With various initiatives taking place in schools across the country, the agricultural industry has a positive opportunity to talk about the lesser-known benefits which can help career choices. Sarah Todd finds out more.
Making employees feel needed and respected can be key in staff retention and securing loyalty.
Sarah Todd looks at the growing importance of taking time to empower those working around you.
Over the last few months, we have looked at different ways agriculture can attract the next generation into the industry.
From shining a light on how other career paths, such as the Army and engineering, have remarketed themselves, to dispelling myths about farming’s workforce being low-skilled and poorly paid, we have tackled many recruitment issues.
But one subject which is often overlooked is the retention of existing agricultural staff and students.
The industry can take pride about a ‘lifestyle factor’ which exists in many job roles – that something special which makes the farming industry about so much more than being simply a job.
But, more pragmatically, a rewarding career comes in other forms, alongside fresh air, panoramic views and the joy of bringing new animals into the world.
Of course, money is always a factor.
An employee may be getting 100 per cent job satisfaction, but if there is not enough money coming in to pay the bills, quitting can seem like the only option.
Marcus Potter, chief executive of Lantra, the land-based training and qualification provider, says: “Talking to staff is so important; 85 per cent of farm businesses only have a few people working on them.
“There is not the human resources manager, regular appraisals or personal development targets of bigger firms.
“It can be worse still to talk about problems in the workplace on family farms.
Many in their 30s and 40s are still taking orders from their fathers, with a grandfather still being the ultimate boss.
“They are looking at being relatively old before being in a position of making decisions and improving things.” At a grassroots level, Marcus believes something as simple as an allocated half-an-hour cup of tea and a chat every couple of weeks or months can play a vital role in agricultural staff retention.
Marcus says: “If the worker bottles up their worries and does not feel able to express themselves, there is a very real fear they will leave.
“Mentioning something very simple, like a tractor driver wanting to go on a sprayer course, can nip feelings of frustration and lack of career progression in the bud.
“If the problem is money, the employer might not be able to come up with any more, but at least they will have the opportunity to explain their position, listen and think about it when it comes to future planning.”
Marcus believes while it is slow in coming, agriculture’s attitude to staff satisfaction is changing.
He says: “The vast majority of agricultural businesses view staff training as a cost rather than an investment.
But this short-sighted mentality will change; there are enlightened farmers out there who will make sure it does.” Another recognised problem is agriculture’s lack of defined career paths compared to other walks of life.
He says: “It is a false economy to spend time and money persuading young entrants that farming is an exciting industry with high levels of technical skill and then not following it through with any career progression.
“One way forward would be to build a UK-wide career resource which would look at how to progress in the industry.
Try to have professional standards for different levels within the industry, such as worker, supervisor and management.” Before taking over the reins at Lantra, Marcus worked for the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors.
He says: “It struck me when I arrived that there is no equivalent for agriculture; no benchmark that a person is competent.
There are no chartered farmers, but maybe there should be? “While nobody wants more red tape, a professional body setting standards could only be a good thing from the point of view of how the industry is viewed by the public, but also with regards to career satisfaction and staff retention.
“To put it another way, you would not go into hospital for an operation and not expect the surgeon to have kept up with developments in practice for the last 20 years.
Regular professional development has to be a good thing, especially when farming is subsidised by public money and dealing with such an important area as food production.”
Rose-tinted spectacles can be blamed for a proportion of employees who fall out of love with the farming industry.
Marcus says: “It has to be said that however much training and career progression is put in place, workers are often going to be outside in bad weather and working long hours.” This is a point Allan Cochran, John Deere’s training centre manager, agrees with.
He says: “It is hard recruiting staff in the first place, but there isa very real risk of losing them to other industries.” Allan believes there has been a natural progression in young people’s expectations of a work/life balance.
He says: “It is so important we help entrants into the agricultural sector understand the business.
“Those from traditional pathways, for example farmers’ sons and daughters, already have close connections and empathy.
But those from different backgrounds we have worked so hard to encourage can struggle to understand the long hours and working conditions.
“We cannot offer our apprentices 9am to 5pm hours in cosy, warm work- shops, but we can offer them a huge sense of achievement.
It is so important staff from across the industry know how they fit into the bigger farming picture.” Because of their highly regarded training, agricultural engineers can easily move into a number of engineering sectors, such as plant hire, aerospace and trucks.
The oil industry has proved to have quite a pull for those in the north of Scotland.
Allan says: “There will always be those who are tempted out of the industry by financial gain.
Our aim should be that those who remain within the agricultural sector go to bed at night with a sense of achievement.
That is not to say we do not need to continue looking at how we can improve pay and conditions.
“If we do not look at this, what is the point in working so hard to attract the brightest talents into the industry? “It is vital staff feel valued as individuals, as their job satisfaction is the key to retention.”
Young Farmers’ Clubs offer a way to get access to agricultural training and skills, which can be a lifeline for those facing decisions about their future within the industry.
Katie Hall, chairwoman of the National Federation of Young Farmers’ Clubs (NFYFC), says: “Our industry opportunities can really help people further their skills and equip them with the knowledge to achieve their dreams in the industry.
Many of our courses are free or heavily subsidised, thanks to sponsorship or grant funding.”
Examples include business and tenancy training with Savills, discounts on sheep shearing qualifications with British Wool, or opportunities to hear from a range of industry speakers at agricultural forums and regional events.
There are also scholarships available to attend high profile events, such as the Oxford Farming Conference, opportunities for YFC representation at industry and Government meetings, and there is a dedicated website called the Smart Farming Guide (also produced with Savills) to help young people be more entrepreneurial.
Katie says: “Being involved in a YFC gives young people the chance to mix with like-minded people.
For many working on a farm, their weekly YFC meeting is a welcome opportunity to socialise and share experiences and information.
“While there are formal training opportunities available through NFYFC, club level activities, such as taking part in competitions, going on a YFC Travel trip or study tour, or taking on a role in a club, help young people develop more skills and confidence which can inspire their day jobs too.
“In those formative years of starting work in the industry, YFC can offer a support network to get you started and give you much-needed contacts.
“Post-26 years old, you can still be involved in YFC by offering to be a club leader or supporting your club by being a member of the advisory.”
MORE INFORMATION nfyfc.org.uk
Farmers Guardian has joined forces with 21 key industry stakeholders from across the farming sector to launch a new campaign, #ThisIsAgriculture, to promote careers in agriculture.
The challenge of recruiting is not a new one. Attracting new blood into the industry has always been an issue, with agriculture rarely sold as an exciting option into schools.
However, with the pace of technological change rapidly widening the skills gap and Brexit looming, the need to drive change within the industry has intensified greatly over recent years.
Building on the learning from the #ThisIsAgriculture survey, this initiative will work to educate the wider world about the wealth of opportunities available within the sector, as well as dispelling common myths about careers in agriculture.
We will also be collaborating with industry bodies and our industry partners to see where we can work together to shape the political agenda, drive educational reform and provide learning resources.
The campaign will also be sharing information with readers about how to attract – and retain – the right staff for farming businesses across the UK.