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Experts cover today’s key dairy labor issues and offer fool-proof techniques to optimize employee performance, sat­isfaction and longevity.

Is a Non-traditional Workforce in Your Future?

Aug 12, 2012

With the difficulties of hiring immigrant and even local labor, looking outside the typical employee audience may reap benefits.

ChuckSchwartau photoBy Chuck Schwartau, University of Minnesota Extension

A common question among dairy farmers is, “Where will our workforce come from in the future?” The question is asked as there seems to be limited progress toward immigration reform or temporary worker programs that fit the dairy industry, and because many farms report difficulty hiring and retaining local workers.

That first question should probably raise a couple more questions in its wake.

Why do you depend heavily on immigrant labor? While some people outside the industry claim it is because farmers want cheap labor, this is not necessarily true. Most dairy operators will probably tell you their pay is better than many other local jobs. Some dairy positions are very well paid. Yet it often appears the local convenience store or other entry level job becomes more attractive than working on a dairy farm.

Another common response is that immigrant employees reliably show up for work when they are expected and have the attitude that they want to work. There is frequently the concern, however, about the legal status of immigrant employees, which could leave the farm in a precarious position.

If you are unable to hire and retain local labor, why? If you have hired local labor and not been satisfied, what is the cause of the discontent? Is the problem with the employees or with the employer? How well do you as the employer train the employee? Do you pay a competitive wage to other industries and employers in the community? Remember, farming is hard and sometimes dirty work that may justify a higher pay than some other industries.

Have you been hiring the right kind of people for your dairy? Sometimes it is convenient to hire the person who shows up at the door at the right time rather than hiring the person who brings the skills and attitudes you need on the farm.

Maybe it is time to consider alternative sources for your workforce. Last year I was asked to assist an organization that serves the local immigrant population in southeastern Minnesota. Their proposal was to provide agricultural training to legally documented refugees in the community so they would be more attractive as potential employees on area farms. Their target audience was almost entirely African refugees who have resettled in the region. This pool of potential employees presented no concern for legal status since they were here as refugees and permitted to work. They also offered the extra benefit of little or no language barrier so often experienced because nearly all of them spoke excellent English. This was not a group typically thought of when farmers are looking for workers, but it could be an excellent source.

A July 2012, issue of Workforce magazine had an article that also posed an interesting question for employers in general. Why not hire autistic employees? The autism spectrum has a wide range of effects on people, but many are quite capable of performing very well in the right employment situation. A dairy farm might be an excellent candidate for employment.

While many affected by autism may have difficulty in tasks where decisions must be made as part of the job, they often thrive in situations where they have a routine to follow. Dairy farm protocols are nothing but routines that you want followed carefully time after time, day after day. How often do you now find employees who fail to follow protocols? An employee who thrives on routine might be refreshing!

Autistic workers may take a little longer to train and the method might be a little different than used with other employees, but very often supporting agencies are able to assist with training. Once trained, these employees are proving to be dedicated and reliable workers.

Not every job on the farm may be suited for a non-traditional workforce, but there are probably jobs that could be done very well and meet the expectations you have as an employer and farm manager. The two types of employees mentioned in this article may or may not fit or be readily available in your region, but the concept of looking for a workforce outside the typical audience may reap benefits.

Remember, regardless of who is in your workforce, paying attention to orientation, proper training, coaching and feedback can improve the quality of work done and enhance worker satisfaction. Satisfied workers are more likely to work toward goals of the farm and stay in your employment. Not having to always be hiring new employees saves you and farm time and money.

Chuck Schwartau has been with the University of Minnesota Extension Service for 31 years. As part of the Extension Dairy Team, he focuses on workforce development and management, dairy business organization and risk management. Contact him at cschwart@umn.edu or (507) 536-6301.
 

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