Help Wanted: Finding Good Workers for the Farm

The industry faces a significant labour shortage, so set yourself up for success by using strong employee hiring and retention strategies.

by Michelle Jones

Humphrey Banack, a farmer in the Round Hill, Alta., area, is fortunate to have three teenage nephews who help on the farm. However, he’s scaling down over 1,000 acres for the 2020 growing season because he can’t find enough workers.

Humphrey Banack Mike Twerdun Nick Banack
    Humphrey Banack (left) speaks with Mike Twerdun and Nick Banack (right) about the tasks for the day. Twerdun works on the farm full time and Nick is Humphrey and Terry’s son.
    Carla Lehman photo

“Recruiting for part-time help has been a real challenge. We’ve gone through it two times. One time it turned out well and the next time it didn’t. That’s the challenge. We need our part-time people for about a month in the spring and six weeks in the fall. And we need pretty steady help then,” Banack says to Better Farming. He’s also a director of the Alberta Federation of Agriculture.

class 1 truck on farm
    Carla Lehman photo

The difficulties are exacerbated by the new mandatory entry-level training for a Class 1 trucking licence. Farmers find it difficult to hire part-time staff to drive grain trucks.

“You’re talking about three weeks of (training) and a substantial amount of dollars,” says Banack. “Finding people to run the trucks for us: they are the people we’re looking for. (And our combines) are $400,000 to $500,000 units that need constant tinkering and an understanding of what’s going on. So, we just can’t hire someone off the street and put them in one of those units.”

Banack isn’t alone in trying to find and retain workers.

Nationally, the industry will have roughly 114,000 unfilled jobs by 2025, and Alberta and Saskatchewan are among the top three provinces at risk, the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC) predicts.

So, recruiting and retaining farm labourers can seem like an uphill battle.

“You are typically looking at recruiting in the local surrounding geography. Farm labour can also be seasonal and/or part-time. The lower number of young people growing up on farms has taken a toll on the pipeline of available talent with farm experience,” Erika Osmundson tells Better Farming. She is the director of marketing communications at AgCareers.com. (AgCareers.com, like Better Farming, is a Farms.com company.)

Nationally, the number of young people entering the ag industry decreases by 600 annually, according to an August report from the Royal Bank of Canada.

Despite the industry’s labour hurdles, producers can draw on resources to help fill their employment gaps.

Go online

The Internet is one of the best places to find information about human resources (HR), and some of these sources are available free of charge.

The Government of Manitoba website, for example, provides free access to the Human Resource Management for Farm Business in Manitoba manual. It acts as both an HR learning tool and a template to help farmers create a human resources plan that fits their operating requirements. The manual provides detailed information about the management of several HR-related issues, such as writing job postings and dealing with employee performance.

AgCareers.com also offers some free, helpful information. The company lists conferences and career fairs on its website. AgCareers.com has over 250 pre-written career profiles which include information about job overviews, job descriptions, and educational requirements and recommendations.

Paid-access resources, such as CAHRC’s AgriHR Toolkit, often offer customized plans for individual operations. In the long run, these packages may save employers money by helping them decrease the chance of bad hires and other HR problems.

The AgriHR Toolkit costs $99 per year and provides tools, videos and other HR support for farmers.

“The AgriHR Toolkit … includes templates and information to help define the skills and experience (necessary) to perform the required tasks,” Jennifer Wright, the senior HR adviser and stakeholder engagement specialist at CAHRC, tells Better Farming.

Then farmers can “take that information to write a job (posting) and a job description. (The toolkit) provides templates for interview guides, reference checks and letters to extend job offers, as well as interview rejections,” she says.

Banack also recommends starting with the toolkit, saying it’s probably one of the best ones available for the industry.

In addition to the toolkit, CAHRC offers labour market research, webinars, workshops, training sessions and online courses.

Get your brand out

Farm reputation and business branding are key to finding quality employees.

Having a bad reputation as an employer or as a business can deter qualified workers from responding to a job posting. The way employees are treated, the rate of pay, the opportunity for advancement and the availability of proper safety equipment are just a few things that employers need to consider to strengthen their recruitment strategies.

“We’ve used (platforms like) Facebook to reach out. Get your name out. Make sure people know that you’re a good employer,” says Banack.

“We pay our part-time guys $22 to $24 an hour, and that (information) gets out there fairly quickly. Make sure you brag about your successes when it comes to (retaining long-term employees). I think it’s important to do that.”

Banack also provides full work gear to permanent employees to ensure everyone’s safety. Offering these necessities can help employees avoid accidents and injuries.

Even if producers aren’t hiring, brand visibility is important, says Osmundson. To help with these efforts, she recommends getting involved in the community.

For example, youth organizations are an important audience.

Whether you visit classrooms to educate students about the industry or sponsor a ball team, you should engage young people early to enlarge the employee pipeline down the road, says Osmundson.

Young workers are more likely to gravitate to a company name that they know and respect when they look for their first job.

Producers should look for ways to build solid relationships with local universities, colleges and trade schools, too. Through these connections, farmers may open opportunities to hire recent graduates or summer students.

At the post-secondary level, producers may consider providing internships, which benefit both farmers and potential employees. Through the experience, both parties can learn if the position and the intern are properly matched. Employers can avoid long, expensive hiring processes for more permanent positions should the individual not work out.

Finally, an employee referral program is another great way to find qualified employees. Such a program rewards current employees if they recommend a person for a job and their employer hires the person. If they enjoy their jobs and the rewards, employees will be more than happy to spread the word about vacant positions.

Hiring people with non-farming backgrounds

To help address labour shortages and bring in fresh perspectives, producers can hire individuals who lack farming backgrounds.

Help Wanted
    ljubaphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus photo

Unless the job posting clearly states this information, people with non-farm backgrounds may not realize that they are welcome to apply for jobs despite their lack of industry experience. The job posting should also include a clear, comprehensive description of job duties, expectations and educational requirements.

“Providing an accurate, realistic picture of the opportunity during the recruitment process can help ensure new hires, particularly (those) from non-farm backgrounds, have a good understanding of the work environment, the job and the expectations prior to accepting the job,” adds Wright.

Maintaining effective communication throughout hiring can ensure that both parties are on the same page and that everyone feels comfortable with the outcome, regardless of whether it works out.

An employer’s willingness to provide training also appeals to many applicants and can encourage more people to move into the ag industry.

And hiring someone from a non-farming background gives employers the opportunity to train staff to meet the organization’s unique needs. Employers may not have to worry about addressing practices or habits acquired from previous workplaces, and farmers can make sure that their staff operate in accordance with company policy.

Final thoughts

Since the labour crisis is projected to get worse for the Prairies, producers need to have strong employee recruitment and retention processes in place to support successful farm operations. Producers can make the process simpler by taking advantage of ag-focused HR tools.

And, if they have good experiences, part-time and seasonal workers will be encouraged to return to the operation in the future.

“Make sure you pay (your employees) well and treat them well. If people aren’t happy to get up in the morning to go to work, it’s hard to get them to come back every day. Make sure you know how to manage HR,” says Banack. BF

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