Knowledge Exchange Partner
Workforce Development for Agriculture
Volume 15, Issue 9
Workforce Development for Agriculture
Farmers, fishermen and forest product producers have long been saying that it’s extremely difficult to get entry-level workers, such as field laborers. This labor shortage combined with a desire for efficiency has led to increasing efforts and investment to mechanize tasks on farms, boats and forests, along with the overall increasing size and complexity of these operations. While these advances have led to increased farm and worker productivity and output, and helped control costs in some cases, it also means that today’s producers need higher-skilled workers than they may have needed in the past.
This increase in higher-skilled positions, coupled with economic and demographic trends in the rural Northeast, means that it’s not just entry-level workers that are in short supply. Producers report they face extreme challenges hiring and retaining workers at a wide range of skill levels and pay grades, and that many higher-skilled, higher-paying jobs have gone unfilled, resulting in missed opportunities for workers and constraining the growth of farming, fishing and forestry enterprises.
And it’s not just farms. The entire food system, ranging from producers, to processors, to merchants and distributors are struggling to maintain adequate staffing levels. The situation has grown so acute that milk had to be dumped in June and July of this year due to processing plant constraints.
Because of this significant and growing problem, the State University of New York is researching the agricultural and food workforce needs in the state. While plans are still being developed, one firm that has stepped up to address the issue is Cayuga Milk Ingredients (CMI).
Julia Smith, Organizational Development Manager at CMI, says, “Our society in general, has really failed to offer kids meaningful career development pathways other than going to college. And as a result, many good-paying jobs in skilled trades are going unfilled. We want to help change that.”
She notes that CMI has a number of career paths that don’t require college degrees — but they do require advanced skills. Not content to complain about the status quo, CMI has taken steps to tackle this issue, including developing apprenticeship programs in its processing plant and on its affiliated dairy farms.
While Smith concedes that apprenticeships won’t solve the workforce problem on their own, they are ways to help develop skilled employees and offer young people good career pathways with room for advancement. In a nutshell, apprenticeships combine paid employment with both work-based and classroom-based learning, along with mentorship, to build and develop the apprentice’s skills. It requires commitment on the part of both the employer and the apprentice, but it is a way to help address recruitment, retention and “skills gaps” in the available labor pool. In some cases, funding is available from the state to support the cost of these programs.
The days of simply putting a “Help Wanted” sign in the window and getting a stream of qualified applicants in the door (if that was ever true) are over. If today’s farms, processors and other natural resource-based businesses want to find, keep and develop a strong team of skilled employees, it requires a multi-pronged approach:
- Always be on the lookout for good potential employees. Start with early exposure. Build relationships with area teachers and schools. Host field trips and farm visits. If they have an ag program or an FFA chapter, partner with them.
- Talk to current employees about openings and workforce needs — your current team can be your best recruiters.
- Don’t limit yourself to certain areas or communities – reach out to diverse audiences.
- Commit to offer good jobs. While most farms have relatively “flat” organizational structures, even a small farm may have room for advancement or skill growth.
- Don’t be afraid to train. Recognize the people coming in the door may not have the skills you need — but that you can develop them. “Hire for attitude – train for skill.”
- Your best people will want to learn and grow in their career. A common hesitation among some employers is, “what if we train our employees and they leave?” Consider the alternative – what if you don’t train and they stay? Accept that not everyone will work out, and that some people will move on.
- Some of your best employees may be people who will eventually outgrow your organization. But don’t limit them or consider that a failure. Instead, be proud of helping to develop someone’s career and life and consider that it’s better to have a star employee for a limited time than a dud for any amount of time.
- As your employees develop, and become more experienced, it’s incumbent on you as the employer to offer meaningful employment and opportunities for growth. Your top performers won’t stay if you can’t offer them a path forward.
- Ultimately, the same things that make good employees stay are the things that will draw prospective employees to your door. If you want good employees, you need to offer good jobs.
- Formal, structured development programs are often best, but if your operation doesn’t lend itself to that, perhaps there are partnership opportunities with schools or other organizations you can take advantage of. Even informal, on-the-job instruction and learning can be useful in developing your staff.
- Don’t wait for your employees to come to you. If you see someone with potential, be proactive. Ask them if they would be interested in taking a class or additional training. Do you have a driver who would be interested in getting a CDL? Would a shop tech like to take a welding class? There are many possibilities.
Ultimately, as an industry, employers need to be proactive to find qualified, skilled and motivated people. We have to build and develop our workforce because you can’t be a top-performing organization without top-performing employees. Identify talent as early as possible, offer exposure and experience on your farm, and when you do get someone who wants to grow with your business, don’t hesitate to invest in them so they have the opportunity to grow along with your business.
Editor: Chris Laughton
Contributors: Chris Laughton and Tom Cosgrove
Farm Credit East Disclaimer: The information provided in this communication/newsletter is not intended to be investment, tax, or legal advice and should not be relied upon by recipients for such purposes. Farm Credit East does not make any representation or warranty regarding the content, and disclaims any responsibility for the information, materials, third-party opinions, and data included in this report. In no event will Farm Credit East be liable for any decision made or actions taken by any person or persons relying on the information contained in this report.