Recruiting: Easy As 1-2-3

There’s a secret behind the business success measured in tons and traits sold. It’s talent, and today’s agribusinesses are learning that this commodity is becoming increasingly scarce. But it doesn’t have to be difficult to acquire. In fact, hiring the industry’s best and brightest can be as easy as 1-2-3 when companies implement strategies to obtain, train, and retain talented employees.

“The next decade’s hiring forecast presents unique challenges, especially with 50% of the agricultural employee base set to retire,” says Mike Smith, managing partner of Ag1Source LLC. Coupled with a 3% annual decrease in the number of agricultural graduates and outward employee migration due to consolidation and farm level economics, the employment outlook is shifting.

The workforce of tomorrow — and today — is transforming from a surplus of candidates competing for the best positions to an increase in companies vying for the best candidates.

As talent becomes scarcer, agricultural businesses can adapt to successfully compete for the most qualified candidates by becoming more focused on recruiting, performance management, compensation, succession planning, and leadership development.

This multi-faceted approach can help agribusiness leaders prepare for and meet the next generation of employees’ expectations such as career growth opportunities, open communication between employees and senior management, continued training, and a healthy balance between work and life responsibilities. In this talent-sparse environment, the task of meeting employee needs becomes even more critical. When one company doesn’t meet employees’ needs, there’s a good chance its competition will.

Ag1Source has placed a number of key employees with two retailers — Ag Partners LLC, Albert City, IA, and Landmark Coop, Cottage Grove, WI — that live the three steps of finding, training, and retaining employees. We’d like to share their comments on the topic and how they compete in this hiring climate.

Step 1: Finding The Right Employees

In the U.S. food, agricultural, and natural resources system, there will be thousands more job opportunities than there are available graduates through 2010, according to a study from Purdue University and USDA. This study calculated a shortage of 3,000 workers in agriculture and related fields starting in 2007 and growing every year afterward.

This projected shortage of prospective candidates places even more pressure on hiring coordinators to develop a detailed job description and carefully plan job responsibilities during the recruiting process. Companies must define what they’re looking for and what the expectations are for the new hire.

While it is becoming increasingly difficult to locate prospects committed to long-term employment, tracking students who go on to post-secondary education can help locate candidates who wish to return to a company’s trade territory after graduation.

Ag Partners turns to colleges, trade schools, and the community to find well-qualified candidates and build its brand reputation among candidates and its peers.

“The Ag Partners brand as an employer has helped us to build a candidate pipeline, especially of students when they are early in college instead of just seniors,” says Brent Low, Ag Partners team leader for sales and marketing.

Internship programs also can help attract talented candidates. “We have ratcheted up our internship program where we can challenge them with responsibility with the hope of bringing them back as full-time employees when they graduate,” Low says. “That experience as an intern must be a tremendous experience so they will become our advocate back on campus.”

While interns and recent grads are one pipeline of talent, businesses need to have an avenue through which to hire experienced employees. 

“We do work with recruiters, but we find the best results from firms that truly understand our culture, candidate personality profiling, and where we are trying to take our business,” Low says. “When recruiters focus on screening candidates against both position description and our culture, we spend less time looking at marginal candidates.” 

In addition, companies can benefit from employees’ personal connections through membership in professional organizations or informal networks. Offering a referral bonus can help inspire employees to encourage other qualified candidates to consider employment with the company.

“You have to create a culture where everyone is bringing in talent to fuel the organization,” Low says. 

The recruiting strategy of tomorrow means casting many lines — and doing so in the most appropriate places — to attract the best prospects.

“We not only need to fish in a bigger pond, but we need to catch the right fish in the pond,” Ag1Source’s Smith says.

Developing a well-thought-out plan is critical to acquiring high-quality employees, he adds. But regardless of how well-planned the hiring process may be, there may be opportunities to hire the right person — even when the time isn’t quite right.

“It may mean more employees on the payroll, but hiring more employees ultimately means less overtime (and fewer weekends for salaried employees),” says Greg Langer of Landmark Coop. In addition, it enables companies to raise hourly employee rates due to reduced overtime.

Step 2: Training Your New Employees

With a solid plan for recruiting and training, recent college graduates have the potential to become excellent employees. “Gen Y employees are seeking growth at a constant rate,” Langer says.

At Ag Partners, a two-pronged training approach helps new hires bond with their work environment. First, a mentoring program pairs the new employee with a more experienced one who is a good coach and interested in mentoring the next generation of employees. Second, a training program focuses on the product, company culture, and sales process.

“The recent graduate will get exposed to all parts of our business before they are counted on to deliver results,” Ag Partners’ Low says. “We want them to understand all the moving parts of the business so they can understand their role within the business.”

In addition, managers ask new hires for constant feedback to ensure they’re learning what they need to and feel like they’re contributing to the business, he says.

These opportunities, coupled with growth potential, also can help prevent these young employees from finding themselves in dead-end jobs, Landmark’s Langer explains.

Today’s managers must shift their training focus from solely concentrating on refining technical skills to developing the employee’s potential for success in their role, Low says. Salespeople must truly know their products while proving their strong communication and consultative business building skills, he adds.

Organizations have to ask themselves: “Is our management team a coaching/mentoring culture or a management culture?” Once a person becomes a manager, they need to continue training to hone their skills at motivating employees, not just managing them.

Bringing in outside experts can help provide this continued training and motivation. “We really work to bring in outside sources to provide continual personal development of the employee,” Low says.

Successful training programs also can improve opportunities to promote employees from within the company, which provides several benefits. “It not only reduces training and startup challenges, but also gives employees more opportunities to grow and more reasons to stay,” Langer says.

Step 3: Giving Employees A Reason To Stay

While finding and training employees present short-term challenges, retention is a long-term endeavor that remains fully linked to these initial steps. Industry leaders recommend a retention strategy that begins with selecting the right people for the right jobs and starting off on the right foot through an “onboarding” process.

“The first day is critical. New employees make their first impression in minutes as to whether they made the right choice of going to work for you,” Low says. “People take a job to put food on the table. People stay with a job because they see a future.”

Once employees are on board, managers at Ag Partners conduct a review process with each employee every six months. This review allows the manager and employee to openly discuss what the employee is doing now and what they want to do in the future.

The process helps ensure employees receive the necessary training to be promoted into the next role. Low believes that understanding what an employee’s future may hold helps provide incentives for the individual to remain with the company.

Employees are more likely to remain with a company when they can visualize future opportunities, Langer says.  “Focusing on that future role requires employees to determine what they need to learn to be promoted and identify the skills they will need to handle the responsibilities of a higher position,” he explains.

To retain good employees, it’s essential to help them develop and grow into new positions that they have set as a goal, Langer continues. “We want people to feel like they’re part of a team. We want them to feel like they have opportunities — a path to build on. Without that goal, they see no end in sight for their current role and start to look elsewhere.”

Organizations like Landmark believe employees are more successful when they know where they stand and where the company stands. For instance, if a company offers profitability-based incentives, employees want to know how close to the target they are and what steps to take to push their performance to the next level, Langer explains.

“We don’t want any mixed messages or assumptions,” he says. “We want everyone to know what the company is doing and where the company is going at all times. It’s hard for a team to improve if they don’t have a good understanding of what the problem is.”

Another key to employee engagement is focusing on doing things that don’t just give employees what they deserve, but often provide more than they may expect. For example, the Landmark organization concentrates on empowering employees and giving them added responsibilities with each year of service or increased level of experience.

“We strive to give people additional responsibility or a special project to provide them with additional accountability and more experiences — not to mention it helps take some of the workload off the management team,” Langer says. As a result, employees gain a sense of contribution, responsibility, and ownership in projects, he says.

Companies also are recognizing the significance of reevaluating the traditional work environment with a focus on the work-life balance. “We strive to budget our resources to get things done in a five-day work week,” Langer says. “While it’s nearly impossible to predict the timing of weather and other factors, this school of thought helps us reduce the length of time extended hours are needed.”

“We don’t assume that just because long hours are a way of life for ag retail that that will be acceptable in the future,” Low adds. “We are talking within all of our teams to put systems and people assets in place to create a work/life balance where employees feel it’s needed. Managers should still expect employees to work hard, but must also respect the importance of their family lives.

“Finally, we focus on enhancing both external and internal customer needs, and focus on the truly mission critical tasks, not the task of the day that is not mission critical.”

Being a hard worker doesn’t boil down to hours worked or time spent in the office or behind a desk, Langer says. It’s all about the quality results produced. “We know that it’s critical for our employees to see we are doing everything possible to give them the best quality of life possible.”

Quality of life, culture-based hiring, and Generation Y training certainly haven’t been top of mind conversations in the agronomy business. However, as workforce and talent availability gets tighter, the companies that work as hard to find and retain great employees will be the winners in the field.

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