Laboring With Labor

It’s almost become as predictable as rain. Each year when CropLife® magazine compiles information for its annual CropLife 100 retailers survey, the problem of finding and keeping qualified employees ranks high on the list of obstacles to profitability. Historically, this issue has finished as the No. 1 factor to retailers growing their businesses, mentioned by anywhere from 16% to 50% of the respondents.

However, this predictability has been anything but in recent years. In the 2005 CropLife 100 survey, labor problems finished a distant fourth among the key limiting growth factors, mentioned by only 26% of the respondents. Higher fuel costs and margin pressures ranked higher on the list. In the 2006 survey, the difficulty of finding and keeping the labor force didn’t even make it into the Top 5 of retailer concerns.

Does this mean the problem of retaining good workers is getting easier? In a word, says R. Hovey Tinsman III, president of Twin State Inc., Da­venport, IA, no.

“Labor quality is the No. 1 issue facing our organization for the next two to three years,” says Tinsman. “If unresolved, we could be facing very significant cutbacks or changes in our offerings. It seems to be just as critical for new hires as well as current long-term staff. This area is a very big deal for us!”

C.R. Warner, president of Warner Fertilizer Co., Somerset, KY, agrees. “The limited availability of dependable, qualified employees is one of our chief concerns,” says Warner.

Wanted: CDLs

In particular, says Jim Shelton, agronomy division manager for Land­mark Service Cooperative, Cottage Grove, WI, the quest for commercial driver license (CDL) holders has been especially difficult. “Finding part-time, qualified CDL drivers remains a challenge,” says Shelton. “Driver demand has become so great in our area, it is nearly impossible to find. Even if you offer to train them to achieve the CDL, you still have problems attracting and maintaining CDL drivers.” Most retailers expect this shortage of qualified CDLs to get even worse as ethanol expansion eats up more truck shipping space in 2007 and beyond.

According to these and other industry insiders, the shrinking labor pool continues to be very, very shallow. Most believe that the issue didn’t finish as high as others on the 2006 CropLife 100 survey because it was overshadowed by newer, “more widely discussed” topics such as higher fuel costs and declining crop input margins.

Sadly, retailers agree that the ability to find and keep qualified workers will only get worse as the population ages and less labor-intensive businesses continue to grow going forward. “The whole agricultural industry is struggling with getting labor and that’s not about to change anytime in the near or long term future,” says Pat Avery, senior vice president and general manager, retail business for J.R. Simplot Co. AgriBusiness, Boise, ID. “As a result, wages are going up significantly for companies like ours. On average, I think we’ve increased our wage structure for workers 10% to 12% across the board in the past few years. We’ve offered signing bonuses and retention bonuses, but there’s still a shortage of available manpower.”

What’s the answer to finding more workers? According to several retailers, there are a few options for locating potential employees. One is to offer a bonus to current employees that recruit someone to join the company. Checking with local colleges to find ag-oriented graduates and then train them in “the ways of the retail world” is another.

According to Avery, Simplot has taken a slightly different path when looking for new employees. In many years, the company has contacted retirees that once worked for the retailer to return to help out during the busiest times of the year. Recruiting school teachers during their time off from teaching and smaller area growers looking for extra work has also worked for Simplot.

“Myself, I’ve found that recruiting folks just out of the military to work for us is pretty rewarding,” he says. “These individuals tend to be well-trained, disciplined, and hard working — all the traits that make the best field operators for ag retailers.”

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