Mark Rowe is Vice President of Talent Acquisition at WellStar Healthcare System in Atlanta, where he recently returned after 10 years at Kaiser Permanente. Having spent a majority of his career in healthcare, we wanted to learn not only about his career trajectory, but also what the last two years have been like for him on the front lines of healthcare hiring and retention. He shared his thoughts on pandemic-induced healthcare shortages, the importance of DEI, wellness, and becoming a boomerang hire.
First of all, tell us about your journey into talent acquisition.
It’s not a new story, that I sort of fell into it. I think that happens to a lot of us. But
I was lucky enough to find a position in the staffing industry back when I first came out of school, and even luckier that that staffing organization was really committed to training and had great leaders. After a few years, I was recruited to start a division hiring IT professionals. I didn’t know anything about IT, but after a couple weeks of training, I learned a lot and
started placing COBOL programmers and RPG programmers, and then grew that business from there.
What made you transition from IT to Healthcare?
I think, like a lot of people that were around on September 11, 2001, I took stock of what the future was going to be. I felt like healthcare was an opportunity that would be stable and also an opportunity to have a little passion for the work that I do. I don’t think I realized how much I would like it when I got into it. I really took everything I learned from the staffing experience I had, from understanding that you need to have a good process, to the fact that you need good data to drive your work and your decisions, and obviously have a method to your madness. When I got into healthcare in 2001, none of that really existed within talent acquisition.
Now you’re a boomerang hire at Wellstar. What’s that like?
I’m coming up on my 90th day this time around, so I’m a boomerang for the first time in my career. It’s a little surreal, but it’s great. I initially worked for a pretty good-sized health system in South Carolina and then move to Wellstar in 2005. I was there for about four years. Then I spent 10-plus years at Kaiser Permanente in talent acquisition. Just recently I had the opportunity to become the VP of talent acquisition for Wellstar. A lot has changed, but also a lot is still the same at Wellstar. It’s been really exciting drinking from a firehose a bit for the first 90 days, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’m not sure I would go somewhere if everything was just perfect, and you were going in and just basically running operations. I like to come in and figure out ways to improve. So it’s been exciting.
How have the impact of COVID-19, then Omicron, and the pandemic-induced talent shortages impacted your work?
When I answer questions like this, I always try to be really careful with my words and adjectives, because at the end of the day, we are in talent acquisition. We weren’t in the units and we weren’t taking care of patients. I’m wary of hyperbole because I’m so close to the hospitals and the nurses that were truly unbelievable.
For us in TA, it was intense and there was a period there where no one really knew what was going to happen. Right about March 2020, so many people just said, whoa…stop. No hiring. We can’t do anything when we don’t know what’s going to happen.
At such a large organization like Kaiser, we had so many people in the pipeline ready to be hired across the organization. That was a full two to three months of just non-stop really digging in and evaluating positions and determining whether we should move forward with them or not.
After that, there was that little bit of a lull where everyone was trying to say, “We might be OK here,” and then everything went haywire with the resignations and the spikes, and then the variants and the surges. Most organizations saw an enormous spike in the number of positions because we’d come so far inward during the initial three months and reduced open positions to pretty much zero. We weren’t hiring anybody. But then, without notice, it just exploded. And most TA leaders were caught without enough recruiters.
Now, the market has changed so much that it’s much harder to find recruiters. Across the TA industry, it’s been like this since basically mid-2020 through the fall of 2021.
What do you think has been the biggest impact on talent that you’ve seen as a result of the last two years?
I would say it’s fatigue. Honestly, across the board, people are really running out of that energy that we’ve all tried to sustain because it’s just been relentless. Whether that’s nurses who are fatigued or recruitment teams who you know just really need to take care of their well-being. It’s very difficult because as a leader, you bring everybody together at an all-hands meeting and I want to genuinely make sure people are taking care of themselves, but I also understand the demands that are coming at them. But I really do think we have to focus on our well-being in this situation.
What have the Great Resignation and staffing shortages looked like from your point of view?
We’ve seen a reduction in our number of applications for requisition by a minimum of 50%, and in many, many areas where it’s much higher than that.
Where are the areas where you see the biggest shortages?
Nursing is probably as bad as anything, but then there are other clinical areas like respiratory therapy where you generally would have a decent applicant flow and really do not now. In the past, we never had a situation where we didn’t have enough candidates for food and nutrition, environmental services, and housekeeping, and now we have very few applicants…and that’s been challenging. I think to some extent, there’s always a little bit of a narrative that we needed to just work faster and increase our throughput. I think this is a topic that should be near and dear to a lot of TA leaders’ hearts. I’ve been really leaning on data to try to flip that conversation, because Wellstar is no different than most organizations right now. We’re seeing a pretty high level of turnover than in past markets and times.
How are TA leaders approaching these shortages differently today than in the past?
When you had a spike, either in volume and or turnover, in most times they would look to talent acquisition and say, “We need to open the faucet big time because we’re losing people” or “We’ve got this spike and we need more people.” In the past we could do that. You could throw some resources at it, move your resources around a little bit if you wanted to and you could fill that funnel a little more and turn the faucet back down when you catch up.
The market is not that way now. The faucet’s open, and if there were 200 nurses out there, trust me, we’d be interviewing them and hiring them, and so would all of our competitors. But there are not 200 nurses out there. So many times, it takes being really, really transparent with your data to show leaders exactly what the here-and-now is, even if it doesn’t make the team look good. In other words, I’m sure there are pockets where we’re not moving them along quickly enough. That’s fine. That’s on us will we’ll fix that so it doesn’t happen again. But if you’re not being transparent, then you’re not shining the light on potentially what the real problem is, and I think that can be a mistake.
Sometimes we don’t want to share all that behind-the-curtain stuff with our hiring leaders because we’re worried about what they’re going to say or think. I find that being transparent and showing the good, bad, and the ugly, actually helps shine a light on the real problems. Then, you can partner together to solve for it.
I find that when hiring leaders start realizing how few candidates there are, they are willing to understand that, and understand that we’re also focusing on the strategy piece. Of course, on the front end we will work hard to get our fair share of candidates, but understanding that the market is different is critical. There’s a shift in thinking to “I could make a bigger difference if I lose less people” and I think that’s an important transition.
It sounds like TA leaders are juggling a combination of retention, upskilling, and taking risks.
That is what we’re all living in right now and trying to figure out. I’ve heard a lot of people say it’s a little like the wild, wild, west right now. Everyone is trying to do what they have to do to either keep or find the talent they need. It will be interesting if this really is the fifth and final surge, but I certainly don’t think that anything is going to go back to the way it was.
When do you think things will get back to normal?
I think even if volumes come down, it’s going to take a few years at the very least for things to get even close to what they were pre-pandemic. So I do hope that some good things come out of this, like evaluating talent in a different way compared to how we’ve always done it. Experience and education have always been how we grade and value positions, so hiring leaders write job descriptions that require at least a certain number of years of experience so they can attract the talent. It’s this never-ending cycle, when in reality those years of experience may not be what really matters.
How do you think companies should evaluate talent differently?
There may be a coding program or an app that’s only been around for a couple months and it could be incredibly valuable for the role that you’re recruiting for. But if our systems grade positions based on years of experience, that makes it tough to necessarily attract the right person who may have that skill set for that particular application or coding method.
You mentioned the need to nurture the talent you have as well as recruit new talent. Is this a new focus for TA?
We’re spending a lot of time evaluating the balance between what do we do for our current team members to make sure we keep them and support them, and then we’re working hard on the front end to still be aggressive and get our fair share of the talent coming in.
So many times, HR leaders can be too siloed and we’re all so busy that we don’t necessarily integrate ourselves very well. I can tell you that at Wellstar, the leaders of those functions, whether it be TA, learning, or total rewards, we’re together. We’re HR business partners who work together every single week, almost every day. We really share exactly what we’re doing to make sure that we’re connected better. And you know our strategies makes sense downstream or upstream.
Looking to the future, what is a major focus for you right now?
Diversity, equity, and inclusion. Everyone knows how important that is, but I think that that’s going to be critical now and into the future. We have an incredible leader at Wellstar who is going to be building that out even more than what we’ve had in the past. And if you look at our people strategy, DEI is one of the most important things.
Within that, you’re going to be seeing, especially in early career talent, systems that allow us to hire for talent and train for skill as opposed to what I described. I’m very excited about that because I think that’s another one of the things that’s going to come out of this pandemic.
Finally, what lessons have you learned over these last few years?
I honestly think well-being. For me personally, I was traveling every couple of weeks before March of 2020 and then all of a sudden it stopped. All of a sudden, I was in a basement working from home, long hours for periods of time, not even getting outside. That was nothing compared to what people went through who were either caregivers or people who got sick.
I can’t imagine this isn’t going to be a period of our lives where we all look back and say, you know, perhaps my perspective changed a little bit. And I tell my teams all the time, guys, it’s just recruitment. Let’s not treat it like it’s life and death. What we do may be complicated, but it’s not hard if that makes sense. I get that there’s navigation that has to happen. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to take care of ourselves.
I’m excited to think ahead when hopefully the surges are over, and we can settle into whatever the new norm is and we can thrive. We’ve got to put the joy and the fun back into talent acquisition. We all got into it because at one point it was fun, and we got joy out of it. I don’t know that I can say it’s been fun the last couple of years for a lot of us, but I know that it can be again. So finding that joy is one of my biggest goals.