It’s easy to focus on the animals as your business’ most valuable assets — but think again. People are the key, and hiring, training and retaining employees are continuous  challenges.

Many employers think running a lean staff means you’re more efficient. Truth is, running short-staffed places additional pressure on others, which leads to over-worked employees who may decide they’ve had enough and quit. In the long run, productivity drops and so does your bottom line. It can be a vicious cycle.

A stable workforce adds stability to your business and puts you in a position to better react to challenges as well as  opportunities.

If you seem to be posting a lot of job openings and you’re constantly searching for qualified employees, it’s time to take a look at your human-resource management style and perhaps brush up on some people skills.

Start by looking at the workplace from your employees’ perspective. As an owner or manager, do you enjoy your employees or do you look at them as a necessary evil? Are you providing a positive employee experience? Like it or not, it starts with you.

Addressing turnover

Staff turnover is hard on everyone and it exposes your business to risk. Without a full staff, some functions may be neglected or done hastily. This could result in a disease outbreak, an accident or a drug-residue issue.

Start by honestly examining what is causing the turnover; it may have more than one cause and may differ by area of the operation. Here are some common reasons why employees leave.

  • Hasty hiring: When it comes to hiring, avoid the temptation to hire the first person that walks in the door. Hiring someone who lacks the qualifications or experience will cost both of you in the long run. 

Use a job description to find the right person. It’s a basic tool and one that managers often overlook. Job descriptions do not have to be complex, but they should be clear so the employee knows exactly what’s expected. All the positions within your operation require specific skills which should be spelled out, along with performance goals which the employee should meet. Job descriptions also are essential during performance reviews.

  • Poor communication: “Most labor problems stem from a lack of communication,” says Sarah Fogelman, Kansas State University Extension agricultural economist. Every employee in your operation should be able to make the following four statements:

    1.  I know what to expect.

    2.  I know what’s going on.

    3.  I know how I am doing.

    4.  I know how we (the team or the  business) are doing.

If your employees are left in the dark, they will eventually leave. Feedback is crucial to employee satisfaction and performance; give it often. If interpersonal communication is not your forte, consider putting someone else in charge of employee management, specifically recruiting, hiring and training.

  • Inadequate training: Thorough, on-going training is too often overlooked or ignored. However, it’s part of employees’ expectations.

“We really lack in proper employee training in the swine industry,” says Jerry Weiss, Iowa State University Extension swine agent. “So often, we get too darn busy and it gets neglected.  If the employee understands the job and is well trained, they will take more pride in the job and become more valuable to the operation.”

Training doesn’t mean a walk-through on the person’s first day, week or month on the job. It means periodic reviews, on-going lessons, maybe off-site instruction. It also means cross-training employees as a way to keep them interested in the business and build their understanding of operations. That also can help cover the bases if a worker is absent.

•  Undesirable working conditions: OK, work on a farm may not be glamorous, but that’s no excuse for sloppiness or not having machinery and equipment in good repair. Dust, drafts, poor ventilation and debris not only make workers uncomfortable, they can lead to illness or accidents. Keep the premises clean, neat and orderly year-round; see that buildings and equipment are in sound repair; keep driveways and walkways clear; provide pleasant break rooms, showers and meeting rooms. It will pay off in many ways, including employee satisfaction.

•  Inequitable compensation: Periodic wage reviews are a regular part of employee maintenance. Livestock workers earned an average of $9.80 per hour in 2007, according to USDA statistics. Of course, that varies by job and geographic location. As workers increase their experience and skills they become more valuable to the business, and pay increases become necessary.

Skilled labor is important on hog farms, Weiss notes. “We have a lot of custom-feeding operations in my area, and the employee must have significant experience in order to understand nutrition issues, recognize animal behavior, give injections and identify potential problems. It’s a job you can’t rely on any old neighbor to do,” he adds.

Another trend, according to the AgCareers.com Agribusiness Report, is that more than 80 percent of employers polled compensate employees beyond their base pay. This includes such things as providing uniforms or laundry service, housing, vehicles or meals.

“There are many reasons why people leave a job,” Fogelman says. “In operations where turnover is rapid and widespread, managers would do well to think of it not as a problem, but as a symptom,” she adds.

Back to basics

Start by asking yourself, “Why would someone want to work here?” 

Opportunity for growth and the chance to gain experience are often stronger employee motivators than wages alone. If you have a reputation of fairness and provide employees with learning opportunities, you’re already ahead of other competing employers.

Forecast what your labor needs will be at various times of the year, in various areas of the business or if you expand. Plan ahead to fill job openings that result from an employee promotion. You will be more successful when you know the positions that regularly need to be filled.

The U.S. Pork Center of Excellence and Pork Information Gateway list the following recruitment methods as most productive:

  • Word of mouth
  • Internal job postings
  • Employee referral programs
  • Employment agencies
  • Job placement officials at educational  institutions
  • Job fairs
  • Job recruitment Web sites       

“Do your recruiting at places where your target audience goes,” say Richard Stup, with PennsylvaniaStateUniversity’s Dairy Alliance. “This includes fairs, conferences and livestock shows.” Always look for recruitment opportunities and for individuals that fit your organization. Look at job training organizations such as trade schools and community colleges. Introduce yourself to placement officials and ask them to recommend interns.

Invite a 4-H or FFA instructor to bring students interested in pork production out to your operation. Tell them about your business and hand out job descriptions. Chances are, one or two will fill out an application.

Get involved in your community. Networking is a highly productive strategy and word of mouth is often your biggest recruiter. Let friends and neighbors know when you’re looking for employees, what traits you need and give them several of your business cards. Talk to veterinarians, allied industry representatives, delivery workers and sales representatives.

Another recruitment method ranking high in results is an employee referral program. It rewards an employee for referring a candidate that you hire and who remains on the job for a specified period of time.

Web sites such as www.AgCareers.com are available to help your search. According to recent AgCareers.com statistics, the number of employers posting job openings on the Web has increased by 33 percent in the last 12 months.

The next critical step

After you hire, make employee development and training a priority. It should start with a basic orientation. Choose a location away from interference or distractions. If you’re using video presentations or other electronics, have the television monitors, computers, LCD projectors and screens for PowerPoint presentations ready to go. Provide comfortable seating, notepads and pens. Encourage employees to take notes.

Here are some items to cover:

  • History of the business
  • Parking, lunch/break rooms, where to  store lunch items, restrooms
  • Work times and shifts
  • Policies for sick days, holidays, vacation, other time off, pay schedules
  • Drug and smoking policies
  • Overview of benefits and health insurance procedures
  • Safety program and personal-protection equipment training
  • Emergency response and procedures
  • Animal welfare standards
  • Business organization chart

If this is too much for one day, make safety and personal-protection equipment training a separate program.

As for production training, a variety of useful materials are available to pork producers from universities, veterinarians, and swine and employee consultants. The National Pork Board’s Web site (www.pork.org) has several training items; look under pork production resources in the “For Producers” section. The items include CDs, DVDs, training manuals, production outlines and posters. These can form the basis of your training program, and most are available free to producers.

If you don’t have time to train people yourself, ask a dependable employee who has experience and has a history of strong performance. Be sure to explain to the new employee how his or her job is critical to the operation’s success. Provide examples or production benchmarks. A tour of the farm also gives the employee a perspective of how all parts work together for the final product.

Call on other resources such as animal-health suppliers to provide training materials or make presentations. This can be particularly helpful in illustrating how to use a product properly.

Eventually, employees should broaden their knowledge of the whole operation. You can provide a career path for an employee by offering cross-training in another part of the operation.  This helps solve absentee and vacation issues, and it could pay off the next time an employee quits unexpectedly. Cross-training can increase an employee’s interest and understanding of how the operation works and it may increase the likelihood he or she will stay with you.

Looking long-term

To the extent possible, be understanding of situations. “Being flexible so employees can meet family responsibilities can go a long way toward building your employer reputation,” Stup says. Remember, when competing for agricultural labor you want your business to be known as an employee advocate. It will make recruiting easier. 

Occasionally change the routine. Have a pizza day; name an employee of the month; celebrate special occasions such as anniversaries, production milestones or when profit goals are met.

Encourage teamwork by having a productivity competition. For example, establish benchmarks for the nursery, farrowing barn or feed mill. Then create teams and name winners.

With attention to these basic human resource principles, maintaining a stable workforce will become easier. It takes time, effort and a commitment to formal recruitment and training programs, but the rewards will be more loyal, long-term employees. And that means fewer headaches for you.