Don't Complicate the Labor Crisis: Take Care of People

( National Pork Board and the Pork Checkoff )

The labor crisis facing agriculture is complicated, but experts say the solution doesn’t have to be. Could developing a team that’s in it for the long haul be more about creating a great work culture and less about implementing more benefits and higher wages?

“Oftentimes I see our industry race to the more tactical efforts (pay, benefits, hours, welcome kits) and miss some obvious cultural approaches that make a big difference.  It’s about doing a lot of things right,” says Jen Sorenson, Iowa Select Farms communication director and National Pork Producers Council vice president.

Working in agriculture isn’t easy, says Jorge Delgado, training and talent development lead for Alltech T²R Program. 

“It’s a harder environment that agricultural workers are exposed to – temperature, working conditions, long hours, smells, safety, etc.,” Delgado says. 

He also says agriculture is not as proactive as some industries in managing human resources and fewer resources are put into recruiting, training, orientations, feedback, annual reviews, safety communication, and creating internal and external cultures.

Add to that a robust economy, weekend hours and a small pool of people to choose from in remote, rural areas (where most large farms are located), and it’s a struggle, agrees Jonathon Hoek, chief executive officer of Summit Smart Farms. 

What motivates people to work? 
To better understand your employees, Delgado says you have to begin by understanding the common drivers that motivate people to work – to acquire, learn, bond and defend.

1.    Drive to acquire.
“All of us want to have something we like – whether it’s a new car, a new phone or a new shirt,” Delgado says. “We can’t overlook benefits and wage – anything that is related to the employee’s capacity to acquire something – that’s why people work.”

2.    Drive to learn. 
Delgado says trainings often focus on training people to be more efficient when it comes to working with animals. But if we really want people to connect the dots, we have to connect to the employee’s ‘why’ in life, he adds. 

“If we can connect the outcomes of being efficient in animal production with their families or what they do, then we will win. For example, if a cow has less mastitis, how does that benefit the employee caring for the cow?”

3.    Drive to bond.
When it comes to creating a great internal culture, you must know your employees, Delgado says. Ask for feedback, do formal reviews, listen to what they have to say. “Sometimes we miss this important element,” he says. “Many times, these employees are eager to express what they need, how they feel and have ideas on how to improve the business that’s remiss to us.”

4.    Drive to defend.
Perhaps the key to a large part of this conversation is connecting your farm’s mission with your employee’s mission, he says.

“Everyone wants to know that what they have created, what they work for, matters,” Delgado says. “If you connect their jobs to their families and that greater sense of providing and protecting their family, they will defend your farm with their lives.”

Avoid the revolving door 
According to the 2019 Farm Journal Ag Labor Study, 57% of livestock operation employers (beef, dairy, swine) operate with employees tenured five years or less. Only 23% of their employees have been with the operation for more than 10 years while 22% have been there less than two years. 

Most pig farms have between a 30% and 50% turnover rate, Hoek says. A 35% turnover can cost as much as 58 cents a pig, according to a model he simulated at the 2019 Leman Swine Conference. According to the Society for Human Resource Management, new employees run about 80% productivity for the first two years – 30 cents a pig. On a $60,000-per-year employee, that adds up, he adds.

“We have the best story in the in the world about what we do and we have the best mission – producing food for a hungry world,” Hoek says. “One of my friends outside of the industry said, ‘Farmers are always so nice. Why do they have a 50% turnover rate?’”

Hoek set out to answer this question by conducting a labor study of 103 employees across seven swine systems that represent about 5% of the U.S. sow herd. From job satisfaction scores to manager assessments of task performance and from size of farm to demographics of farm departments, he says the results were pretty intuitive.

“The higher the job satisfaction score, the higher the pigs per sow per year on the farm,” Hoek says. “We all know that if people enjoy where they are working, they are going to perform better. But this was a good baseline for us as we looked at other attributes that make a farm an irresistible place to work.”

The research confirmed that culture is key.

“Most people don’t leave a job because of their pay,” Hoek says. “Most people leave a job either because they don’t feel like they are recognized, don’t feel like they are measured or don’t feel like they are given the opportunity to advance. They want to know that what they are doing has meaning and they want to see it measured.”

Delgado says the best managers do this by caring for their employees and their families first.

“When you see turnover is really low, look at the manager and how he or she acts with their employees,” Delgado says. “That person is a big reason they will stay. Good managers don’t ask about the animals first, they ask about their families.”

At the end of the day, farms need to make money to survive, Delgado says. But you just can’t forget about the people that are working day in and day out to make that happen.

Leverage assessments to help people win
Research shows that humans are not as good at selecting employees as they think, Hoek says. With the high costs of poor performance and turnover, it’s important to get the right people in the right job. 

“Our founder has a saying that you can’t lead without love,” Hoek says. “How do you truly love someone? You try to know everything you can about them – how they are wired.”

That’s why his company has been focusing on assessments and investing in “human intelligence,” he says.

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