Invest in Your Biggest Asset – People
By Ian Kane
What is the greatest challenge the U.S. beef industry faces? I have asked this question frequently since becoming involved in the beef industry. You might expect to hear answers relating to rising input costs, urban development, water resources or supply chain disruptions. However, one issue rises above the rest – the availability of labor.
Drive down Main Street anywhere in America, and I would be surprised if one did not see a handful of businesses displaying signs reading “help wanted” or “now hiring.” Challenges in the labor market are being felt in all sectors of business, not just agriculture.
To make a tough issue tougher, even when labor is available, prospective candidates are often deficient in key areas considered essential by the employer.
How are we going to overcome this challenge? When facing an endeavor of this complexity, it is essential to first review what strategies have been implemented in the past and determine their effectiveness.
Next, we must seek to understand the motivations of the available workforce. What gets candidates excited about their work? How do we motivate them to take ownership of our operation’s mission and goals? What are the best methods to increase satisfaction in the workplace, incentivize productivity and create an engaging culture?
Lastly, we need to utilize the conclusions drawn from the two previous steps to stimulate innovative recruitment strategies to attract prospective candidates, then engage and develop them once hired. This extra step is key to maximize their value to the operation and secure the future success of both employee and employer.
Recruiting the right team
Two of the most popular strategies for recruiting the right team members are reaching out to personal and industry contacts and displaying positions in a digital format on a company website, job board, social media, etc. Radio, print and outdoor advertising are used to a lesser extent.
Utilizing networks may identify qualified candidates at a higher rate, but it will likely generate a limited number of them. This can be problematic for organizations needing to fill multiple roles.
Digital recruitment is complex. Its strength is its ability to reach numerous candidates at an inexpensive, or sometimes free, rate in different geographic areas, industries and social circles.
This method also has some weaknesses. It can produce a high volume of candidates, which increases the amount of time invested in sorting applications and evaluating candidates. Also, some candidates may show less commitment in early stages of the interview process because they are seeking placement in multiple positions and have not yet established a relationship with our operations.
With these observations in place, effort can be directed to uncovering the motivations of the workforce. There is no one-size-fits-all approach. People’s motivations can be as diverse as the candidates themselves. However, there are a few key strategies that can be implemented with a high rate of success.
The most important strategy is to create a culture of value. The sage advice of “people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care” rings true.
We need to be intentional within our businesses to not only meet the needs of our employees, but to exceed them where we can. Perhaps we could successfully recruit a candidate for a $50,000 annual salary, but what could we gain by offering $60,000?
Maybe they’d be happy to have basic health insurance, but what if we offered to match their investments in a 401(k) program to help secure their future? Can we offer a side of beef to the mix? What about a company vehicle? Rural housing can be an issue. Can we provide housing?
It goes beyond compensation. Positions in the agricultural field rarely operate on a set schedule. Early mornings, late nights and weekends are part of the lifestyle. This industry is not for the faint of heart, as Mother Nature enjoys challenging us with drought, snow, mud, dust, floods, fires, heat, cold and more. Increasingly, today’s labor force desires intangible benefits.
Words like balance, flexibility, purpose and fulfillment are often used to describe these expectations. To put this in context, we can generate large dividends on small sacrifices by making our employees’ priorities our priorities.
For example, let’s say we need to vaccinate calves and have budgeted time on Saturday for our crew to accomplish this task. However, three of our five employees had hoped to be done in time to go to their kid’s ball game.
As an employer, what could we gain by moving the processing to Monday? Our loss in terms of disease prevention is minimal by delaying vaccination 48 hours. However, by allowing our team to be present for their families, we have built trust, increased loyalty, boosted morale and strengthened their motivation to see our business succeed.
I would categorize all these non-tangible assets as “relationship capital.” Teams with high amounts of relationship capital will be more productive, take more ownership, produce higher-quality products and will collectively sacrifice more to achieve the shared goals of the organization.
Not only does this make the current team more effective and increase the long-term sustainability of the operation, but it has the potential to attract new candidates as the operation earns a reputation for being the premier place to work.
An elite organizational culture appreciates as an asset by making the current team more successful and functioning as a marketing tool to recruit future candidates.
As an employer, the next time we are faced with adversity or are in a vulnerable position, this relationship capital could be the difference in success or failure of our business. We need to ask ourselves, “What generated more value for our business, vaccinating calves two days earlier, or making our people a priority?”
The next strategy is to hire based on character, not credentials. I’m not advocating to hire people who are incompetent simply because there is an opening. All this accomplishes is setting both parties up for failure and threatening to weaken the culture of value.
The strategy I am trying to illustrate is “first who, then what,” which was explained well by Author Jim Collins in “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap … and Others Don’t.”
He frames this idea using a metaphor comparing companies and their staff as passengers on a bus. The “first who, then what” concept relies on getting the right people on the bus, and then figuring out how to get those people in the right seats before ever considering what the final destination of the bus will be.
In business and in life, the only guarantee is there are no guarantees. It’s not a matter of if challenges will arise, but when challenges will arise. This is why it is essential to build a team based on who people are, not what they know. This way, when the business is faced with a challenge, our people are our greatest asset and not our greatest liability.
With the right culture, time and investment in training, we can teach someone new skills. It is much more difficult to change a person’s character to exhibit integrity, work ethic, curiosity, courage, etc. Adopting this mindset in the recruitment process may lead us to consider candidates with the right character traits who previously might have been overlooked, simply because they fell short on experience.
With a culture of value, inexperienced candidates who align with the culture can develop the skillsets needed to contribute to the operation.
We have a long way to go to fill the current and future labor needs of the agriculture industry. It is essential to find a way to make this industry rewarding and profitable enough to encourage the next generation of rural America to come back to the farm.
But, we cannot stop there. We also need to attract candidates from more urbanized backgrounds into the industry. By building a culture of value and hiring character, not credentials, I believe we will be able to make meaningful progress toward these aspirations.
Once we get the right people on the bus and in the right seats and the wrong people off the bus, then we can figure out where the bus is going.
Ian Kane concluded his regional manager internship for the American Angus Association on Dec. 2 and has completed internships with Yon Family Farms in South Carolina, Thomas Angus Ranch in Oregon, Wulf Cattle in Nebraska, Golden Belt Feeders in Kansas and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association. This opinion column was originally published in the Angus Beef Bulletin on Dec. 6.