Habitat created a diversity training platform to educate staff on unconscious bias, perceptions and interacting in a changing customer environment.


The ever-evolving three-part series for all staff, offered most months and required annually, is conducted by an outside facilitator. “The more we understand, the better we perform—that’s the basic core of all our trainings,” says Vice President of Learning and Development Ninette Patrick. After all, better performers are more likely to be promoted.


Broader thinking. Anywhere Babbitt and DeMatteo encounter great customer service—mall, repair shop, restaurant—they jot a note on a business card and hand it over: “Call me for career opportunities.”


“We encourage our managers to keep an eye out,” Babbitt says. “Otherwise, we’re placing all our bets on the right people seeing our ads or on stealing talent from competitors. We want to introduce property management to people who may have never have thought about it.”

Retaining talent


Non-monetary compensation and benefits can go a long way toward talent retention, including non-traditional options like birthdays off at Northland and pre-holiday early dismissal at Habitat. Adoption assistance and paid parental leave have proved a plus at some companies. Here’s what else has helped:


Perks. Veritas has spread these around all levels, sending support staff to faraway conferences. “A housekeeper probably isn’t learning new skills at a national conference,” says President John Boriack, “but she’ll feel proud and valued and motivated.”


Awards and recognition. Trio Properties holds an annual competition for its best maintenance shop; includes an employee spotlight in the quarterly newsletter; and runs Employee Appreciation Week, complete with dinner and ice cream deliveries, awards, and a fun contest (winning team gets a day off).


Valuing opinions. Guess credits F&C’s open-door policy and surveys, indirectly, for helping retain staff: “It’s easy for a bunch of executives to write policy with no input. When you encourage everyone’s voice, it creates a sense of buy-in and loyalty.”


Education benefit. Helping staff attain career goals means direct payoff for both employer and employee. “Tuition reimbursement” usually involves a college degree, but “we recognize that being successful doesn’t always require that,” says Babbitt. Northland’s benefit covers certifications, including NAA’s Credential for Green Property Management and Certificate for Apartment Maintenance Technicians.


Career training. About two years ago, Habitat launched a leadership track pilot program where managers could learn aspects of regional management, ownership expectations, property development and more so as to move up. It worked well enough that Habitat plans to institute similar programs for several positions.


This year, a Property Manager was promoted to District Manager and now oversees six properties, and a District Manager became a Regional Manager with a portfolio of 12 properties. Both women are program alumnae.


Overall, a strong training and promotion program benefits worker, company and beyond. “Employers successful at developing their employees and promoting from within are best positioned to retain top talent,” says Babbitt.


“If we can recruit and retain quality candidates,” McJunkins adds, “we can provide better service to our residents—and keep them as well.”



Small Companies, Big Differences

“I’ve often been disappointed with employees we’ve found through traditional sources,” says John Boriack, President of Veritas Equity Management. Folks from corporations tend not to understand the “less structured, sophisticated and policy-driven” environment of the 43-employee firm.


Only 20% of Veritas’ noninternal hires come entirely from outside, and with those, “we look for people with no industry knowledge or inform them how different we are,” Boriack says.


Trio Properties has also had to draw from outside the company and industry as it’s grown, and Regional Property Manager Kelly DeMatteo finds that having just 75 people means she can get in on all hiring decisions.


“Being small allows me more time to devote to each employee and the flexibility to get into the field more often,” though fieldwork should be a priority at any size company, she notes.


Another advantage is in employee communication, which may help indirectly with retention. Having 300 people on a call, DeMatteo says, makes no difference to her—but having one-quarter of that number makes a big difference to those trying to respond and contribute.


“You couldn’t include everyone” and have the same experience, she says. “You’d have to break it up by region or other groups to give people that personal interaction.”