Recruiting and retaining staff is often a major challenge for farm businesses.
Caroline Stocks takes a look at what the wider industry is doing to safeguard the issue and what lessons can be learned along the way.
Having the right staff is critical for any business, but for many farmers, finding quality workers and keeping hold of them can be a major challenge.
Aside from ensuring day-to-day farm operations run smoothly, finding and retaining good staff has serious implications for the long-term profitability of businesses.
When good staff leave, farmers face the time and costs of recruitment and training, as well as the indirect costs of loss of knowledge and experience, changes to team morale and dips in productivity.
According to figures from CIPD, the professional body for HR and people development, it costs, on average, 18 months’ salary to recruit someone into a job.
This includes 26 weeks to get a new employee up to scratch, plus other employees’ time to mentor them.
Worryingly, in the farming industry, those figures could be even higher. AHDB Dairy suggests a single dairy farm employee on a £30,000 salary costs £60,000 to replace.
A survey carried out last year by the NFU and other food chain trade associations discovered the annual turnover of permanent staff in the agri sector was 12 per cent; considerably higher than sectors such as admin, engineering or technology.
The situation with seasonal workers is even tougher. The NFU’s annual labour provider survey found 24 per cent of seasonal workers did not reach the end of the contract in 2017. This figure was up from 20 per cent in 2016, and just 10 per cent in 2014.
Brexit has had a considerable part to play in these statistics, says NFU employment, skills and better regulation adviser Lee Osborne, and it is likely to continue to make staff recruitment and retention tough.
In the dairy, poultry and horticulture sectors in particular, many farm owners are reporting a higher turnover of staff, as well as difficulties in attracting workers of a high calibre with good language skills. But while Brexit is bringing challenges, it is not the only cause of the problem.
Bridging the gap
Many jobs associated with agriculture are tough, making them unattractive to prospective employees, while for a long time young people have not been encouraged to consider agriculture as a worthwhile career. Add to this the fact many employers have not got to grips with how to successfully manage the staff they do find, making retention a challenge.
One organisation aiming to address this gap is AHDB, which, among various shorter workshops, runs a 14-month professional manager development scheme in conjunction with training consultancy Cedar Associates.
Tess Howe, AHDB senior skills manager, says: “We are looking at a programme of events to help people understand management training is relevant to all farm businesses, no matter how many employees you have.
“Our management scheme really stemmed from people being promoted, but not being supported for the promotion. They might be technically brilliant, but they lack people skills.
“Because they are not trained to manage, they often revert back to their original job and it makes them inefficient.”
Ms Howe says poor staff management can be an ‘unconscious incompetence’ on farms, as often people will not realise they have a problem which needs to be addressed.
She says: “Sometimes looking at your own business instigates a change. The biggest issue can be the time-lag, as changes in management often have slow results, but the differences it can make to a farm business are huge.”
Brian Hutchison, of Hunter Chase Consultants, agrees taking a hard look at your own business to understand its culture, operations and goals can be key in helping address staff sourcing and retention issues.
Once done, he says, you start to look for an individual whose motivations fit yours.
He says: “From a company point of view, the difference in performance between finding someone who can just do the job and someone who tackles the role with zest and enthusiasm is vast, so careful selection is critical.
“Matching culture is one of the biggest things, as you want to make sure your work ethic fits.”
To encourage staff to remain in a business, Mr Hutchison says it is important to make sure they are properly supported so their skills are made best use of. Regular training should also be offered to encourage development and keep people engaged.
He says: “It is also important to let individuals know what is expected of them, make sure they understand the role, their responsibility and what the key performance indicators are.
“Agreeing a detailed job description can help make sure there are no surprises and they understand what the job is.”
Recognising when staff have done a good job is also key, as often people will be more motivated by recognition, as well as training, than by their wage packets.
Mr Hutchison says: “If people think they are being treated fairly, both from an employee and employer perspective, we find good individuals will not move companies.”
Rick Turner, of The Big Sheep, Abbotsham, Devon, says recognising skills and praising staff is a real focus for his farm and tourism business, which employs up to 100 people during summer.
He says: “We have a lot of students working for us in summer, so it can lead to a large turnover of part-time staff, but we have people who have been with us since they were teenagers and are now in their 30s.
“I have always tried to appreciate that people are individuals and have different skills, and by identifying the really good ones, you can do what you can to keep them.
“It is much easier to try to recruit the right people, rather than train someone to do something they do not like; especially in agriculture when there can be unpleasant jobs involved.
“This is why I talk to them to make sure they understand what the job entails, what the outcomes are, and why what they are doing is important, so that they understand the bigger picture.”
A big part of staff communication is also around encouragement and praise, says Mr Turner.
He says: “We are always looking for ways to acknowledge good work. My latest thing is we have a recognition WhatsApp group, where I identify amazing service and share it with everyone in the team.
“We also give awards, which do not have to be financial. We have a Mother Theresa award for outstanding acts of kindness, and a Victoria Cross award for going above the call of duty.
“It is about showing the types of behaviour I want everyone to exhibit. By recognising the good things, you get the behaviour you praise.”
Rick Turner’s top tips for managing staff