Good help is hard to find. That’s been a continual mantra of dairy herd managers looking to find employees to fill critical roles on the farm. In today’s job market, it has become even more challenging because of a variety of converging factors. Employers need to look more closely at how they find new employees and how they can best retain these workers.
“The labor shortage is a significant issue in the dairy industry,” says Jim Versweyveld, Extension farm management outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin. While all dairies are impacted in some way, a limited pool of potential employees is particularly difficult for larger dairies.
The first step is to get employees for an interview. A shrinking rural population, combined with increased competition from other industries, can drastically impact who a farm manager can get to answer a help-wanted ad. Versweyveld’s advice: Cast a larger net.
“Historically, farm managers have relied on word of mouth when they have vacancies on the farm,” he says. “There’s certainly nothing wrong with that approach, but in this labor market I would argue that approach probably isn’t enough because employees have so many different options. You need to look at different ways to attract potential employees.”
That means stepping up your recruitment game to include prospective employees who may not have a farm background but may want the experience of working on a farm.
“Many of our 4-H and FFA members today do not come from a farm, but they may be looking to gain on-farm experience,” Versweyveld says. “You may also want to explore options such as social media.”
Have a plan in place
After you have a few applicants coming in for an interview, the most challenging part of the employment process begins. It starts with a written plan.
“Employers have to understand that an informal process of interviewing and training employees simply will not work in today’s
job market,” Versweyveld says. “You have potential employees who can have a very different skill set and mind-set.”
Formal onboarding and training is critical in not only setting up new employees to succeed, but also providing them information about job expectations. “This step is often very informal, which can cause a lot of employee turnover,” he says. “We encourage farm managers to have a more formal hiring process in place.”
Remember, these employees have other employment options. “Other businesses provide clear expectations of a job, as well as a road map on how that employee can become a long-term member of the team,” Versweyveld says. “While not every employee will look at a dairy job as a career, there are those employees who will want to know what is next, what is a path to advancement, or what skills they can develop.”
Every farm has a workplace culture. That culture includes the way employees are treated by management, how employees treat each other, and even the reputation of the farm. This also plays into how employees view their work, and if they are committed to being a part of a team.
“Developing good employees is a process, and once they are in the door it’s often more than just wages that keeps them,” Versweyveld says. “Inclusion is important. Knowing they are a valuable member of the team, and they aren’t just punching a clock. I think every employee, regardless of their position, wants to feel that they are part of a team, and that they matter.”
This can also be part of the interview and onboarding process. “It’s important that employees know their role and how they fit into the operation,” he says.
Clear lines of communication are necessary, especially when it comes to other family members working on the dairy.
“New employees may not know who to answer to if more than one person has the same last name on the farm,” Versweyveld says. “People who have not worked on a farm before may not have encountered that situation before, so it’s important to have a clear management structure.”
Not only wages
Dairy farming is hard work, involving working in all kinds of conditions and not in the “normal” 9-to-5 time frame. When you are competing for new employees, you may not be competing against a neighboring farm. It may be the local fast-food restaurant, a local cheese plant, or maybe a small manufacturer. It’s important to have a wage that’s competitive with these other employers, but as an employer you also need to do all you can to make your job as attractive as possible.
“Wages are definitely important,” Versweyveld says. “But many of today’s employees rank job satisfaction very high, even sometimes higher than wages. That means they like where they work, they enjoy what they do, and they are viewed as an important member of the team.”
Knowing the prevailing wages in other industries in your area will help in setting a competitive wage, but you also need to consider what the job means to the farm.
“I’m often asked what a farm manager should be paying a herdsperson. How valuable is that employee to your operation? And what are similar jobs paying in the area? You have to set a competitive wage, but you also must ensure the wage fits into the farm’s budget,” Versweyveld says.
Well-trained employees are valuable and worth keeping. Getting into a cycle of constant employee turnover can be costly, both in lost productivity and employee burnout. “I’ve never visited a farm with too many employees,” he says. “If you are constantly down one or two employees, you are calling on others to take up the slack. That might work for a time, but you are setting them up for employee burnout.”
Also, training new employees takes time, likely one of the most valuable commodities on a farm.
Dairy is not unique in its need for good employees. “Agriculture has had a little bit of a black eye when it comes to wages and working conditions,” Versweyveld says. “The hours are long, the expectations are high, and the working conditions can be rough. And employees have a lot of choices. That’s why it is so important for farms to differentiate themselves from other employers in the area. There’s a way to do that.”