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WATERLOO — Friendship Village has been a Courier Employer of Choice in the past — an honor its president and CEO Lisa Gates took very seriously.

“This is particularly close to my heart, because employees are my passion,” Gates said at the time.

The leadership team at Friendship Village viewed the honor as a strong indicator that employees enjoy their jobs and feel appreciated.

This realization lead the team to craft a specific goal.

“We decided we wanted to be an Employer of Choice,” she said. “We believed this emphasis would help us focus on retaining existing employees and recruit new ones.”

As a provider of full-service retirement living, including geriatric health and wellness services, filling positions is difficult. This segment of the health care industry is the hardest hit by workforce shortages, and Iowa is no exception.

“Our staff becomes a part of residents’ lives, and vice versa,” Gates explained. “We work in our residents’ homes; they don’t live where we work.”

All signs indicate that needs will exceed the available applicant pool for the foreseeable future, said Gates.

U.S. Census Bureau statistics project the metro area’s population aged 65 or older will exceed 20 percent in the next five years. Like other areas of the state, the Cedar Valley’s 85-plus age group is one of the fastest growing populations.

It’s a population longtime employees enjoy serving, said nominator Jayme Ollendieck.

“We have the absolute best residents who love living at (Friendship Village) and always bring a smile to our faces,” she said.

However, feedback from anonymous surveys highlighted key areas in which Friendship Village could improve, said Kayla Funk, director of the facility’s Landmark Commons community.

“From our anonymous employee surveys, right or wrong, we knew there were areas in which we do better,” said Funk.

To that end, managers stepped up efforts to deliver professional development, opportunities for community involvement, and recognition of employee achievements and milestones.

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In July, the organization launched It Takes a Village Childcare, a 24-hour center that can accommodate up to 105 children ages 5 and younger. It is open to the community, with discounted rates for employees.

The center also offers residence volunteer opportunities, where they can forge multi-generational bonds.

“It’s a win-win-win for families, residents, and the community,” said Gates.

“We stepped up our training, too, with programming from Hawkeye Community College,” said Sherry Turner, director of compliance and education. “The latest is the Student Nurse Housing program.”

Through the initiative, students enrolled in the program can work at Friendship Village 20 hours per week. Students also are eligible to live at Friendship Village at a discounted rate of $200 per month, which includes utilities, laundry, and a board plan.

“When they graduate, they can become a nurse here and receive tuition reimbursement,” Turner explained.

It’s a path many long-term Friendship Village employees from various career backgrounds have followed, said Diana Derifield.

“I started as part-time wait staff when I was in high school,” she recalled.

It was the same for Funk. She worked at Friendship Village part time when she was in college. A full-time offer was extended when she graduated.

“They have watched me graduate, get married, start a family, and have been there with me as a family,” she said. “They care about their employees and want them all to succeed.”

In Derifield’s case, Friendship Village offered a full-time position and then paid for culinary school.

Today, she’s director of dining services, and she’s been able to provide similar opportunities for other current and former staffers.

“I didn’t think I’d still be here 35 years later,” she said. “I fell in love with the residents, and it became my career.”

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