Agriculture’s Talent Pool Is Running Dry

This is a serious problem, but not a hopeless one. Here are three tips. ( Darrell Smith )

By Mike Karst, Senior Partner Entira

Driving through Indianapolis I heard an advertisement for a job recruitment company that compared finding the perfect candidate to finding a needle in a haystack. It made me think—yes, that’s true in a major city where every job posting attracts candidates (qualified or not) like moths to a flame.

In rural America, however, ag businesses might say the response they get to job postings is more like crickets chirping. Opportunities are ripe for picking … but no one is picking.

There’s a definite vibe out in the field where the ag industry is alive and thriving that we don’t have enough of the right kind of talent in the right places. The talent pool seems to be running dry in every facet of agriculture. For retailers, the lack of qualified candidates is most prevalent from entry level to middle management roles. For growers, the struggle is in finding anyone willing and able to drive a farm vehicle.
Dream candidates are out there, it’s just a matter of finding them and getting them to come to you.

Shortage of Talent Outside the City Limits

The rural American job market doesn’t get the attention it deserves—but when you consider the fact that 80% of the U.S. population resides on 3% of the land, it’s no surprise the focus goes to those metropolitan areas.

While the supply and demand problem in the ag job market is prevalent in all geographies, it’s more acute as you move away from a major population area where an urban lifestyle is readily accessible.
Growers are having a terrible time finding drivers for trucks and tractors—in Montana, they’re offering $30 per hour and still can’t fill the jobs. Ag retailers need people in locations close to their customer base, but modern life is dictating that many young people want to raise families in cities with more amenities and jobs for their spouses.

Even if they do take a job outside of the city, people often make sacrifices to try and keep the best of both worlds. We’ve met ag salespeople who commute more than an hour each way to get to an office job. Others live in an apartment away from their families for four nights per week. The problem with these provisional arrangements is that as family life becomes busier, many will choose to leave ag for a career in the city.

Filling the Pool

The situation is becoming even more urgent as Boomers hang up their hats. A recent study of retailer leadership teams showed that more than 20 percent of the survey respondents have retired in the last year or will retire by the end of 2019. Who will replace them?

This is a serious problem, but not a hopeless one. What companies and growers must do is find ways to get qualified job candidates to see the possibilities of a career with their operation. It’ll just take some initiative and creativity.

Here are some starting points:

1. Connect with young up-and-comers at the college level.

It’s true that more specialty roles exist today that didn’t 20 years ago. So, you need your local talent pool to go somewhere to learn those parts of the trade … but the problem is they often don’t come back.
We need to find ways to bring post-secondary educational opportunities to the communities where the jobs are. There are people who may be interested in an ag career but don’t want to (or cannot) go away to earn a 4-year degree. One solution is to give them the chance to learn the trade right in the geography where they can continue to live and work after they graduate.

Institutions like Kirkwood Community College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and Butler Community College in the heart of Kansas wheat country have created 2-year programs designed to help students pursue careers in ag business. Just this summer Vincennes University in southwest Indiana opened a 45,000 square-foot agricultural center, the new home to its five agricultural programs plus a joint project with John Deere that educates technicians with hands-on training on the company’s latest technology.

By connecting with people at the college level through programs like these or internships, you can create more direct paths to the roles you need to fill.

2. Even better, intervene with their career aspirations while they’re still in high school.

Plant the seeds early with rising stars before their future plans are fully in motion, and help young people visualize a prosperous career path with you. What kind of job can you give to high school students that allows them to see what agriculture is about? Can you offer a scholarship for students interested in pursuing ag degrees--even a $500 scholarship can build loyalty with students and community and draw attention to your company in a very positive way. Pull them in before they leave for college … show them there’s a viable career opportunity back home.

3. Do your part to build up your communities as a destination where people want to live.

Businesses need thriving communities to survive just as much as communities need thriving businesses. The onus is on ag businesses to inject opportunity and life into the towns in your markets. You can play a role in making them desirable places to settle down, start a career, and raise a family.

During some recent visits with growers in Montana, every ball field we drove by had a CHS Big Sky sign on it—an indicator that the business is fully engrained in its communities. People take immense pride working for a company that’s involved in their community and supportive of the causes that are important to them personally.

A Different Reality

Another concerning reality facing the ag industry is that fewer grads are entering the job market with those “baked in” qualities that make farm kids so special. The good ol’ days of relying on Dad to teach the technical side of the trade and having a reasonable expectation that they’ll live there forever are a thing of the past. It’s a new challenge for ag businesses who find themselves needing to start the onboarding process with Ag 101. (We’ll delve deeper into this predicament in an upcoming article!)

The ag industry certainly has unprecedented challenges when it comes to filling jobs with qualified people. You can find success with solutions like partnering with local community colleges to advance programs that fill your employee pipeline, developing the people who already live (and want to live) in the communities you serve, and helping candidates see prosperous, long-term career opportunities do exist in rural America.


You can email Mike Karst at [email protected]