When it rains, it pours. Since the Great Recession hit, Minneapolis-based property manager Dominium has received a record number of applications for a small number of positions: For starters, the firm got a whopping 190 applications for an on-site maintenance job and 140 for an accounts manager opening.

Considering that 75 applications is usually the norm, the strain on the HR department—which has to troll through the resumes and weed out the unqualified applicants—has no doubt increased over the past few years. To make matters worse, many multifamily firms in the industry have had to implement hiring freezes, so in some cases, the 100-plus applications sit untouched. Now, as the market begins to improve and companies report higher occupancies and rents, experts expect to see more “Help Wanted” signs posted in leasing offices and advertised in the classifieds.

Calling All Applicants

Dominium cites increased job offers in markets that have recently seen an uptick in activity, such as Atlanta and Houston. Fortunately, the firm was able to avoid a hiring freeze—even during the toughest economic times. In fact, the company grew during the recession, says Jon Segner, Dominium’s president and chief operating officer, thanks to a focus on distressed properties. The firm also avoided huge layoffs, though it did have a salary freeze lasting from 2009 to 2010.

“We try to go with a model of constantly looking for people, not just looking when we have a spot open,” Segner says. “We’re always trolling for [new] employees; we always have our eyes open.”

On the other hand, Dianna Pittro, executive vice president of Chicago-based RMK Management, says the firm implemented both a wage and hiring freeze back in 2009. In addition, RMK’s employees each “gave back” one day of vacation, and the company introduced job sharing wherever possible. “Due to the combined efforts of all of our staff members in following these RMK procedures, we did not have any layoffs other than our seasonal help,” Pittro says.

Now, thanks to the improving apartment market, RMK has started staffing up again at their Midwest properties for a variety of on-site positions ranging from property managers to maintenance workers.

Tough Decisions

Of course, dusting off the 100-plus applications and reviewing the most qualified isn’t going to be an easy task.

For one thing, the profile of a typical applicant has changed since the Great Recession. Consider that more people are applying for on-site positions who do not come from a property management background, including both recent college graduates and long-time working professionals. Segner cites one dramatic example of an applicant with a Ph.D. in an unrelated field who was applying for a management position. Additionally, firms are seeing applicants who are significantly over-qualified for positions.

Both of those types of candidates might decide to move on to another job as soon as the opportunity arises. “We don’t want people who are just eager to land a job and will move on quickly,” Pittro says. “Growth is positive, but it’s important to get everyone to grow with you.”

And flexibility is a must. “We have enough growth and enough sites that if you falter, you have the ability to move around and find a place that fits you better. It’s not, ‘You’re here and that’s it,’” Pittro adds.

Culture Club

Multifamily firms stress the importance of hiring applicants who fit the company culture, not just those touting the most years of experience. During applicant interviews, Pittro emphasizes the team aspect of the RMK culture. She says that attitude is often more important than experience in selecting the right candidates. This approach seems to be working, as Pittro says that over the past two years, she has seen little to no turnover, and that 23 percent of RMK’s employee base has been with the company for five years or more. (Of course, a lack of turnover can also be attributed to a non-existent job market.)

Houston-based REIT Camden Property Trust also emphasizes company culture as being an important factor in selecting the best hire. Margaret Plummer, vice president of employee development, says that Camden has nine values that all employees must follow, including “working smart,” being goal-oriented, putting customers first, and, not to be forgotten, having fun.

“It’s easy to hire for experience and skills, but it’s harder to make a cultural fit. That’s our focus right now,” Plummer says.