In these times of increased public scrutiny, the employees that you hire, train and promote play an increasingly important role in your business’ long-term success and sustainability. While some view workers as warm bodies and a cost of raising hogs today, others see employees as valuable assets — human capital, if you will.

Dependable, experienced employees keep your operation running smoothly and prevent potential problems from flaring into full-fledged crises. The same goes for other sectors within the pork food chain. Animal-handling and well-being issues, environmental stewardship, herd health, biosecurity and even proper medication applications all hinge on a knowledgeable, well-trained, experienced workforce. But finding, training and keeping those workers on your farm or even in the pork industry is a challenge that will only intensify in the future as agricultural labor shortages continue.

As part of Pork magazine’s Responsible Pork Symposium held earlier this year, Don Tyler, Tyler & Associates, moderated a pork-industry panel to discuss the issues associated with securing and training an effective workforce.

Panel members included Bill Hollis, DVM, Carthage Veterinary Services, Carthage, Ill.; Julie Maschhoff, public relations director, The Maschhoff’s, Carlyle, Ill.; and Shirley Maxwell, human resources manager of Indiana Packers, Delphi, Ind.

Q: What changes have occurred in the people that you hire?

Hollis: “We are responsible to hire, monitor, train and educate the employees of our clients’ farms. Although we receive many applicants for available positions, a big change we’ve seen is the decline in applicants who are experienced in livestock production. The individual who applies is interested in agriculture but may have no background in it at all, so employee training and development are increasingly critical.

“It’s our responsibility to find good employees and to introduce them to the industry and train them.”

Maschhoff: “Despite tremendous technological advances in the pork industry, we’ve learned it still comes down to people.

“Our biggest change was learning to manage non-family coworkers. We’ve had to learn how to delegate responsibility. We offer a different set of benefits today, such as maternity leave and paid time off. We have learned to compete with other employers in our area by offering higher wages and better job hours with flexibility.”

Maxwell: “We wanted a more diversified workforce so we have moved to trying to equalize our employees. I’ve also seen an increase in our Caucasian workers. We’ve had to work to keep ourselves competitive on a salary basis with other meat industry employers; and we realize that we have to do something extra for the people who stay with us on a long-term basis.”

Q: What actions do you take to ensure environmental stewardship, food safety and animal husbandry practices?

Hollis: “An important part of our employee orientation program is a detailed explanation of our systems, what we do and why, and getting everyone’s buy-in to implement those practices correctly. In terms of food safety, the pork industry has done a very good job, so we try to motivate our workers with that success.”

Maschhoff: “We rely on programs such as Pork Quality Assurance Plus in educating our employees, so they understand how we use antibiotics responsibly and how we handle animals carefully.

“It starts at the individual production-worker level. Animal welfare and food safety are the jobs of every employee every day. We have to remind workers and customers alike that pork producers are proactive in taking responsibility in providing and maintaining a safe food supply.”

Maxwell: “We always try to communicate with our employees and improve our training programs. We spend a lot of time with new employees during orientation. We try to instill in all our employees the importance of proper animal handling and food safety on a daily basis. We have on-going classes and certification programs, and workers must sign-off on their training.”

Q: How might immigration issues impact future prospects?

Maxwell: “We routinely verify the status of all our workers. Every employee we hire is run through the E-verify system. It lets us confirm that the person we’re hiring is the person he claims to be. 

“At Indiana Packers, we cooperate with law enforcement agencies 100 percent. If we find there’s someone at our plant who’s not there legally, he is terminated. It’s that simple.”

Hollis: “You have to start by presenting the right business, the right message and the right relationship. It’s important to have the type of business that prospects want to be a part of.

“Our business is less than 30 percent immigrants. It all depends on who shows interest, who wants to work and who is legally able to do that work. We have made it clear that we will hire only employees who have proper documentation.”

Maschhoff: “We have not had any significant immigration issues. We hire only those workers who provide proper documentation. Immigration is shaping up as an issue for the country because many current proposals put the enforcement burden on business owners.”

Q: How do you keep turnover low and retain the best workers?

Maschhoff: “We give employees an opportunity to develop their career paths. We try to find new ways to challenge our coworkers and we allow them to grow and succeed in new ways every day.”

Hollis: “We ask our employees what will bring them job satisfaction. Leadership development is a regular request. Now, we include leadership training to help employees be more effective in that role. It’s our intention to foster more education, communication and better production.”

Maxwell: “Employees always want to know why we ask them to do a task in a certain way. We retain an open-door policy to answer questions and encourage employees to ask when they want an explanation. Answering their questions is key to keeping good employees.

“Our benefits manager also does a great job in explaining the importance of our full benefits package.”

Q: How are you involved in your community?

Hollis: “We participate in the National Pork Board’s Operation Main Street program. We encourage employees to foster open communication about their jobs and how we fulfill our responsibility in offering safe food.”

Maschhoff: “It’s very important that our community understand who we are. We have to be open and transparent in what we do. We bring school groups onto our farm, as well as go out and speak to them.

“We encourage our coworkers who enjoy public speaking to go through Operation Main Street training. They will then participate in legislative events, recruiting functions or give presentations to ag classes.”

Maxwell: “We have been involved in local events, including offering student tours as well as being members of our Chamber of Commerce. We are also happy to offer access to a training facility to local groups that might require that service.”

Q: How do you handle an employee who mistreats an animal?

Maxwell: “When an employee treats an animal in a non-humane way, the consequence is termination. It does not happen very often.”

Maschhoff: “We are strict about non-humane handling or animal abuse. It means the employee’s termination.”

Hollis:  “Designing facilities and removing structural temptations to abuse an animal is important. We also make it clear to all employees that any mark left on an animal indicating abuse means termination.”

Q: How do you determine wages?

Hollis: “We asked a nearby university about wages in our hiring area to determine the average wage statistics. That has been a good starting point. Then we asked ourselves how we can improve our company to make it more attractive to workers.”

Maschhoff: “Our HR director is developing benchmarks about where we need to be in terms of compensation. Besides wages alone, we also look closely at other incentives to offer a more complete package.”

Maxwell: “It’s important for us to survey what other meat packers are paying so that we can keep our wages competitive. A meat-packing employee works hard and the job is labor-intense so it’s important that we provide an appropriate wage.”

Q: How do you evaluate your employee training program?

Maxwell: “The first place that training pays off is in employee retention. An employee likes to feel that he or she is important, needed and valued. Training is a priority as insurance that the employee stays with us.”

Hollis: “Our clients have entrusted us to train and educate their employees. Evaluating our training relates to how successful we are at producing a healthy, high-quality pig.”

Maschhoff: “We measure it in part by employee growth; we feel that if we do the things to help our coworkers grow, it will help the business. Employee development is not something that we measure in terms of direct pay-back; it’s more of an investment.”

Q: What are the biggest challenges in the human capital area?

Maxwell: “We see employee retention as the biggest challenge. Our applicant flow is solid, but then you have to train them and make them an important part of your company in order to retain them.”

Hollis: “We will continue to implement educational programs and work to ensure that employees are well trained. However, the greatest challenge facing everyone is the dramatic increase in production costs. Our industry will change as a result.”

Maschhoff: “Young people are going to other employers or leaving agriculture, and the pork industry has to offer secure benefits in order to compete. We need to attract more young people to agriculture in general and the pork industry specifically. We have to have the right people in place to help with the challenges that face our industry.”

Q: What do you want consumers to understand about your business and your people?

Hollis: “We want consumers to know that our employees take their responsibility for the animals’ well-being very seriously.”

Maschhoff: “We have to remind consumers that all our employees are committed to handling animals in a humane manner and that each animal that leaves our farms is in a healthy condition and travels to the packing plant in a humane manner.”

Maxwell: “Our message would be that we handle the hogs humanely, and we are committed to food safety so that our consumers receive the highest quality product.”