How to Get People to Work in Agriculture

June 1 st 2002

The following is an edited excerpt from Agricultural Sector Human Resource Recruitment Initiatives, a report of a study conducted by the Work Research Foundation for the Ontario Agricultural Human Resources Commission (OAHRC) submitted earlier this year.


Ask young people what they want to be when they grow up and very few would say they want to be a farmer. Too much risk and hard work for too few rewards. Farming conjures up images that, while perhaps somewhat romantic, don't transform well into what most think of as an enviable career path.

But the world of farming has changed. Technology has impacted the agricultural sector as it has all economic sectors, eliminating many jobs but also creating new opportunities. The industry needs to find ways to show people that there are rewarding career opportunities in agriculture.

The purpose of the study conducted by the WRF for the OAHRC was to identify the significant human resource issues in agriculture. Recruitment was the number one issue identified.

One of the recruitment problems the agricultural industry faces is one which affects all sectors of the economy. Demographic studies show that the average age of all workers is on the rise, including farmers. This means there are fewer workers to go around, and all economic sectors are confronted with a skilled labour shortage.

Besides this general demographic dilemma, agriculture must contend with a number of other recruitment obstacles which must be hurdled before people will be attracted to a career in agriculture.

Aggressive competition. As shortages are manifested in the labour market, agricultural employers must compete aggressively with other employers for quality employees. They are competing not only among employers within their own sector but also with employers in other sectors, particularly manufacturing and construction, which are the two sectors most likely to draw labourers leaving the farm.

Competition for agricultural workers begins at the college level where non-agricultural programs aggressively compete to attract students to their programs. If students are enticed into education programs aimed for later participation in other sectors, the pool of potential agricultural employees is reduced. The aggressive competition of other sectors and other college programs is an issue that the agricultural sector cannot ignore.

Predictor of agricultural career choice.The University of Idaho found that 60 per cent of incoming college agricultural students had been heavily involved in 4-H, and 50 per cent had been in high school vocational agricultural programs. The important formative role of youth development through 4-H, FFA-type organizations, and secondary school vocational agricultural experience must be recognized by those planning initiatives to attract participants into the agricultural sector. More direct initiatives aimed at attracting youth to such programs would have promising results for colleges and employers. Declining involvement in such organizations directly yields a decline in the potential pool of career agricultural workers.

Dealing with dissatisfiers. Many authors and researchers have recognized the importance of several factors in the attraction and retention of employees to the agricultural sector. These include:

  • competitive compensation plans (wages and benefits);

  • good working/living conditions (for both employees and livestock);

  • job security;

  • clear expectations (organizational charts and job descriptions);

  • a satisfying job title;

  • reasonable scheduling;

  • continued efforts to reduce "stoop" labour;

  • provision of adequate sanitary facilities; and

  • an emphasis on safety and good equipment.

For management to be effective in reducing potential sources of dissatisfaction for employees, these items must be provided for or arranged. It should be noted, however, that elimination of these sources of dissatisfaction alone does not hold promise that agricultural workers will experience their jobs as satisfying.

As a working framework for the WRF study, Frederick Herzberg's two-factor theory of motivation was used. Herzberg suggests that dissatisfiers (inadequate salary, job status, and/or security) must be removed from the work experience but that simply removing sources of dissatisfaction alone does not make a job satisfying. People experience satisfaction from their work if they receive recognition from their employers and have opportunities for growth and achievement.

Satisfiers inherent to agriculture. Various reports have indicated the inherently satisfying aspects of working in agriculture. A discussion group convened by the Australian Association of Natural Resource Management made various conclusions on the matter of recruitment and retention of farm employees. They recognized specific attractions to farming, such as the opportunity for individual development in a trusting environment where the efforts of workers are valued; a small-town, rural lifestyle; the challenge and opportunities of nurturing living plants and animals; the variety and indoor/outdoor nature of the work; a high degree of a sense of accomplishment; and stable employment.

Agriculture can provide the satisfaction that is so necessary for recruiting and retaining employees in two unique and powerful ways. First, agriculture is well situated to offer unique benefits inherent to the industry. Second, if agricultural employers recognize and provide the following required satisfiers, then the agricultural sector will have a commanding advantage in recruiting and retaining employees:

  • create growth opportunities;

  • offer progressive opportunities;

  • provide regular and progressive training;

  • involve workers in decision making;

  • increase opportunities for responsibility;

  • involve workers more in the training of new employees;

  • allow more freedom to work without close supervision;

  • provide flexible working hours;

  • offer partial ownership opportunities;

  • improve the physical environment, utilizing more machinery and less stoop labour;

  • ensure effective communication between owner and employee;

  • provide good supervision;

  • create a team spirit;

  • give employees the opportunity to contribute ideas;

  • ensure dignified and respectful treatment of all;

  • create a sense of belonging;

  • recognize accomplishments, and provide feedback for work well done;

  • value feelings and opinions; and

  • be consistent and courteous.

Herzberg's theory requires that all dissatisfiers be removed and satisfiers put into place. Fortunately, all of the steps above are implementable within the industry. Further, agriculture has inherent satisfiers unique to its sector.

The literature reviewed during the WRF study proposed a number of specific recruitment strategies that employers in the agricultural sector can use for filling job openings. These included:

  • well-designed advertisements;

  • word of mouth;

  • centralized farm worker recruitment centre (not a generic employment agency);

  • overseas recruitment (results in qualified, motivated participants);

  • migrant labour program;

  • agricultural cooperative education programs in high schools;

  • hiring lists developed by colleges and training institutions;

  • consideration of more than just youth; and

  • consideration of ways to attract the dissatisfied worker from other sectors, such as manufacturing and construction.

This examination of innovative recruitment initiatives in the agricultural, manufacturing, and construction sectors reveals that new and effective initiatives tend to be collaborative, intentional, and experiential.

Collaborative: Innovative initiatives, the study found, are based on collaborations between various sector participants. The participants in new initiatives tend to come from industrial and governmental organizations and federations, colleges/universities, and school boards. They represented multiple subsectors within the broader industry.

Intentional: Effective initiatives are actively focused on attracting participants from the declining pool of young people. Those involved in these initiatives assertively profile their industry and its potential. It becomes clear that as one sector becomes aggressively involved in attracting participants, then all other sectors, to compete, must also be intentionally involved in recruitment.

Experiential: As most initiatives are aimed at youth, the most effective tend to be immersive. These programs offer more than the traditional classroom guest speaker and exposure to texts, books, CDs, and websites. Rather, they invite young people to participate in carefully designed four- or five-day intensive programs which provide experience and exposure to the industry and its workers. In addition, vocationally based cooperative programs at the secondary school level are being established and growing quickly due to popularity with students and encouragement of colleges/universities and employers.

The WRF study reveals the particularly Canadian concern for human resource recruitment in agriculture. While American initiatives tend to focus on creative solutions to aid young potential farmers to become owners, in Canada the focus is on recruiting the required quality and quantity of participants into the sector.

An examination of several recruitment initiatives from various sectors reveals a generic three-stage model for attracting people to a specific job. First, potential participants must have a broad, general awareness of the industry and be attracted to participate in that industry. Second, they must be aware of and attracted to a career within that industry. Third, they must be aware of and attracted to a specific job within that industry. From this model, more specific models for recruitment in agriculture can be developed.

Any sector that hopes to attract new participants must engage in these three stages of recruitment. The first stage, promotion of agriculture in general, can be done as a large-scale (even national) collaboration between various sector organizations. The second stage, promoting careers within agriculture, will be more local and subsector specific yet still be a collaborative promotion. The third stage, promoting actual job opportunities, will be most specific to individual employers yet a collaborative profiling of individual jobs available also increases the recruit's awareness of the career potential within the entire sector.

As mentioned above, the most innovative recruitment initiatives are collaborative, intentional, and experiential. They are aimed at young people as participation by youth is a high predictor of future post-secondary training in agriculture. Thus any initiative to recruit new participants to the agricultural sector must recognize the potential of:

  • youth experience in agriculture;

  • cross-organizational collaborations; and

  • intentional, assertive, and experiential promotion.

Although the WRF study revealed many specific recruitment tactics for the agricultural sector, they were found to be situated within a general framework. First, agricultural employers must be committed to removing potential dissatisfiers from their workplaces. In other words, appropriate salaries, benefits, working conditions, job security, and contractual orderliness must be in place.

Second, the employer must provide opportunities for additional employee satisfaction. These include recognition, unique rewards, opportunities for input and advancement, excitement, challenge, fun, and flexibility.

Agriculture is an industry with inherent, unique satisfiers for employees, including the seasonal nature of the work, the variety of indoor and outdoor experiences, the opportunity to nurture plants and animals, and the variety of challenges in the industry. These all appeal to young people. It is up to the agricultural sector to actively promote and celebrate these advantages.

Any plan for attracting people into agriculture must recognize the three broad stages of recruitment. Without awareness of the broader industry or the career potential within it, people will not be attracted to specific jobs within a given sector, no matter how creatively these are promoted. Initiatives to recruit new participants into the sector must, therefore, intentionally focus on working within the three stages of the model. Based on innovations in other jurisdictions, innovative and successful recruitment programs should be collaborative, intentional, experiential, and aimed at youth.

Based on the above conclusions, the WRF recommended the following initiatives to the OAHRC.

Study public perceptions of agriculture: Identify existing research or conduct a perceptions study to understand how the public perceives agriculture in Canada. The agricultural sector needs to be sure that it understands the misperceptions that persist. This new research will provide important information to reposition and renew the image of agriculture.

Reposition and renew the image of agriculture: Develop collaborative, national, and unified initiatives that promote agriculture. This image must include the recognition of the realistic human resources character of the agricultural sector. The messaging needs to convey the following image of agriculture:

  • outdoors, animals, and horticulture;

  • high-tech, sophisticated, interesting, challenging, sexy, flexible, international, business profession;

  • world-class products and producers (profile them specifically, e.g., the Agricultural Hall of Fame and feature the award winners);

  • innovative apprenticeship, college, and university preparation; and

  • adventure, environment, safe and clean, community.

Intentionally target youth already associated with the agriculture sector: Target young people who are still on the farm and who are in other youth initiatives, such as 4-H, Junior Farmers, and high-school cooperative education courses. Strongly entice them to enter agricultural colleges, apprenticeships, and other farm employments. These young people have a higher potential of joining agriculture than any other group of youth.

Increase funding to innovative colleges, and make them more accessible: Attract the best faculty; undertake ground-breaking research; introduce experience-based, cross-disciplinary programs; let parents and students know they are out there. Dramatically increase the scholarship opportunities to provide a competitive edge over other industries. The attraction of a lower cost education still identifying quality students will support more specific recruitment initiatives. Support programs at the high school level, such as:

  • Green Certificate (B.C., Alberta, and Manitoba), and

  • Agriculture Certificate on secondary school diploma (PEI).

Recognizing that youth development is an important predictor of future participation in agriculture, sector advocates, colleges, and employers should collaboratively support youth development through 4-H, FFA, secondary school vocational programs, and other interdisciplinary initiatives.

Develop a "satisfying employer" program: For recruitment strategies to work, it is important that the agricultural sector has satisfying employers. Examples to accomplish this include:

  • become an industry known for always looking for the brightest and the best people; and

  • train employers on how to bring satisfiers into the job and set themselves apart as great employers.

Review examples of innovative recruitment strategies: The study conducted by the WRF identifies numerous innovative recruitment strategies in practical detail. The OAHRC leadership should ensure these strategies are reviewed as "best practices" as future recruitment strategies are designed for specific programs or sectors in agriculture. The following examples simply illustrate many of the strategies in the full body of the report:

  • Explore the WorkKeys model, a system for measuring, communicating, and assessing basic workplace skills. WorkKeys identifies skills in potential job candidates and prepares them for the workforce through a partnership of educational institutions, business organizations, and workforce development agencies.

  • Reevaluate the agricultural employment centre/labour pool concept, which can serve as a point of connection between promoting the industry and having real jobs to offer the job seeker. Recruitment agencies currently play a large role in agricultural awareness and career promotion, and partnership opportunities should be explored.

A career in agriculture is more than what most people think. Many exciting opportunities for a rewarding career are available to today's youth, but it is up to the industry to make these opportunities known and provide the means for following a career path down on the farm.

Topics: Business
 

Senior Fellow at Cardus, Senior Fellow at the Fraser Institute, and former Director of Teacher Education at Redeemer University College.

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