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Tapping into a new source of farm workers

Traditional labour supplies are running short. Why that may not be a bad thing

With farms getting bigger and with rural populations getting smaller, it’s no surprise you’re having trouble finding local employees with the farm skills and the experience you want. That doesn’t mean you have no options, however.

The solution may be to look beyond candidates with ag experience and to begin to look in other sectors for candidates with transferable skills or who have a good fit with your culture and can be trained. They may become valuable employees. 

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This has been the recruitment strategy of Kristjan Hebert, managing partner of Hebert Grain Ventures, a 21,000-acre grain farm near Moosomin, Sask. Hebert knows there are people outside of agriculture who could be a good fit for jobs on farms but they have an outdated view of farming as “working with a pitchfork” instead of a high-tech business.

They are also unaware that there can be perks to working on farms such as flexibility to meet personal commitments.

“There are benefits that a lot of jobs can’t offer,” he says.

Farmers would do well to always be on the lookout for good employees, says Hebert, who thinks farmers are generally too reactive when it comes to hiring. In other words, they get it the wrong way around. First, they find more work to do (which is something most farmers excel at) and then scramble to find an employee to help who can help do it.

As a result, farmers and their families end up in a box, which means they stretch themselves too thin and consequently have to deal with high stress levels and burn out. “Then,” says Hebert, “they are in a hurry so they hire the first live body that shows up.”

His advice? “Always be looking for the right person because if we find that person, we can do custom work, take on that next section or add 10 cows.”

With an eye to recruiting proactively, Hebert takes many opportunities to speak publicly about his farm operation. The speaking engagements create a brand to funnel people to his farm, and he has sought a way to formalize this process. After using a matching site to find a nanny, he saw the potential to use a similar approach to match ag businesses and potential employees.

Two years ago, Hebert and a partner launched WorkHorse Hub to revolutionize the way agriculture finds employees. “I created this company so other farmers don’t have to struggle the way I have in the past to find employees.”

Employers pay an annual subscription fee to create profiles and job ads on the WorkHorse Hub platform. They can add videos and link to their social media accounts which tell prospective employees a lot about the farm and the job. Hebert calls this “making it real.”

The ads are also placed on third-party job listings and shared on WorkHorse Hub’s social media channels. (In just two years, WorkHorse Hub has garnered 20,000 followers on Facebook.)

Job seekers create a profile with photos and videos which provide much more information than a resumé. There is no cost to the job seekers to use WorkHorse Hub.

An algorithm searches the profiles and job listings to find the best matches.

So far, there are a couple of hundred job postings and a few thousand applicant profiles loaded to the site. Hebert is pleased with the platform’s growth, recognizing that it takes time for new things to catch on. Knowing that the more people who use the platform, the better the matches will be, WorkHorse Hub continues to work to build the number of farms and job seekers using the site. “I call it chicken-and-egg syndrome,” Hebert says.

Hebert has had good success using the platform to find employees for his own farm, noting he has had applicants from sectors outside agriculture such as mining and logging.

Most important to Hebert is that an employee has passion, curiosity and grit. With these qualities he can teach them how to farm the way they farm, he says. Hebert sees people as an investment and offers competitive wages as well as benefits, pension, statutory holidays, clothing, and access to a company truck.

In addition to attracting good people from outside of the ag industry, Hebert also sees great potential for the WorkHorse Hub platform to link young people from farms in countries like Australia, New Zealand, Germany and the U.K. who are looking for international experience. This can be good for farmers who can fill a spot for six to 12 months with people who are already 50 to 75 per cent trained, says Hebert. “We’ve had great luck with them on our own farms.”

The potential for immigrants to help fill labour needs on farms is another avenue Hebert wants to explore. He’d like to partner with the government to help train and place immigrants on farms.

In Hebert’s experience, young people today want more than a paycheque. They want a job with meaning and an opportunity to learn and grow. They also want purpose, and he finds it essential that when he is talking to potential employees in the 20 to 34 age range he is able to talk about the farm and to articulate what it is trying to achieve.

“You need to tell them why you do what you do and why you have the goals you have,” Hebert says.

His employees also want to see that there will be opportunities for them to learn new skills. “They need to know you will invest in their growth and education,” says Hebert, who also makes sure his employees feel like they are part of a team and part of a bigger family. “We go paintballing after harvest and I took the whole crew and their families to a hockey game,” he says. They appreciate that, says Hebert. “They like the sense of community they get working for a smaller company.”

Hebert’s experience jibes with the findings of Dr. Sean Lyons, a University of Guelph researcher who studies inter-generational differences and the impacts on workplace dynamics and management.

Dr. Sean Lyons.
photo: Revel Photography

“Good retention starts with good recruiting,” says Lyons. “The challenge is finding people who are willing to be there for the right reasons, whose values connect with farming and agri-food production. Then try to keep them learning and engaged in their jobs. Helping them see the benefits of farm work is a key to their staying.”

Being part of the food production system, working in rural settings, and doing work that is tangibly rewarding and consequential, could appeal to many Gen Zers (born after 1995) but urban kids are not likely considering jobs in agriculture, points out Lyons. These kids would be “surprised to learn of the degree to which STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) is used on the modern farm.” Their vision of a farm is “romanticized as bucolic and simple.”

Lyons partnered with Lovell Corporation, a youth mobilizer, on a 2018 study of the employment preferences of Gen Y and Gen Z*. In the survey of 2,000 young people aged 14 to 36, among the 84 per cent of respondents who knew what occupations they wanted to pursue, only one per cent selected a career in “natural resources, agricultural or related production.”

With Gen Z, important career decisions are often made early and with limited information, says Lyons, so presenting careers in agriculture as a viable option will be necessary.

Becky Parker, who studied the topic of inspiring Gen Z to consider careers in agriculture as a 2015 Nuffield Scholar, encourages farmers to reach out to high school, colleges and universities. Co-op placements on a farm could be a low-risk way for a student who hadn’t thought of a career in farming to try it out, she says.

Parker, who now works for the BC Agriculture Council, sees opportunities for farmers to connect with Gen Z around their values. The work being done in agriculture to farm in harmony with the environment would be appealing to many youths, she says. The passion that this generation has for healthy food could parlay into a desire to care for farm animals while those with a mechanical aptitude who like to work with their hands may be drawn to work on farms where those skills are needed.

*The report, “How Millennials and Generation Z are Redefining Work,” is available for download from Lovell Corporation.

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