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Talent acquisition in health care: 7 skills to recruit for and planning a future workforce

Anna Peters AvatarAnna Peters
July 31, 2018


Where is talent missing in health care, and how can recruiters identify that talent? How can health care talent acquisition leaders plan their workforce to successfully compete and provide great patient care? We got into these questions with Janine Truitt, Chief Innovations Officer at Talent Think Innovations, and with Pam Baker, founder of Journeous. Collectively, Truitt and Baker spent about 30 years in health care and pharmaceuticals, including in HR and TA. They each provided unique insight into how to fill talent shortages, what kind of talent is needed, how to imagine the future of the health care workforce, and how recruiters can survive in this industry.

Recruiting and HR in health care is high stress and high intensity work. “Health care is a tough gig,”
says Truitt. “It’s a tough game for HR. If you can survive there, then you can survive most anywhere really.” When she worked in the industry, Truitt felt “strapped to the last minute, trying to get people through. There was just never enough of us and such a demand for more and more and more, and you have to churn it out.” In some organizations, Truitt saw 100% recruiter turnover. “You were guaranteed that if a recruiter walked in the door today, they were going to be gone within eight to nine months or less. Nobody made it to a year. Very few people made it two years.”

Addressing the intensity of health care talent acquisition

Truitt’s advice for TA leaders is to analyze the structure around the hiring cycle. The support roles are critical to the success of health care recruiting, she says. Without a coordinator, an assistant and even more support, “you cannot survive.”

AI also offers promising solutions to health care recruiting, including by helping organizations make better matches. When developing these AI products, however, Baker emphasizes the need to wear an inclusive lens.  “The more diverse of a group that you have working on product development, the better able you can address the needs of the market and consumer. Diversity of experience, certainly race and gender and sexual orientation, all those things are critical to understanding the consumer space.”

Filling the talent shortages in health care and planning a future workforce

Truitt believes the reality of current talent shortages, whether in health care or anything else, is “we’re not educating enough people on the possibilities,” to even spark an initial interest in those fields. Building awareness among young people, she says, could broaden their views and be part of the solution to filling those shortages. Reach into potential talent pools before they stumble upon the opportunities themselves. Truitt believes organizations can even connect at the grade school level. “All kids really know, unless their parents work as a phlebotomist or something like that, all they know is doctor and nurse.” Employers have an opportunity to go into the schools to educate about the vast number of opportunities.

All recruiters want “somebody that can walk on water right out of school,” says Truitt. But sometimes the criteria are just too tight and don’t allow recruiters to find enough qualified candidates. In her recruiting days, Truitt would meet nursing grads who were “super excited about what they were going into, and we couldn’t offer them jobs. Not because we couldn’t, but we just wouldn’t.” They would have to adjust their career path and work a different clinical role for which they were overqualified, and which wouldn’t necessarily pipe into a nursing job. Another part of the solution has to be taking a fresh look at the hiring criteria for each job.

Baker adds that candidates with nontraditional backgrounds must be seriously considered. Health care organizations need teams whose members think differently from one another, and who think more broadly than we’ve seen traditionally.

The organizational structure is critical to recruiting and retaining talent, and the structure that works for one organization may not work for another. Truitt knows of one company that decided on a very centralized HR function and talent acquisition function. “It really did not work very well,” she says. The problem was that they kept acquiring more facilities, and that model simply didn’t lend itself well to a centralized HR function. In the end, she says, “they killed their staff. I mean literally. People [left] on stretchers from time to time.” For that particular organization, Truitt would have liked to see onsite HR solely responsible for those sites. Your current structure might be working today, but you have to be fluid, she adds, because of so many disruptions to health care. Insurance is changing the industry, there are fewer privately owned institutions and more large organizations “that have the money and have the capital to gobble up the smaller systems.”

Finally, when organizations are planning to expand, it is critical to involve talent acquisition and invest in needed resources.

Seven skills health care employers must identify in their talent pool

Baker and Truitt identify seven valuable skills and competencies needed across health care.

  1. Baker sees a lack of people “who have the ability to make sense of all of the data that is coming out.” To be successful, health care organizations need people who can analyze “data from the consumers, from physicians, from a payment perspective in terms of outcomes,” while maintaining alignment with the goal of providing great patient care.
  2. Health care organizations need people who can think beyond the traditional competitive mindset, says Baker. The industry is subject to so much major change that organizations need individuals who “can look out a couple of steps on the horizon,” observing not only what other organizations are doing, but also what they hear from customers and practitioners.
  3. People who have particular skills related to the reimbursement process also offer great value to a health care employer. That “continues to be messy and challenging and I don’t think that’s going to change in the near term,” says Baker. People who can understand all the stakeholder perspectives—from manufacturers to insurers—are needed.
  4. Baker also sees a need for people who can really understand the consumer mindset. “Traditionally, health care has been very focused on the physician, but obviously over the last 10 to 20 years that’s really changed. And people who have the ability to understand what individuals are doing, why they’re doing some of that and how that can influence the care, and the offerings that are put out in the market [are valuable].”
  5. Above all, Truitt says people working in health care must have compassion. “Compassion and empathy is huge. You really are serving such a span of people and if you don’t have empathy or compassion, I think you will not be serving the greater good.”
  6. “To work in health care you need to be highly adaptive, and probably not a very rigid and diffuse person because things change on the fly,” says Truitt. There are things that will be asked of you at the 11th hour and it will be expected of you deliver. […] In healthcare it’s literally somebody’s life in your hands.” And that urgency is true across all roles, even when hiring for the janitor, she adds. “If you don’t clean the rooms fast enough to standard, that’s a problem because we can’t get people into rooms.”
  7. Critical and creative thinking. “If I were in the shoes of a talent acquisition professional, I would want to ask people about experiences they’ve had where they’ve had to connect the dots where there isn’t an answer key in the back, and how have they taken a relatively myopic project or focus area and expanded it to pull in other components that weren’t necessarily logical.” So you’re looking for imaginative people who can “survive in a world where some of the lines are a bit blurred.”

Surviving and succeeding as a health care recruiter

Truitt believes it’s not necessary for recruiters to hang their hat on a specialized niche, because you can learn how to recruit for any role. “Recruitment is recruitment” at the end of the day. “If you’ve recruited a manufacturing person, you can certainly learn how to recruit scientists. You [learn the] language, you learn the source pools.” This adaptiveness and willingness to learn is what Truitt attributes to her success. “What made me successful was really digging in, and being able to talk instrumentation.”

Perhaps the secret to success as a health care recruiter is a deep concern for people and their health care, says Truitt. “You have to have that interest and passion, in order to survive on your worst days. […] What carried me through was the fact that I had gone into health care understanding what it meant for the communities we serve, and I was very mindful about trying to choose organizations that I thought were making that impact. So for me it was a bigger mission.”

Finally, recruiters can be successful by being ready for those 11-hour urgencies. Always have candidates in your back pocket, Truitt adviises. “It literally is almost like you’re farming humans,” says Truitt. There are roles that simply cannot be left open, so recruiters must be ready to fill those roles as quickly as possible.

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