The Retirement Villages Association (RVA) recently conducted a major formal review of training for retirement village staff. JUDE BARBACK considers what the findings mean for retirement village managers.

Retirement village managers wear many hats. With customer service and staff management essential components for the job, it comes as no surprise that recruitment advertisements for village managers typically call for excellent inter-personal skills. Ideally managers should also have administrative nous, technological know-how and good organisational skills. The swift growth of retirement villages and the fast-evolving nature of the industry itself require managers to be adaptable and able to lead villages through times of change.

As there is no prerequisite training or mandatory qualification needed to become the manager of a retirement village, it stands to reason managers come from a wide variety of backgrounds. Mike Flattery, manager of Pacific Coast retirement village in Papamoa, was previously an officer in the New Zealand Army before holding several management appointments including at Massey University and Orewa College. Flattery says these managerial positions provided him with the right mix of skills needed to run a retirement village.

But how can we be sure previous experience in other fields is going to be sufficient preparation for managing dozens of staff and hundreds of residents. To an extent we are reliant on the system sustaining itself – after all, it is unlikely village operators are going to employ a manager who is unfit for, or even incapable of doing, the job. For this reason, there are so many shining examples of excellent village managers to be found.

Furthermore, the operators tend to roll out their own managerial training and professional development courses to their villages. While this seems to be beneficial for those managers under the umbrellas of the ‘giants’ of the industry – the Metlifecares, the Ryman Healthcares and the like – what about those managers employed by smaller organisations, which may perhaps lack the funding for such training opportunities?

Margaret Owens, convenor of the RVA education committee and Bupa’s general manager for independent living, agrees this is a valid question. “Our challenge with industry training is that the sector is very diverse and this makes centralised training programmes hard, as they are not necessarily relevant to everybody. Villages are large and small, corporate or private, profit or not for profit – all require different settings for their managers’ skills.”

This was one of the main issues driving the recent major formal review of education and training for staff in retirement villages. The review, which took place late last year, was administered by the RVA, with Duncan Macdonald of Selwyn Care and Ed Thomas, Association Manager of RVA, working alongside Careerforce to compile and roll out the survey to villages throughout New Zealand.

It was the first survey of its kind in the four years John Collyns has been at the helm of the RVA. Collyns, a “keen advocate of training”, claims to have been particularly inspired by a one-day seminar in Hamilton in May 2011 that dealt with recognising and dealing with the onset of dementia. The strong uptake of this seminar prompted Collyns to consider what other areas might be in need of more attention from a training perspective.

Prior to the RVA’s training review, Collyns said he will be interested to see if it revealed a need for a more standardised approach to managerial training. Apparently a remote learning qualification offered to retirement village managers that drew on their ‘on-the-job’ training was not widely embraced; Collyns believed this to be largely because corporate villages, which comprise approximately two-thirds of retirement villages in New Zealand, tend to offer internal training programmes for their managers.

Ocean Shores in Mount Maunganui, owned by Lend Lease, is one such village. Manager Sandy Quigley thinks working for a large corporation has allowed her more opportunities for training and professional development. Last year Quigley attended a two-day sales and marketing seminar in Australia, the RVA conference and a village manager conference.

Summerset’s village managers and nurse managers currently attend managerial training conferences twice a year and additionally as required. Summerset had previously taken a more ‘village-by-village’ approach to managerial training. However the organisation is experiencing such rapid growth it is essentially starting again with training operations and rolling out more centralised processes.

Harriet Palmer of Summerset says they have now embraced the three-month induction training for all caregivers, meaning everyone will have the desirable Level 2 qualifications, and a fresh look at its managerial training programmes is bound to follow suit.

Many village managers think a standardised approach to managerial training would not be appropriate because every manager has a different style and has different needs. “All managers have their own techniques, as not all training can be obtained from text books – especially in our industry. You need to really understand and work with your residents to find out what makes a successful, happy village that everyone wants to be a part of,” says Donna Prince, manager of Selwyn Heights Village in Hillsborough.

Meanwhile, managers of smaller organisations and independent villages tend to focus on specific training needs. These managers appear to have more freedom in their choice of training, as long as they complete the necessary amount of training to satisfy audit requirements. Most managers seem comfortable with this arrangement; as one remarked, who is better placed to identify their training needs than they themselves?

However, common training needs emerge, such as managing staff and keeping abreast of swiftly changing technology, something Heather Dillon of Vision Senior Living identified as a common training need among their village managers.

It is, therefore, perhaps unsurprising that the major outcome of the formal review was to shape a core training programme for managers that aims to address these common and key aspects. Owens says there are specific areas in which managers need to be well educated and effective, such as event management, pastoral care of their residents and handling people in the early or moderate stages of dementia. Sales and marketing, property issues and everyday management of time are also important areas.

The findings of the review revealed the need to focus on the compliance requirements of the Retirement Villages Act and Code of Practice for village managers. For this reason, the core training programme will be largely derived from what is required to comply with the Code of Practice. A series of seminars that speak to the aforementioned key areas of village management will supplement this core training. These seminars will include the shared experience of industry leaders, peer group support and the availability of experienced mentors, according to Owens.

Surely a more standardised approach begs a more universal delivery? The RVA agrees. “We are also endeavouring to develop some of our training in an e-learning environment, which recognises the requirement for new managers to be up to speed with key technical issues quickly in an environment and setting that is accessible to them but doesn’t involve a need to spend time out of the village,” says Owens.

Collyns believes online training will overcome the problems typically associated with face-to-face training, such as cost, venue and time considerations. However the RVA hasn’t ruled out running some refresher courses on a face-to-face basis so people can network and share experiences. The amendments to the Code of Practice – when they come through – will provide a good opportunity to run some training sessions around New Zealand.

Collyns envisages the managerial training extending to more “age-centric” issues, such as recognising dementia in a village and dealing with difficult people, as individual modules; such courses would be provided by specialist trainers.

No doubt this will require the involvement of providers like Health Ed Trust; their ACE programme may be a benchmark for many managers when employing staff, but it currently doesn’t address the training needs for the managers themselves.

Managerial training is also an untapped area for Careerforce. “We don’t have any training specific for retirement village managers. We do work heavily with retirement villages but that is more focused on their staff at the grass roots,” says Helena Coolen of Careerforce.

Looking across the Tasman, Villa Maria – a major provider of residential, community and disability services in Victoria – partnered with RMIT University to develop a one-year Diploma in Management course, which focuses on management and leadership skills in the context of aged care. The course is apparently part of the organisation’s strategic plan to develop its leadership and management as well as allowing for career pathways and helping retain staff.

Would such an approach suit our organisations and systems? Quite possibly, but it is clear there is no ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to village manager training. The core training programme currently in development by the RVA is bound to be supplemented by organisations addressing specific training needs as they arise. This hybrid approach will hopefully serve to maintain the core of high-calibre managers currently running our retirement villages.

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