September 5, 2018

Breaking free from the hiring challenges ag companies face

(First of two-part series)

By Nancy Appelquist, Director of Operations

If you’re a leader or manager in your company, has there ever been a stretch of time when finding great employees was NOT on your radar? 

It’s a challenge in any industry, but agriculture has unique challenges with many growing companies and startups competing for the best talent, the need for highly skilled labor to handle new technologies, plus we’ve got the added reality that so many of the jobs are not located in metropolitan areas.

Entira works closely with clients facing recruitment and hiring challenges daily, plus we have personal experience dealing with the nuances of searching for and hiring quality people to fill professional ag roles.

The perfect candidates are out there, but if you’re struggling to find them it might be time to try some new strategies. Here are some hiring conundrums you might be facing…and possible solutions to get out of them.

Conundrum #1: It seems there are more jobs than ag professionals to fill them.

It doesn’t just seem that way—it’s a fact. A USDA report released in 2015 projected nearly 58,000 agriculture-related jobs will be available annually through 2020 for graduates with bachelor’s degrees or above. The problem is, only 35,400 U.S. graduates, on average, will graduate each year in fields related to food, agriculture, renewable natural resources, or the environment. That’s quite a deficit. 

Solution: Expand your pool.

There are roles in ag today that didn’t exist five years ago. Ag is a combination of STEM disciplines. There are the typical areas like agronomy, engineering, and entomology; and now we’re seeing artificial intelligence, robotics, computer science, and microbiology entering the field, literally and figuratively. Consider branching outside of agriculture to find strong, non-traditional candidates—and make sure they see how agriculture is an exciting place to be.

Because it’s true—agriculture today is a very diverse industry that lives up to the promise of offering a stable and rewarding career path. We are, after all, the ones charged with feeding the world population that’s expected to top 9 billion by 2020. Who wouldn’t want to be part of that?

Without a doubt, growing up on a farm and/or gaining an education in the core areas of agriculture has its own distinct advantages; but companies should be open to candidates who may not necessarily know farming, but have a business degree or expertise in the sciences that support it.

My educational background is supply chain/logistics, but I was hired by an ag company right out of school and immediately began learning about this thriving and important industry with its unique supply chain and multitude of factors that influence it. It’s an exciting challenge to take one set of skills and area of knowledge and apply them to new industries.

Conundrum #2: I can’t find anyone willing to move to our rural locations.

Solution: Think outside your normal box and be flexible.

This is one of the unique realities of the ag industry having many jobs located in rural settings, and that’s not always the preferred destination for fresh college grads in particular. There are many non-traditional paths you can take in your pursuit of great talent—just open your mind and you might be surprised at who you uncover.

As far as college recruiting goes, pulling from 4-year universities isn’t your only option. A common struggle is that graduates of large universities often want to start their careers in larger cities; and even if they are willing to locate in a more rural setting, their significant other can’t find a job in the remote area and THAT becomes the deal breaker. Many companies are having great luck connecting with smaller, local schools to find quality candidates willing to start their careers in rural areas where they are already located.

Technology has enabled remote and mobile workforces, and many companies have benefited from hiring employees who have built careers in ag but are looking for work-from-home employment. If you have roles that don’t require working full-time hours in an office, this could be a great avenue to explore. At Entira we offer flexibility in both work location and hours. When I first re-entered the work force after staying home with my children, I worked 25 hours a week from home. This allowed me to get the kids on the bus in the morning and drive them to all their activities after school and skip all the wasted time commuting. As a result, I was a more productive and grateful employee than I had been when I worked in an office eight hours a day. As the kids got older I was able to travel more and bring my hours up to 40 per week (at least!). The flexibility Entira offered made me feel valued and I have been a loyal employee for 11 years and counting.

If you don’t need someone full time, retired ag professionals also make excellent employees. Not only does that give you the advantage of having seasoned expertise on your team, it provides a place to stay connected for those hard-working professionals who are passionate for agriculture but not quite ready to give it all up. In many cases these individuals are highly skilled, have excellent industry connections and can produce as much in 20 hours as a less-seasoned employee can produce in 40 hours. 

Conundrum #3: I’ve interviewed 15 candidates, and none are a good fit.

Solution: Ask your employees.

Your biggest untapped source might be right inside your walls—whether that’s qualified candidates already working in other roles in your company or qualified referrals they can give you.

If it’s an option, it’s always a good idea to promote from within. This has a lot of benefits, not the least of which is the fact that it’s just good form. Letting employees have the first shot at opportunities that will advance their career is a great way to recognize their devotion to the company. And, the learning curve will be much less steep for internal hires who can move from newbie to productive contributor in a shorter amount of time.

The other way to leverage your internal talent pool is by asking them to refer qualified candidates—and this may be your most reliable source of all. A report published by talent management company Silkroad showed that while job search engines result in more interviews than other sources, most of the time it’s the candidates that come from employee referrals who end up getting hired. Job search engines give you quantity, but your people will deliver quality. Your employees know what kind of candidate it would take and who would fit the culture, and they want to work with people who will work hard. Plus, their own reputation is on the line when they recommend someone.

Conundrum #4: I keep losing my best candidates to other companies.

Solution: Move quickly.

When demand outweighs supply—and even when it doesn’t—you’re going to lose great candidates to other companies if you drag out the process.

Think days and not weeks. Our society of instant gratification demands it.

Communicate well with everyone involved in the interview process and encourage quick decisions. Any delays due to indecisiveness or lack of attention could make you lose your next top sales performer.

And to move quickly, you have to know exactly what you’re looking for. Chances are you lean on a human resources manager or an external recruitment firm (or both) to drive the recruitment and hiring process. There are many outstanding recruiting firms devoted to the agriculture industry, and these can be excellent resources to tap into. They already have a pool of talent that they have vetted to a certain degree – that gives you a leg up on moving forward faster. Hiring managers can help these experts do their job by being crystal clear in what skills, experience, and personality you’re needing to fill the role.

Conundrum #5: It’s hard to capture job seekers’ attention with so many competing companies.

Solution: Work on improving your reputation.

Build a reputation for being a great place to work and top talent will seek YOU out.

If there’s one thing we all know in ag, it’s that this very large industry is also a very small community. The network is tight, and word will get around about what it’s like to work at your company. Create a good working environment and the network will naturally endorse you and bolster a solid reputation.

Start building that reputation early. Plant seeds to encourage young people to consider career opportunities in ag by opening your doors to tours, offering internships, or getting involved in your community. Not only are you more likely to come to their mind when they’re ready for a full-time gig, you’re sparking interest and preparing future generations to serve the industry.

What’s worked for you?

Finding great candidates is the first hurdle, but once you have them you have a new challenge to master—and that’s keeping them. We’ll continue exploring this in the next issue, but in the meantime, we’d love to hear your perspective. What challenges have you encountered? What strategies have you used to overcome them? We invite you to join the conversation and share stories about your experience. Respond to our 3-question survey.

If you’d like to talk about overcoming your own hiring challenges, contact Nancy Appelquist at nappelquist@entira.net or 914.456.6984.