It's true that getting and keeping good help is no picnic. But it's just as true that some ag employers sabotage the process without realizing it.

“We lose a lot of employees because an employer doesn't think they're performing adequately. But it turns out the employee was never adequately trained to do what the employer intended,” explains Sarah Fogleman, Kansas State University Extension economist and a nationally recognized expert in ag human resources.

In fact, Fogleman says properly training employees and communicating effectively with them, starting with the hiring process, alleviates many of the common, people-management problems employers call her about.

Communication is everything

“Almost all labor problems stem from a lack of communication,” Fogleman says. “If every person within your business can honestly make the following four statements, then the majority of your labor headaches will go away:

  • I know what to expect.
  • I know what's going on.
  • I know how I am doing.
  • I know how we are doing.”

Tossing the same loop from another direction, the same thing applies to prospective employees. Fogleman suggests, “Communicate what the job is, what it takes to be successful at it, what you expect from them and what they can expect from you.”

Communication is also the reason Fogleman is a believer in periodic staff meetings, be they each day, week or month, whether they last five minutes or two hours. It's a chance for everyone to understand the game plan and know everyone else understands it, too. That's especially important in family situations, Fogleman says, where grandpa, dad and one of the grown children may be giving the same employee conflicting orders.

Likewise, Fogleman believes periodic employee evaluations are essential because employees crave feedback.

“It's as important to offer feedback to your best employees as it is with the employees you want to see improvement from,” Fogleman says.

A couple of cautions, though. Unless your outfit is a mega-corporation, Fogleman says grades and scores often defeat the purpose of evaluations. As humans, we tend to get hung up on this year's number compared to last year's, rather than the conversation at hand.

Also, Fogleman recommends separating the timing of raises and bonuses from when evaluations occur. Give someone a raise at evaluation time and they'll remember the raise but not much about the evaluation.

Incidentally, a lack of communication, indirectly, is why some employees jump ship for what they perceive to be a higher paying job elsewhere.

“The best thing employers can do — and you can take this to the bank — is calculate the value of non-cash benefits employees receive. Do it periodically, be it once a month or once a quarter. And send it home with employees so the spouses see it, too,” she says.

It's too easy for a couple of extra bucks per hour somewhere else to look like a better deal. Fogelman has had more than one employer tell her about folks who left for a higher wage, then wanted their job back in a few months because they figured out the benefits they'd been receiving put them money ahead.

“That's not a compensation problem, it's a communication problem,” Fogleman says.

For the record, University of California research sums up employee wage expectations this way: They expect wages to cover basic living expenses, keep up with inflation, and provide some funds for savings or recreation. Employees also expect wages to increase over time.

Ag wages continue to rise

Though we humans all want more, wages paid to workers in ag have increased significantly over the past five years. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage for general farm and ranch labor last year was $9.56, up from $8.18/hour in 2000. That's in line with a Kansas survey Fogleman conducted in 2001 that found average annual total compensation was $9.65/hour. There was a wide range as the study categorized employees into five different competency levels.

What's more, Fogleman explains, “Ag employees today are more aware of benefits available to employees in other industries, like insurance. As a rule, ag employers are catching up with Main Street in terms of benefits.”

She says part of that has to do with competing for labor, but it also has to do with employers trying to do right by their long-time employees, such as making sure they have some retirement to fall back on.

“The success of compensation packages isn't measured by the dollar cost to the employer. It's measured in how difficult it would be to duplicate those same benefits from a competing employer,” explains Fogleman. “This refers not just to cash wages but also direct and indirect benefits, including such items as flexibility in scheduling or working conditions.

“Step one for any employer trying to create a competitive compensation package is to develop an understanding of what their employees need. Step two is to gain an understanding of what competing employers are currently offering,” she adds.

After all, other than professional positions, the farm and ranch labor pool is typically what already exists within the community — laborers who already are there.

“I always stress that we can do ag-specific salary and benefit surveys but, for most farm and ranch employers, we're talking about a local labor pool, people already tied to the community. So, ag employers need to be more concerned about what other local jobs are paying.”

Beyond the hard cash basics, what employees want are unique to the individual, and can go a long way toward getting and keeping folks. For instance, one High Plains ranch Fogleman worked with had great success recruiting and retaining young men from back East with no previous ranch experience but more than a hankering to try the ranch way of life. Likewise, at a dairy Fogleman worked with, the daycare provided to employees' children by the owner's wife has folks lined up to get a job there.

“You'll only know what interests them and what has value to them by getting to know them,” Fogleman says.

For one employee, having hunting privileges on your place can be the difference maker. For employees from another country, it might be receiving a pre-paid phone card each month that enables them to call the folks back home.

“These are the kinds of things that cost employers very little but have exponentially more value to employees,” Fogleman says.

Whether perks and bonuses are as simple as pizza and suds when a particular goal has been achieved, or as elaborate as a percentage of the value of calves weaned past a target goal, Fogleman emphasizes bonuses should be just that.

“A bonus should not be what employees bank on to make a living,” she says. “Wages should provide the living.”

Finding help beyond tradition

Of course, harried ranch or feedlot managers are often as concerned about how to find qualified help as they are the requisite pay scale.

“It's a challenge for rural employers to find employees with the skill sets they need,” Fogleman says. On the other hand, she says, “The economist in me says there is never a labor shortage, just too low of a wage and compensation package.”

The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

Fogleman explains some operations are finding success looking for help from non-traditional directions. Teachers for summer help leap to mind, as does a collection of part-time retirees who add up to a full-time position. One example is a dairy in upstate New York where the nursery calf manager is a retired nurse who spent her career in the neonatal intensive care unit of a large hospital in New York City. She wanted to return to the country she remembered on her grandparents' farm. Suffice it to say, she can tell a sick one.

It also doesn't hurt to be what Fogleman terms “an employer of choice.”

If someone came through town and stopped at the local restaurant and asked about a good place in town to work, would your operation be one of the names mentioned?

“Brag about how you take care of employees. Offer school tours. Support the auction at the county fair,” Fogleman says. “Do those things not only out of civic responsibility and pride, but also to become recognized, not only as a farm or ranch in the community but as an employer in the community.”

Still, much of the game comes down to personality. As Fogleman says, “Some employees will always be able to find people who want to work with them and some others will always struggle.”

The bottom-line rule that seems to encompass common sense employee relations is: “Always listen to employees and treat them like you want to be treated,” she says.