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Here’s how one corporation is responding to the same challenge farmers face — creating great team members out of today’s college and university grads

Many students coming out of college and university aren’t aware they lack some of the core skills they will need on the job, says BASF’s Melissa Parkinson.

Maybe their parents are starting to understand that a key trend for Canada’s young people — whether they’re on the farm or off — is to look to social media to find the people and the opinions that will shape them and their careers.

Still, the parents are worried, sometimes with good reason.

After making a presentation at the Royal Winter Fair’s Educators Symposium last year, agricultural recruiter Brook Coatsworth of Litherland and Company was approached by a number of people with kids in senior high school. Their problem? Their kids and their peers aspire to careers — as YouTubers.

It used to be so much clearer, says Coatsworth. When young people were ready to start their own careers, they had been influenced all along by parents who earned their living at skilled trades.

Brook Coatsworth. photo: Supplied

“That was the influence that was around them,” Coatsworth says. “Now there’s just so much available access to other influencers that are not directly in a person’s proximity, or community, or family.”

The opportunity is for the agricultural industry to step up and become the influencer that exposes students to what’s available to them in agriculture and to help them develop the skills they need to advance in an agricultural career.

But they need more too. Work is more exacting. The pressure is on to get each individual step right, and also to work together in efficient, effective teams.

No wonder parents are worried. Who can actually teach their kids about the choices facing them?

The positive influence

It’s the same for employers, including farmers who struggle to find what they need among the graduates of Canada’s educational programs, whether those are family members or new hires.

Corporations struggle too, and they are responding with programs such as BASF’s professional development program (PDP) to develop young employees for a role in multiple areas.

The PDP is a 24-month, cross-functional program where participants have two, one-year rotational assignments. One year is in marketing and sales, and the other in technical development, research and commercial development.

The program is in line with corporate strategy, says Jonathan Sweat, vice-president, BASF Agricultural Solutions Canada.

Jonathan Sweat. photo: Supplied

“As a learning organization, BASF creates and invests in opportunities that bridge the gap between education and employment,” says Sweat. “We recognized that students are having second thoughts about their employability, which is why we invest in these types of programs.”

Melissa Parkinson rates BASF’s PDP highly, following her signing on after graduating from Guelph University in 2013 with an agricultural business degree. Parkinson, now 27, says the program helped her transition into the workplace and taught her valuable skills that have helped advance her career with the company.

“The biggest benefit at the beginning was learning how to work in a corporate setting, whether it was how to run boardroom meetings or work in a team,” says Parkinson. “Working with different teams I learned how to manage my time and know what my priorities were. You work through some of these things in university, but it’s different when you leave school and get your first real job.”

Matching skills to interests

It was her indecision about a concrete career path coming out of university that attracted Parkinson to the program because she wanted some exposure to different roles and areas of the country.

She spent the first 12 months of the program with various marketing teams at BASF’s Canadian head office in Mississauga, then spent 12 months working out of the Saskatoon and Regina offices as a field representative.

“I knew I wanted to work in sales and marketing but I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to work, so this program really attracted me… I spent 24 months learning about the business, learning about agriculture across Canada, getting exposure and getting to try different roles within the organization to find out really what I wanted to do,” says Parkinson, who was born and raised on a dairy farm in Ontario.

Parkinson and her husband relocated to Regina three years ago, where she works as BASF’s cereal crop manager, responsible for the company’s cereal portfolio for both Eastern and Western Canada.

An important component of the PDP is that it is customized to match the participant’s background and interests with BASF’s business needs, says Sweat. “BASF takes great pride in fostering an inspired and engaged workforce, acknowledging each employee’s professional and personal goals, and encouraging them to continuously develop their strengths,” says Sweat. “The PDP is one example of this belief and participants are assigned real, meaningful work. They are given responsibility and are encouraged to work with their manager to determine what skills are the most relevant.”

For Parkinson the program meant discovering how much she loves marketing. “I’ve worked the last five years at BASF to become a marketer and a crop manager, and I had no idea when I left university that this would be the right fit for me. I don’t know whether five years ago, if I had maybe started with a sales position or a different role if I’d be here without having that exposure and going through the program.”

Take your time to find the right job

As much as Parkinson advocates continuous learning and would advise anyone to seek out opportunities to keep developing their skills, she does caution students — especially if they have only recently graduated — not to feel too rushed or too pressured into getting a job or entering a career.

“Some people may feel pressure to take a role or apply to something just for the sake of it,” she says. “But don’t feel rushed. Find a job that’s best for you. Look for companies that have these training opportunities, because that’s a clear sign that they’re willing to invest in you and this way you have a chance to develop and learn more before you decide what it is you want to do.”

Professional development programs like BASF’s are a valuable resource for students because they provide an opportunity to get a taste of what the company can offer, she says. And there’s something in it for BASF as well, i.e. superior employees.

“The participants gain real hands-on work experience and skill development that enables them to take on challenges within BASF, while those working with the PDP participants gain people management skills and develop an understanding of the value of a diverse workforce,” says Sweat, who adds the company works closely with universities and other industry stakeholders to make sure the program is in keeping with an advancing and ever-changing marketplace.

New possibilities

“When I was an undergrad, there were very few management training programs similar to the BASF program, and as a result only those with top grades would apply, making the programs very competitive but also unattainable to the majority of students,” says Litherland’s Coatsworth.

“If more companies had programs like BASF, you may have more chatter in the university spectrum of people really focusing on being a part of the personal development programs at not just agri-businesses but other companies as well.”

To date, 22 participants have gone through BASF’s PDP, and owing to positive feedback both from the participants and from those they’re now working with, Sweat says the company plans to continue the program this year.

BASF has been on Canada’s Top 100 employers list for five consecutive years and Sweat believes that means something to young people seeking employment in the industry. “Young people are looking for many of the qualities that come with such a designation,” he says. “For the younger generation, company culture is very important. We have found that our younger work force sees the value that diversity brings and appreciate it as part of our culture. BASF encourages each employee to design their career and to consider the many aspects of agriculture, whether it be in the field, lab, or office. The opportunities in agriculture are as diverse as the talent we attract.”

Not just for the big guys

But it’s not just large corporations with formal, structured professional development programs that can attract all the best talent, and there are plenty of smart young people looking for mentors to help them get established in the industry in smaller agribusinesses and on farms.

“One of the most important things is that first boss you have when you get started in your professional career after university. That first experience is huge, so if they can try to match the leadership of those early grads with somebody who’s going to be a great mentor, that is almost as good as a professional development program if you’re a small company,” says Lori Litherland, founder of Litherland and Company.

Parkinson agrees that it’s important for the agricultural industry to promote all the great career opportunities that exist across Canada in agriculture, and to help young people develop the skills that are vital to perform those roles well.

“BASF, at the time, was the only one really offering this type of program when I graduated, but it’s a good investment,” says Parkinson. “You’re investing in an individual for 24 months, and maybe not filling an immediate business need or a position, but more of an investment to set up a career and maybe have a lifetime employee. I do think it sets people up more for success in their role.”

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Angela Lovell

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