Jess ElmquistJuly 11, 2023
Topics: Candidate Experience

Instead of Shrinking From the Labor Shortage, This Hospital System Doubled Down by Boldly Innovating

The health care talent shortage is a story that is well told by now. But just how bad is it?

According to research findings presented at a U.S. Senate hearing, total employment of registered nurses alone fell by more than 100,000 between 2020 and 2021, the biggest decline since at least 1980.

RNs shifted away from hospitals and into other settings such as outpatient clinics, doctors’ offices, and schools.

RN employment recovered sharply enough in 2022 to the point where nurse employment and earnings have actually grown at or above their pre-pandemic trends. Amazing.

Most notable, though, is that all of the growth in RN employment between 2019 and 2022 occurred outside of hospitals, according to a Dartmouth professor who testified at the hearing. This explains why hospitals continue reporting shortages of RNs despite robust growth of the overall RN workforce, the professor told lawmakers.

“Our country is perilously short of nurses, and those we do have are often not working in the settings that could provide the most value,” said another witness, Sarah Szanton, dean of the Johns Hopkins School of Nursing. “This was true before the pandemic and has become more acute.”

So what’s the chief talent acquisition officer of a big hospital system to do under circumstances like that?

To find out, I invited Eric Van Duren of Bon Secours Mercy Health to join me on an episode of “Smarter.” What he had to say could well serve as a blueprint to success for any HR executive facing a tough hiring market, regardless of industry.

“When the environment gets complex, it can be very natural to go within a shell, to play defense,” he said. “When in fact, it may be time to play offense, get more aggressive, and innovate.”

Watch the full episode below, listen to it on Apple or Spotify, or continue reading for the big takeaways!


The Ministry

Bon Secours (“good help” in French) is one of the largest operators of Roman Catholic hospitals in the United States. The Cincinnati-based company traces its history to the 19th century when women religious came to the U.S. to take care of the poor and immigrants. The company runs about 50 hospitals domestically and in Ireland.

“Through partnerships and by investing in innovative processes, technology, and products, we are continually striving to drive health care quality while reducing costs and addressing health care issues facing entire communities,” the company said on its website.

Van Duren explained how tech enhances his ability to staff hospitals to meet the needs of patients instead of just throwing more recruiters at the problem.

“It's easier to scale if you have the right technology, the right platforms in place,” he said.

Recruiters, by the way, do not like to schedule interviews. That should not come as a news flash to CHROs. So do your recruiters a favor — automate interview scheduling so they can do higher-value work. You’re going to make their day.

Hundreds of Thousands of Candidates

Bon Secours routinely hires 20,000-plus people a year to staff up, which means interviewing hundreds of thousands of candidates to reach that headcount. And the company is offering personalized experiences to each and every one of those hundreds of thousands. How do they achieve that at scale?

“Through artificial intelligence, through automation,” Van Duren said.

I just love that idea of building scale into a program. It affords flexibility when you want to ramp up or tap the brakes on staffing. Van Duren is spot on that connecting with candidates at a one-to-one level and at scale is going to be more important than ever before.

Empower Your Employees

One of my favorite expressions is "working at top of license." It’s mostly used in health care settings, and it means working at your level of education and training. Doctors, pharmacists, and oncologists work at top of license when they’re practicing exactly what they’re trained to.

That's a cool concept. It actually works the same way in talent acquisition.

On Van Duren’s team, technology allows his people to level up to the work that they truly want to do rather than some of the tasks that can be automated. Or, as he puts it, “unhandcuffing your employees.”

Absolutely true, the future is now. Which is why Van Duren is building a foundation today. He knows the pressure his team is under to staff. He doesn’t need to read the newspaper to know that there’s a labor shortage impacting the industry; it’s his lived experience. So he’s building and scaling something now that will help his team staff for the future. Good forward thinking right there.

Walking the Talk on Investing in Talent

In my line of work I’ve come across plenty of executives who talk the talk about investing in talent. They talk a good game. But at Bon Secours they’re backing up their words with actions. They’re actually doing it. And the nice part about it is they have the full faith and support from the highest echelons of the company.

“It's absolutely one of our competitive differentiators,” Van Duren said. “It's easy to say we're going to invest in talent but to do it, that's what makes it different.”

That’s an important distinction because the executive level is often where great ideas go to die. The C-suite can sometimes be the hardest group to convince because they are pretty entrenched in the ways that they like to do things. So to hear about an executive who says change is the most important thing that I can do right now for the benefit of my team is just huge.

That differentiation in the employment brand comes in handy when nurses can pick and choose an employer. When your career site jumps out at a prospective employee, when the application process is so quick and easy that a nurse doesn’t have to navigate ten different places — those are the little things that make a nurse say, “this company looks interesting. I think I’ll apply here.”

The Return on Investment

Naturally when there’s talk about allocating time, talent, and treasure into any endeavor, you want to see a return on investment. It didn’t take long for the team at Bon Secours to start seeing results.

“We go live and we see nurse applicant flow go up and it’s like OK, there's something here,” Van Duren recalled. “We've been able to fill more jobs and really lower our vacancy rate, which is delivering value directly to patients.”

How can you argue with results like that? An uptick in nurse applicant flow, more candidates, and a lower vacancy rate? That translates into delivering value directly to the patients who come to expect impeccable care.

I loved my conversation with Eric Van Duren. I hope you took away a couple of useful tips on how to get the most from your TA team.

Remember: throwing more recruiters isn’t always going to solve your labor problem. AI and automation is a big part of the equation. If you want to see the benefits, drop me a line on LinkedIn and I’ll be glad to show you how.

About Smarter

“Smarter” is a podcast where I engage with top experts and senior leaders to uncover the big people trends, unlock the insights, and listen for new ideas related to purpose, people, and the processes that work the best. Let’s get smarter together.

Jess Elmquist

Jess Elmquist is the Chief Human Resources Officer and Chief Evangelist at Phenom. In a previous career as the Chief Learning Officer at Life Time, the healthy way of life company, Jess hired more than 200,000 people and spoke to hundreds of his executive peers about talent trends.

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