Navigate a Tight Labor Market

Here are six ways to expand your candidate pool.

Hiring through the H-2A program can broaden employee options. (Progressive Farmer image by Jim Patrico)

"For farmers and ranchers looking to hire, we've seen a really big shift in the labor market in the past two years," says Lori Culler, president and owner of AgHires, and author of the column "Ag's HR Coach," featured in Progressive Farmer and on Culler, an agricultural hiring specialist, based in Temperance, Michigan, provided some practical tips for finding employees in this tough labor market to attendees of the recent DTN Ag Summit in Chicago.

Why the shift in labor? There are three major factors affecting today's market:

> Low unemployment rates. The lowest rates are in Iowa, New Hampshire, North Dakota and Vermont. There are fewer people looking for a job.

> Compensation rates have notched higher. "What paid $16 to $18 per hour five years ago is now paying $22 to $28 an hour," she notes. "Walmart cashiers are paid $11 per hour, and a diesel mechanic earns $22 to $30 per hour." If you're not paying the going rate in your community, you won't find people to work for you, Culler explains.

> The skills of the person you need on your farm have shifted. You don't need someone who can lift bags and steer a straight row. You need someone who is comfortable with technology and pays attention to details.


Culler advises farm operators to increase their employee candidate pool. "An ad in the local paper is not going to get you the employee you want anymore," Culler says. Her advice:

1. Have a social media presence. "Seventy-nine percent of job seekers use social media in their job search," Culler says.

Michael Yost, who farms near Murdock, Minnesota, agrees that social media can improve awareness of your operation for future employees. One of his employees is a videographer and has posted videos on YouTube. Yost's farm also has a Facebook page. "You'd be surprised how many hits and messages we get," Yost says. "People like to watch farming videos."

2. Connect with your community college or four-year college. Yost has a booth at his local community college career fair and has found three full-time employees through it.

Internships for college students are an easy way to test out potential full-time employees, Culler says. Many students can schedule classes so they have full days available to work on the farm during the week.

The key tip here, Culler explains, is to do your hiring in the fall (although the work and pay don't start until spring). The best college students line up their spring and summer employment the previous fall. "If you missed it this year, wait until fall to hire college students (for the following spring and summer)," Culler advises.

3. Hire retirees. Twenty-nine percent of baby boomers (age 65 to 72) were working or looking for work in 2018.

"Retirees have their own network. If you hire one person, they may talk others into working part-time for you. We got three to four guys to drive a truck during harvest this way," Yost reflects.

4. Hire foreign workers. Gordon Millar with Red Hen Turf Farm, in Carlisle, Indiana, has hired several employees through the H-2A program. "Harvesting turf is a lot of work," notes Millar, who has high turnover with American employees. He has hired several South Africans through the H-2A program who come to the U.S. on a part-time basis. "We work with a company in Michigan who coordinates H-2A employees and handles the paperwork. However, we do have to find them housing and provide transportation," Millar continues.

5. Look outside agriculture. "Some of our clients' best hires have been ex-military, former engineers and former construction workers," Culler says. "Farm backgrounds are nice, but today, they are not necessary."

Millar hired one employee who had attended an equipment training school and had worked for a vending machine company. "The most important thing is to find the right personality for your operation. You can train specific skills," Culler adds.

6. Make your farm or ranch a place where people want to work. This sounds obvious, but farmers and ranchers need to take a critical look at how they compensate, train and treat their employees.

"Often, our clients looking to hire an employee are $20,000 off in what it will take to pay a new hire," Culler notes. "Rather than start with a lower wage or salary, and increase it only after the employee has 'proved' himself, it is better to start with a higher amount to attract the best candidate and let them go quickly if they don't prove themselves," she advises.

"We used to give up to a $2,000 bonus at the end of the year, but employees wouldn't consider that when they looked at our hourly rate versus another employer," Millar explains. "So, we rolled it into their regular compensation. And, we've made strong pay increases in the past two years to remain competitive in our area."

Medical insurance is another important part of compensation. "Our health insurance covers only the employee, not their family. However, several of our employees could find a cheaper plan. So, if they don't elect to take our health insurance plan, we add that $4,000 to $5,000 per year back into their compensation," Yost explains.

A large Michigan farmer at Culler's DTN Ag Summit session reported that he pays $12,000 to $16,000 per year for family health insurance for each of his full-time employees. And, none of his full-time employees have left in nearly 10 years. "It's worth that investment for me not to have to hire and train new people," he says.


In the thousands of job applicants Culler reviews for agriculture clients looking to hire, the applicants are most concerned about work-life balance. "And, they aren't sure agriculture will offer that," Culler says.

Here is what agriculture has going for it: It's outdoor work; employees can see the fruits of their labor; it's a noble profession to feed the world; and people generally like working for a relatively small but progressive organization.

"However, farmers and ranchers need to understand today's employees want to spend time with their families and their hobbies," Culler advises.

"We try to be up front when we're hiring," Yost says. "We encourage them to take summer and winter family vacations. But, we need to know well ahead of time when they want to take vacation time. From Labor Day until mid-November, we tell them to expect to be working a lot," the Minnesota farmer explains.

"We do our best to avoid working weekends. As of yet, we haven't worked on July 4th, but we have on Memorial Day because it is haying season," Yost adds. "And, then we have employees that we have to encourage to stop working. Everyone needs a break."

Adds Indiana's Millar, "If they want to bring their kids to work, we allow that only after regular working hours from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, mainly for safety reasons," he says.

Good employees are out there, Culler stresses. But, count on it taking more time, compensation and flexibility than you thought to find them. However, finding the right employee who "fits" your operation will make you money in the long run, she concludes.


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