Retiring boomers. New jobs. Fewer young professionals entering the work force. Things couldn't be better if you are looking for work or hoping to find a better job. It's all good news for Erika Osmundson, marketing and communications manager, AgCareers. However, if you're a manager at any level, these three facts should have you concerned.

Investing in prospects, new hires and old hands pays off"I don't think anyone knows the real specifics of what we can expect to see in terms of retirements, given the current economy," said Osmundson. "A third of the companies taking part in our recent HR survey expect six to ten percent of staff to retire in the next three to five years. Add to that the sheer growth in new jobs, and things are very promising for young grads."

The projected exodus of boomers has Cate Sprout's attention. As staffing manager, Human Resources, CHS, Sprout deals with it every day. "CHS is not alone in that projection, based on discussions I've had with other organizations," she said.

While Rob Stutesman, Wilbur-Ellis, shares concern over retirement projections, he also projects a 25 percent growth in the company's workforce in the next four to five years. Add these two projections and divide by not only fewer applicants with an agricultural background and/or training, but also fewer Generation Xers or Millennials than there are boomers, and it's a tight market. Just how tight is evidenced by 43,226 job openings posted by AgCareers in 2011, up 16 percent from the previous year. And it isn't just college graduates applying for these jobs.

"As the economy stabilizes, A-players and others aren't as nervous about looking for new opportunities," noted Osmundson. "As a result, employers are focusing more on retention programs."

OPENING THE DOOR

CHS and Wilbur-Ellis are good examples of that. Both offer internships as a way to introduce the company to potential applicants and as a way to evaluate interns as potential new hires. For Sprout, staffing efforts begin with campus recruiting. This year the CHS staffing team visited 23 two- and four-year schools to talk about the company, openings and the ever-expanding internship program. Partners in the visits included not only CHS managers, but also past interns.

Investing in prospects, new hires and old hands pays off"An intern going back on campus for one or two years is a walking billboard for CHS," said Sprout. "We invite them to participate in our booth, talk to other students, offer to be guest speakers at their groups and clubs and invite them to join us in classroom visits."

Of course, all of that depends on the former intern being positive about CHS. Here too, CHS and Sprout invest time and energy. When an intern is assigned to a location, managers are encouraged to assign mentors and work with the intern on goals and objectives. Tina Dorner, CHS recruiter and intern coordinator, checks in with interns every other week and with supervisors on alternate weeks, troubleshooting problems as they develop.

"This year we will have 100 interns with 20 at headquarters and the rest in the field," said Sprout. "Those at headquarters have a chance to have lunch with senior leaders of the different business groups. We have an opener event for those at nearby locations, where they get a chance to network and get an overview of the organization. This year all interns will be invited to St. Paul at the end of the summer to meet one another, tour the facility and meet president and CEO Carl Casale and senior leadership."

Sprout acknowledged that all these activities are not just about the internship, but rather are a time for the student to get to know CHS, use what they have learned in school and develop new skills. However, it is also a chance for CHS to brand who they are as a prospective employer.

"Our goal is to turn as many interns as possible into full-time hires," said Sprout.

TRAINING TO BUILD A TALENT POOL

Investing in prospects, new hires and old hands pays offAlthough the Wilbur-Ellis internship program varies by region, Stutesman echoed Sprout's goal, and he explained a well-organized training program for recent hires.

Once they are hired, the company selects 20 top prospects for Next Generation, a three-year, in-house training program. Started seven years ago in response to projected retirements, the program is an effort to build a talent pool for the company from within.

Branch and area managers nominate prospects. If selected, they are assigned a local mentor, and in their first year they spend time at each part of a branch outlet. At the end of the year, they join members of the second and third year classes for an annual training session under the supervision of a class mentor.

"Our goal is to expose them to all facets of Wilbur-Ellis, including policy, finance, marketing and branded products," said Stutesman. "They get a different level of training each year and the opportunity to develop their own network within the company among their fellow class members and the two previous classes. First year members reach out to third year students as mentors as well."

A key element of the training sessions is access to company management. Over the course of the three-year program, they spend two to three days with Dan Vradenburg, president, Ag Division, have dinner with CEO John Thacher and meet with upper management of every division in the company.

"It is really powerful for them to have that kind of access to upper management, and upper management is equally excited to see this young talent," said Annette Coenen, Wilbur-Ellis branch manager, Marlette, Mich. She was class mentor for the most recent Next Generation graduates, working with them at training sessions for the past three years and being available for advice as needed. "The interest upper management shows makes a remarkable impression on them."

The immediate payback from the program is a higher retention rate than among non-participants. A longer-term payback is the impact it has on Next Generation graduates and in turn on the company, as early graduates are already moving into management positions.

CHS also offers new hire training tailored to different divisions. Like Wilbur-Ellis, goals are training and exposure to all facets of a division. Currently the company offers seven different training programs. Like an increasing number of companies, CHS also offers continuing education with tuition reimbursement, certification programs and CHS University, a partnership with the Carlson School of Business at the University of Minnesota for emerging leaders.

ARA MANAGEMENT ACADEMY

While independent retailers might not be able to offer their employees options similar to those of CHS and Wilbur-Ellis, ARA Management Academy is open to all. Sponsored by the Agricultural Retailers Association and conducted by faculty at the Center for Food and Agricultural Business (CAB), Purdue University, the annual program covers a variety of topics relevant to running an ag retail operation.

"Last session, we had everything from controllers to general managers, sales, agronomy and branch managers," said Scott Downey, associate director, CAB. "Attendees are often being groomed for future leadership within the organization, but are also there to simply improve their management ability in their current position."

The ARA Management Academy draws nationally. Downey noted that attendance reflects recognition that to serve today's farmers effectively and efficiently, they have to have a well-trained staff.

"It is no longer enough to simply 'know' people," he said. "You have to be able to manage risk, people and finance in ways we wouldn't have thought about even 10 years ago."

Downey suggested that a combination of current commodity prices, mergers and acquisitions, high input prices, as well as pending retirements, all play a role in organizations investing in education and training.

"There is a definite recognition of the value of investment in training, whether in an advanced degree, in-house training or programs like ours," said Downey.