How many “We’re hiring” signs have you seen this week?

It may seem like every business is putting out a plea for employees even as unemployment levels continue to drop. If you’re looking to hire more people on the farm, that demand further shrinks an already small candidate pool.

During the Northeast Dairy Management Conference, Rich Stup painted this picture as one good reason to review how your farm employees are treated and make the best effort to provide a professional work environment. He explained that “professional” can simply mean a place where employees are able to use their skills and talents to solve problems and be successful. This will help recruit and retain quality help.

Employees can do their job more effectively and efficiently in a workplace that is structured because it removes obstacles to performance, said the agricultural workforce specialist with Cornell Cooperative Extension. A workplace that is professional gives employees a sense of pride and respect (which helps keep them around), meets workers’ needs as human beings, and shows that values such as high-quality and safe work are actually followed.

What does this look like?

Stup described a few standards that a professional work environment achieves, beginning with maintaining the physical workspace. This means the environment is clean and the necessary tools for a job are available, safe, and in good repair. “Things don’t have to be new, but they must work as intended,” Stup shared, noting that without functioning equipment, employees cannot do their best job. When you provide safety equipment and proper training, you’re communicating that you want to keep your employees around, he continued.

In addition to safety measures, a professional workplace meets employees’ needs as humans by providing a designated place for lunch or breaks, some type of space to store personal items, clean bathrooms, and easy-to-use tools where possible, such as adjustable-height platforms in the parlor.

On the business side of things, Stup reminded that a professional workplace communicates clear policies and expectations while leading employees to worthwhile goals. An employee handbook is a good way to outline things that may be complex, like pay schedules, hours and overtime, sick and other leave, and benefits. Cornell’s Agricultural Workforce Development program has a handbook template adapted for New York farms available online, he shared.

For new employees, have a plan for onboarding that includes fostering compliance and role clarity as well as an understanding of farm culture and connection with the business. Stup also recommended weekly meetings with employees, even if they’re occasionally only 15 minutes, that have a standing agenda of a few things to monitor how goals are being met.

Finally, a professional workplace provides effective leadership from supervisors. Leading people should be the top role of any manager who supervises others because the success of all parties is intertwined, Stup emphasized.

Being an effective supervisor means setting clear expectations through frequent communication and detailed job descriptions, standard operating procedures, and onboarding processes. Also, provide proper training and encourage skill development, which could include outside resources like workshops. Lastly, giving feedback offers employees insight into how on- or off-target their performance is. “Lots of positive feedback costs you nothing,” Stup noted.

Many of these recommendations are already implemented at farms with more employees. Stup advised that with farms with fewer employees can achieve the same goals by prioritizing efforts and outsourcing others to industry resources. Improvement doesn’t have to mean a large investment all at once; you can do it bit by bit, he reminded. After all, people are a limiting resource, so we have to take care of them.

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(c) Hoard's Dairyman Intel 2022
April 4, 2022
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