Skilled staff are vital to farm business success, but training does not have to mean endless expensive courses for employers to fund. Jez Fredenburgh speaks to a training consultancy specialist to find out what options are out there to benefit both parties.
Farming faces a skills deficit and a challenge to recruit and keep bright young minds.
But if farmers can offer training and development, they can turn this around and bolster their business in the process.
Young people are going to be critical if farming is to successfully deal with post-Brexit changes and environmental challenges, and tap into new natural capital markets.
Sue Bryan, farm consulting manager in the southern region for Promar, says: “It is not daunting for them in the same way; they see it as an opportunity.
“They are phenomenal at absorbing knowledge and will help drive change on farms, so it is important to develop their skills.” Generation Y (those born from the mid-1990s onwards) also have a thirst for knowledge and rank training and development as their primary factor when deciding on a new job, according to recruitment agency The Hays.
Yet in a recent Farmers Guardian survey of 359 businesses, only 25 per cent of farm employers and 36 per cent of ancillary employers said they advertised training opportunities as a recruitment tool, and while 85 per cent said they received on-the-job training, 37 per cent said they had no formal training days.
When staff are well trained, feel motivated, listened to and the employer has a plan for their development, the whole business benefits and productivity can accelerate hugely, says Sue.
It also means staff are more likely to stay.
She says: “High staff turnover is costly.” According to research by Oxford Economics and Unum, the average cost of replacing an employee who is paid £25,000 is more than £30,000.” However, farmers should not assume people will stay in one place forever and it is okay if they move on even after investment, she says.
“There is a mentality in farming of ‘why should I train someone if they might leave?’.
Well, because they are with you today, and if you can encourage someone to follow their dreams, even if it means they leave, then you can have five years of great productivity, communication, training and development, rather than five years of no investment and plateau work.”
Off-farm, more formal training opportunities are wide and varied, ranging from a couple of hours to years-long courses.
Providers to tap into include vets, AHDB, Lantra, agricultural colleges and universities, and it is also important farmers proactively look for training opportunities advertised in the farming press and by professional bodies and companies.
However, professional development is not all about formal training and does not need to cost a lot of money.
In fact, formal training is ‘marginal’ compared to the continuous teaching and learning process which should be happening on-farm and peer-to-peer.
Young people often think training means something formal involving certificates, so when recruiting it is important to ask about their career ambitions and to communicate what training, formal or otherwise, will be provided.
Sue says: “What young people really want is somebody to spend time with them to show them how to do things.
Training is often about helping employees understand why they need to do something and the way it needs to be done.
“Farming is relentless, so training is about building competencies so you can surround yourself with a team which does not create work by being incompetent.
“If they do, you need to take a step back and understand who is responsible for that incompetence.
Is it that you haven’t shown them any differently?” Farmers can easily run a competency assessment to identify areas for staff training, particularly if cash is short, as this will also help prioritise what to spend time and money on.
To do this, work with each staff member to list every task they do, then assess their competency in doing that task.
If they need to improve, is it something which can be taught on-farm by someone else, or does it require more formal training? Prioritise training in areas which are holding the business back.
Sue says: “It is purely about understanding where the competence priorities are and who is best to actually deliver that.
Watching a webinar for something practical is going to be very unproductive, for example.” Consider whether staff who do a task well can teach others, so everyone can pitch in and the farmer is not left with jobs at the end of the day that only he or she can do, she adds.
This will also build resilience into the business.
She says: “If you do a few training sessions with everyone on how to feed the cows, for example, then you reduce your business risk.
Otherwise, if Mr Smith is injured or off work and he is the only one able to feed the cows, the risk to your business is huge.” Soft skills, such as communication and leadership, could also be important for staff who have a more managerial role.
Sue says: “A lot of the time, leadership is about developing self-awareness about the way you and your actions impact others.
A training course will not help with that because it needs to be pointed out to you by the people around you.” She suggests farming businesses provide one-to-one mentoring for an employee in this area, either by the farmer if they have those skills or a mentor outside the business.
Communication skills are linked to leadership skills and include how to give instructions, how to coach someone and how to discipline someone.
Again, mentorship can be helpful.
Training is a continuous job, but staff will pay you back 10 times over with their motivation and new skills, says dairy farmer Mary Cook, at Smokey Farm, Somerset.
Her team of five farms 202 hectares (500 acres), milks 280 dairy cows for Arla and has 100 followers, plus another 100 dairy beef cattle, which are fattened for Tesco.
Staff have a wide mix of backgrounds and abilities and most people have been taught almost all of their skills on-farm through a combination of formal and on-the-job training.
They include a herdsman and a youngstock manager who both started working at Smokey Farm as teenagers; a tractor driver; Mary’s son who helps with milking; and a general farm worker who is a laid-off airline pilot and is helping inject his own leadership skills.
Mary says: “I am in my 70s and cannot be there all the time anyway, but by training people to take on more responsibility I feel confident to delegate more.
“I am very keen on training and I look out for anything which comes up from my vets and AHDB that my staff might be interested in.
If I spot a webinar on in the evening, I might see if they want to do it and pay them for their time.
It is also about understanding that as a manager I need training in how to train other people.” Staff have been on a variety of courses including for foot trimming, calving and telehandlers, and all are important investments.
Mary says: “Other than land, staff are your most valuable asset.
Staff retention is key, so you have to treat them the best you can.
All that money invested will be paid back tenfold over the years.” “Most training can be done on-farm and needn’t cost anything.
It is about spending 30 minutes showing people what to do and following this up, either to say ‘you have done a good job’ or to show them how to do it better.
I always encourage staff to get involved when the vet visits or someone comes to repair something, so they learn.” An important part of continuous learning is remaining approachable, says Mary, so staff can raise issues, present ideas and say if they do not understand something.
She says: “It is important to listen to ideas, even if we have to explain why we cannot do something, so they feel part of the team.” “This rounded approach has been vital for getting the team to where it is today; a motivated and happy group of people who work well together, help each other out and share ideas.”
Understand how your staff want to develop and have open discussions about it.
Doing so will help you offer opportunities which encourage them to stay or help you plan for if they think they will leave in the future.
Sue says: “One of the best questions you can ask your staff is ‘where do you want to be professionally and personally in around five years’ time’.
If you drive an open relationship and they are able to say that in five years time they want to apply for their own farm tenancy, then you know where you stand and that in four years you will need to look for a replacement.
“If staff feel looked after, they will respect you and want to look after you too, so they are less likely to suddenly leave you in the lurch and might even help recruit and train up a replacement for themselves.” On the other hand, an employee might have ambitions which can be met on-farm, she adds, such as having the responsibility to be in the parlour on their own or drive the combine.
In this case, put a training plan in place which works towards that ambition.
Use peer networks
Farmers can also tap into their own networks for free knowledge exchange.
This is a good option for smaller farming businesses with fewer staff where it is harder to formalise training.
Sue says: “If there is a bigger farming business up the road, a staff member could go and do the calf feeding there for a morning and understand how they do it.
“The other farm gets an extra pair of hands and you have done without your worker for a morning, but you have brought knowledge home and it has cost you effectively nothing.” Not only is this an opportunity for your employee to learn and network, but they can then drive improvements on-farm and help your smaller businesses keep up with industry developments.
Encouraging staff to attend discussion groups, talks, events and spend time with professionals who come onto the farm, such as vets, mechanics and agronomists, are all good ways to plug into industry knowledge, improve skills and help staff network.
With Brexit-related policy changes and the opening up of the natural capital market, there are also likely to be many information sessions available for farmers, which staff could also attend.
Enabling them to engage in big issues will help them to drive necessary changes in the business.
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Articles will showcase young individuals working in agriculture and help agricultural businesses and farms understand recruitment and staff retention challenges and practical ideas they can adopt to mark the evolving changes which are happening in the careers, skills and training area.