Agriculture is changing. Innovation abounds. More new technology and better automation arrive every year. So it’s worse than ironic that our biggest shortfall is people power. But there it is. Without the right people, can our farms even hope to adopt the technological marvels that are supposed to propel them into the future?
Mechanization is at risk due to the skill shortages that farmers face, according to “Agriculture 2025: How the Sector’s Labour Challenges Will Shape its Future”, based on three years of study involving input from a large group of Canadian ag associations.
Here’s why that’s a particular problem.
Overall, job vacancies are actually trending down in agriculture. But, says the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC), “the jobs that are left unfilled are positions critical to the sector’s long-term viability.”
More farmers are unable to find workers with the technical knowledge and digital expertise to programme, operate and service highly technical machinery and equipment, whether in the field, the barn or the office.
How many farmers? In a related survey of farmers, CAHRC has found almost half of respondents could not currently fill their labour needs.
The good news is that this is a situation that individual farmers can do much to remedy — including hiring people who want to receive training to do specialized tasks.
But — and it’s a big “but” — farmers do need to get out in front of their labour issues, and they need to do it quickly.
When to make a plan? Now
The best time to create an HR plan was likely years ago. The second best time is today.
Ideally, an HR plan is created before you actually hire any employees, says Janice Goldsborough. In addition to having her own HR firm (The HR Basics) in Manitoba, Goldsborough is the on-call HR consultant for members of Manitoba Pork Council and Keystone Agricultural Producers of Manitoba. She has also created an “Intro to HR” course for agriculture diploma students at the University of Manitoba.
“It’s all about being proactive,” says Goldsborough. “You need a plan before you hire people, and therefore you should start the process if you are going to need to hire down the road, for instance if you are in the process of expanding the farm business.
“You are going to realize how much you don’t know — for example that it’s illegal to ask certain questions of potential hires, or what your obligations are in terms of vacation pay and much more.”
Even if you’ve had employees for a long time, it’s still very important to go through the process of making and implementing a plan, learning the newest regulations and using tools like templates to manage your HR processes. In Goldsborough’s view, it will drive the success of your farm business and also help protect that success.
“A lot of people call me when they’re in trouble,” Goldsborough says. “Don’t be one of those people. I get calls from farmers who are panicking because they didn’t pay overtime when they should, or for not paying vacation pay, for example and for many other reasons.”
Being reported for violations to your provincial employment standards means that you will have to defend yourself to authorities — time and money will be wasted and you will be stressed. It’s also likely, notes Goldsborough, that your violation will be made public somehow. Your reputation will be affected and that will make it much harder to hire workers.
(If you have violated the standards, be up front about it with potential hires. Showing that you aren’t hiding anything and that you have learned from your mistakes is always a good policy. )
An HR plan generally starts with a review of your operations from an HR perspective. Look at the past year, the number of people hired and the times of the year they were employed. Make note of any difficulties that were encountered.
Then, look ahead and write out your goals. “The more specific you are, the better you can determine your needs,” says an Ontario ag ministry factsheet. “Include a timeframe with your goals. Remember to include any personal or family goals that will affect decisions concerning your business… The final step in this needs assessment will be to decide whether your labour needs match your current workforce. If they do, remain vigilant and re-assess the situation each year. If they don’t, make alterations or changes in the workforce to increase productivity and make the business profitable.”
Hali VanVliet, a senior HR consulting manager at BDO Canada, agrees that going over what’s happened in the last year or two, taking a look at what workers have been on the farm and why, whether they had the skills needed, a look at future goals and so on, are all important parts of the HR needs assessment.
“When I sit down with a farmer who might have two employees or 30, we will also look at possible investment in technologies, as that changes the skills that are going to be required in the farm workforce. We will then do a gap analysis and discuss options on how to fill that gap,” VanVliet says. “Maybe it’s an upgrade of the skills of some current employees, taking into account their capabilities and interest in learning new skills, or maybe it requires hiring a new employee for the farm.”
VanVliet believes in the value of professional input on recruitment, retention and the business planning aspect of HR planning. “And a professional can help with really understanding the time that must be dedicated to the plan,” she says. “A lot of the time, creation of an HR plan can start with succession planning. An HR plan is basically the next step when that’s complete or underway.”
• Job descriptions
The next step in creating a human resource management plan is generally to write job descriptions for all the positions on the farm. “Job descriptions will save you time and money in that they really help in hiring the right people,” Goldsborough agrees. “Even before hiring occurs, they open a two-way street where you and your future employees are on the same page and there are no surprises ahead.”
Using job descriptions with key tasks and required skills and experience allows you to understand what exactly is needed and makes recruiting easier. Having clear expectations outlined also allows you to look professional in comparison to competitors.
“You are competing with those in agriculture and outside agriculture in your area for many of the same skills sets,” VanVliet notes. “There is a significant labour shortage right now, and if you structure the recruitment process, you will not only get the right person, but the more professional you and your recruitment processes are, the better you come across and look to potential employees. It’s their first indication of how you manage your business.”
Next, a structured orientation process is very important, especially with regard to safety. This process will make sure employees are trained correctly and establish the rights and responsibilities related to health and safety for the employee and the employer.
“It should also cover things like what to do if an accident happens,” says Goldsborough. “I encourage farmers to create an employee handbook, even for small farms, where all the information is presented, like who to call if you’re going to be late, what will happen if you’re late, etc. What about emergencies? Every province is a bit different, but in Manitoba, employers must provide up to three unpaid days per year for employee emergencies.”
Remember, however, that once you have a handbook, it must be updated. Just like the rest of your plan, it will evolve over time.
• Employee retention
Part of your plan must also involve strategies to retain your employees. “This would include making sure you are communicating regularly with your workers, talking to them about expectations and just checking in to see how things are going, what’s working and what isn’t,” says Goldsborough. “Have ways that your workers can give you feedback in informal settings as well as during formal performance reviews. It’s a great opportunity for you to learn from your workers who maybe have worked elsewhere or see things in a different way. You should also have a discipline policy and enforce it swiftly and with consistency.”
“Many times we are focused on hiring, focused on the attraction piece, but it is equally important to focus on the retention of your quality employees. This may include solid onboarding practices, offering training and development programs (skills upgrading) and finding both financial and non-financial incentive strategies to keep the people you have,” says VanVliet. “I tell my Ontario farmer clients that while some or all of your employees may be exempt from some parts of the Employment Standards Act, it’s a very good idea to at least meet the minimum standards for vacation pay, rest periods and so on, because these are things that other workplaces have to offer, and again, competition for workers is fierce. There are many little things that you can do to keep employees happy with their jobs that have nothing to do with salary. Don’t underestimate the significance of good communication processes and giving employees the opportunity to collaborate and contribute to how their work is being done. A good working environment and a strong culture can go a long way to attracting and retaining good people.”
Writing an HR plan is a good step, but keep in mind that a plan isn’t worth anything if it isn’t executed.
Goldsborough notes that there will be a lot of time to be invested up front in the first year or so, but that this will pay off. “Making a plan takes time but isn’t too challenging,” she explains. “The difficulties are in following through, and in the first year, that’s going to feel onerous, but once you have policies and standard procedures in place, there is much less work and you will have both more peace of mind and a better farm business.”
Jade Reeve, CAHRC manager for “HR Tools and Training” programs, agrees that the biggest challenge is time. “It’s important to remember it doesn’t have to be created quickly,” she says. “There are many components to an HR plan, therefore it’s important to review your priorities to be able to know where to begin. Take your time and review your plan to ensure any adjustments can be made as time goes on. An HR plan will need to be adapted as changes arise within the business, from workforce planning to compensation and benefits to succession planning.”
It’s clear that an HR plan is important because skilled and effective employees are key to a farm’s success and profitability — and ignoring people-management issues can be costly. Take the time to go through the process. As Reeve says, “robust HR practices will help you become an employer of choice in your community, and the industry.”
Make the plan work
Using a new HR plan has already been invaluable for Laura and Henry Holtmann, who own and operate a large dairy farm with Henry’s brother Tony and wife Kim, as well as three members of their collective next generation. They’ve used Janice Goldsborough’s services through Keystone Agricultural Producers of Manitoba (KAP), and Laura (who is in charge of HR on the farm) audited the course Goldsborough created earlier this year.
The farm employs seven family members and 14 non-family workers, having expanded from 100 milking cows in 1999 to a current milking herd of 620. The Holtmanns also grow their own feed on 3,000 acres rented and owned. The farm is about 15 minutes west of Winnipeg and therefore can pull from that nearby urban population. Indeed, almost all their employees are Filipino immigrants, and they have mostly all worked for the Holtmanns between two to seven years. The Holtmanns print their farm employee handbook in English and Tagalog (the workers’ native language), with lots of pictures to illustrate concepts.
Although they’ve had employees for a long time, the process of auditing the course meant that this year was the first time Laura completed a full plan and used many tools in the CAHRC Agri-HR toolkit. “With a plan, we’re much more proactive,” she says. “Previous to this year, we were doing things on our own and we were missing steps. During the course, for example, I used the process of job analysis for hiring milking technicians, and it led to a job description that is much more detailed than in the past, which is good for us and good for potential hires. We used to just put in the newspaper ‘Looking for a milker, call this number.’ Now, using more tools to recruit and retain and using a formal process, we are more confident about choosing the right person and having them stay.”
Once a proper job description is posted, resulting applications are examined and interviews for some applicants follow. Those selected then do a two-hour “working interview” in the Holtmann barn to determine if the job is something they want to do. Once hired, new workers are “checked in with” twice per shift in the first month to ask if they feel they are getting the training they need, whether they are comfortable with the level of communication and so on. Then the Holtmanns always connect with every worker every day.
Employee termination is obviously something the Holtmanns have sometimes had to do, but this year, using a refined termination process, Laura says she’s much more confident about it.
“I know the right things to say and do,” she says. “I also now use written warnings about improperly using equipment and I and the worker both sign it. It’s good that we’re documenting everything now. Before, we were not and that leaves you open to some risk.”
Holtmann is also updating and expanding the worker safety protocols, and has a procedure for written dispute resolution mechanisms.
“Auditing the course was well worth it,” she says. “It inspires you to make the time to go through the process and implement things. It’s been a great advantage to our business already. We are confident that we are meeting the regulations for the labour code in Manitoba. We hire the right person for the job, and therefore train once (of course, retraining when required) and save on training costs. We have fewer safety issues and there’s a more positive team atmosphere and more open communication that is better for all of us.”
“We have increased our retention through making sure our employees are happy. Sometimes the issue of pay comes up, and while we can’t offer more than we do, talking about things means that maybe there’s something like a car repair that they need help with. We’re also respectful of their lifestyle in the way that they like to go visit the Philippines for four to six weeks every two or three years. They save up for that and we accommodate that where there aren’t many employers out there that do. We already have three workers booked to be away for a month in 2020 at staggered times.”
On-call HR consulting in Manitoba
As far as Country Guide and CAHRC can determine, KAP and the Manitoba Pork Council stand alone among Canadian agricultural organizations of any stripe in having a joint standing HR consultant available to members. (Please contact us if your organization also does so.)
Janice Goldsborough started with KAP and the Manitoba Pork Council three years ago. “The general manager at KAP at the time was getting a lot of phone calls from members about what to do with employees and it was determined that the best way to go would be to have an HR consultant available,” she says. “I field calls and meet with producers, and I also go to a lot of producer meetings so they know who I am. I do presentations and my service is also promoted in the weekly e-newsletter.”
Jill Verwey, KAP vice-president, says her organization has received only positive feedback from members about Goldsborough’s services for farmers. “Having an HR consultant takes the guesswork out of hiring and managing staff for our members at a time when a growing number of farmers are hiring non-family workers,” she says. “Goldsborough gives direct advice and points them to the right resources for their needs. It’s very worthwhile as an expense for members and we plan to continue her services as there has been really good uptake. Helping members with HR is an important part of our strategic planning going forward.”
From the CAHRC Toolkit
An HR plan should include all of the components below:
- HR policies
- Recruiting, selection and hiring
- Managing people
- Succession planning
- Compensation and benefits
- Training and development
- Workplace wellness
- Health and safety