Tips to retain quality ag workers

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Worker turnover is costly, requiring employers to spend time and money finding and training new employees. That’s one important reason why retaining good workers is a top priority for most agribusinesses and farm operations, according to Syngenta and agriculture human resource specialists.

“There is no one-size-fits-all recipe for employee retention,” said Mary Barefoot, human resources services manager at AgCareers.com. “Making sure employees are happy with their jobs is a complex mix of both tangible and intangible factors, and it’s different for each employee.”

Compensation, training, professional development, incentives and flexibility are a few factors an employer should consider when looking for the combination that keeps employees engaged and committed.

The Compensation Question

When a person feels underpaid, compensation can cause dissatisfaction, but that doesn’t mean more money is the entire answer to retention. “Compensation is important as a part of retaining employees, but increases in salaries will not guarantee employees won’t leave,” said Bob Milligan, senior consultant with Dairy Strategies in Saint Paul, Minn. In short: Employers don’t have to pay the most, but can’t pay the least, either.

“There will always be someone who beats your salary, but people have to feel like they’re being treated fairly,” said Kathleen Schindler, head of talent acquisition and talent management at Syngenta. “Transparency is important. Communicate that you know what’s happening in your market, and show that what you’re offering is competitive.”

Good People, Good Environment

Competent and satisfied people create a positive work environment. “People find it fulfilling to be surrounded by others who love what they’re doing and who do it well, so look at whom you’re hiring into the company,” Schindler said and added that employers shouldn’t overlook their own influences. The relationship with managers is a key motivator for people to stay in the job—and often a significant factor as to why they leave.

Here are more ways to keep employees engaged:

  • Learn about leadership best practices. “You wouldn’t hire a crop specialist who didn’t know a lot about crops,” Milligan said, “so why would you think you’ll be a good leader and supervisor if you know nothing about it?”
  • Ask employees what works. “I recently learned about ‘stay interviews,’ a different approach from employee satisfaction or exit interviews,” Barefoot said. These surveys target committed employees who have chosen to stay with an organization and help the company learn what it’s doing right.
  • Make sure all employees know their jobs. “Ninety percent of employees don’t really understand what’s expected of them at work. Even if they do, they don’t know why,” Milligan said. “How motivated can you be to do something if you don’t know why you’re doing it?”
  • Provide direction. Have processes in place to give feedback—and not in an annual performance appraisal. “If it’s January, do you want someone to tell you they didn’t like what you did back in June?” Milligan asked. A monthly appraisal is more helpful; an annual event is better suited to looking ahead.
  • Offer opportunities for development. “At Syngenta, that’s part of our purpose. We have to provide an environment where employee development is a priority and employees have opportunities available to them that meet their development needs,” Schindler said.
  • Hire the right people to start with. “Farmers spend a lot of time choosing what to plant, but there’s much more difference in productivity across people than across varieties of seed,” Milligan said. “It doesn’t mean you hire all Ph.D.s, but find people who are able to fit the requirements of a job.”

All of these steps take time, but motivated employees can make all the difference to a thriving workplace—and its bottom line.


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