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Selling sales

When schools look down on sales, marketing and personal skills, you the farmer lose as much as the students

Ask most recruiters or human resource professionals working in ag today and they will tell you there is a growing gap between the skills needed to perform key roles in agribusiness and the skills that high school, college or university students can bring to the job.

Lori Litherland.
photo: Supplied

Lori Litherland, founder of agricultural recruiter Litherland and Company, believes that some traditional employment skills — especially those related to sales and marketing — are being overlooked in high schools, colleges and universities because of negative or outdated connotations.

Sales is a crucial role in any industry, but in agriculture, where relationships are everything, a salesperson requires specific skills, such as the ability to communicate confidently and to provide detailed knowledge. Such skills are essential, whether it’s as an agronomy adviser or an equipment parts salesperson.

Even so, it’s a role that teachers are blind to, thinking instead that sales jobs are either like the old days of knocking on doors, or the new days of telemarketing.

In reality, sales is an excellent place to start a career, says Litherland.

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“More people are coming to realize that sales isn’t about selling something that you don’t care about, or you don’t believe in, or you don’t love,” says Litherland. “It’s really just helping customers understand what you can do to help them, how you can find solutions for them.”

Many people going into sales who had never thought of it as a serious career have found it much more rewarding than they expected, and discovered it’s a great springboard to advance their career, adds Litherland.

“Clients really value that customer contact on-the-ground, being actually out there understanding what the farmers are doing and what’s going on,” she says. “Companies in agriculture value that experience. It’s often quite hard to get to a general management position if you have never worked in sales.”

Employers looking for sales people ideally want some kind of post-secondary education, such as a degree or diploma, but are also looking for some on-farm and/or retail experience.

“Even for somebody from an urban environment, if they can get themselves onto a farm, even volunteering at a summer job, to get some direct, on-the-land experience, that’s hugely valuable,” says Litherland. “Or if they can work for a local retailer who sells to the farmers.”

Knowing what you don’t know

Big among the skills too often lacking in younger people entering the workforce are the abilities to communicate effectively, manage time, organize and prioritize tasks, and work as part of a team. In some cases, new employees have no idea what working in a corporate setting is like, or how to prepare for or participate in a formal meeting.

Although some of these topics are components of university and college programs, it’s often very different when studied in a school setting versus the reality of a busy business environment, says BASF cereal crops manager, Melissa Parkinson, who graduated from the University of Guelph five years ago with an agricultural degree.

Parkinson believes many students coming out of educational institutions aren’t aware that they lack some of the core skills that will help them succeed and advance in a career, or that they also need to shoulder some responsibility to seek out continuous learning opportunities, which is becoming increasingly important in today’s constantly changing workplaces.

“You don’t know what you know and what you don’t know,” warns Parkinson, who completed a 24-month professional development program offered by BASF that gave her exposure to different roles within the company and helped her develop the skills — like time management and working as part of a team — that have helped her advance her career with the company.

“You think you might be prepared, but I think it’s that hands-on learning experience which you really need to develop those skills. You have to continue learning and looking for those opportunities. One area that comes to mind is social media. Five years ago, we weren’t really thinking about it and now it’s part of our marketing campaign; it’s a very important tool to use. You have to actively look and engage in some self-learning to keep up on trends and changes.”

Because skill requirements are constantly evolving, new opportunities can arise for students who keep up with hot trends in the agricultural industry, says Brook Coatsworth, an associate with Litherland and Company. “Western Canadian universities are working hard to prepare students for the labour market and evolving agricultural industry. A skill set that is in high demand by our clients is the data analytics piece.

“With more and more businesses investing in digital and precision farming technologies, the ability to work with large datasets and provide analysis to guide farm management and decision making is a critical tool students need to be successful.”

Students need to seek out opportunities to develop skills

It’s not necessarily that universities and colleges aren’t doing a good job of equipping students with the kinds of skills employers are looking for. In fact, they often offer a lot of resources to help prepare students for different career paths, but students don’t always take advantage of them.

“While attending job fairs across Canada, I see a wide range of readiness for the workforce,” says Coatsworth, who speaks with many university and college youth skills development departments, and notes there are many great resources, including job fairs, available to students to prepare them for their careers.

Adds Coatworth: “These centres are also challenged by new trends in agriculture and they need to ensure their learning programs match employer needs, and that they continue to be regarded by students as an effective place to start a job search.”

Parkinson, who was involved in 4-H growing up, sought out extracurricular activities, joining different groups and getting involved in a marketing competition at university, and she says while students need to seek out some of the resources on offer that can help them become more confident and outgoing, it could be made easier to take that first step.

“A lot of people are just hesitant to take that first step, and join a group or show up to something where they might not know everyone,” she says. “If it could be made easier so that people can come out and learn about it without a lot of pressure, I think more people would look to those kinds of offerings, programs and clubs.”

Interestingly, involvement in extracurricular and community activities such as 4-H, local community clubs, or industry groups or programs, is something that employers are increasingly looking for on the resumé of potential employees.

“If our clients see 4-H on a resumé, that means something,” says Litherland. “Some of that soft skills development — like public speaking, knowing how to properly prepare for meetings and events — has been happening even if they don’t know it. The volunteer piece is getting bigger and our clients are more and more interested in what people do in the community beyond just academics.”

Well-rounded employees

With many professions now requiring extremely high academic standings, agriculture is a place where a good balance of academics, soft skills and community involvement can get you in the door with many employers.

“Who wouldn’t be discouraged by the fact that a solid 85 per cent isn’t enough to get you into some of these programs?” says Litherland. “Agriculture has never been really focused on that grade and that mark. No one’s impressed by that. They’re much more impressed by who you are as a well-rounded person, and so I think that creates huge opportunities for people that are willing to take the opportunity to round themselves out with great soft skills.”

“It used to be we’d hire young people, tell them what to do and you just did what you were told, and if you did a good job of it you’d rise up through the ranks,” says Litherland. “Our clients today want young people to have some pretty significant impact on the direction of the business at quite a young age. They are going to be listening to them to find out what’s hot in social media and what’s going on out there with young farmers. Things are moving so fast, the leadership is looking to these young people to help them stay current.”

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