October 23, 2017 | By Dr. Jay Akridge and Dr. John Foltz
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Building Your Human Talent Pipeline

How to find the best people to make sure your company continues into the future.

Virtually every feed and grain manager espouses the idea that an organization’s people are the primary determinant of success for their business. Indeed, the most fundamental role of a manager is hiring, developing, motivating, training and retaining the very best employee team possible. Human talent is a fundamental source of competitive advantage for any organization. This month, we will tackle an issue that’s increasingly a challenge for organizations — finding the right human talent.

With our economy at near full employment levels, finding people is an issue everywhere and an even bigger issue in rural areas. Finding new employees with the necessary skills, training, work ethic, agricultural background and passion for working with farmers and producers elevates the challenge for the feed and grain manager dramatically. One manager of a small feed manufacturing plant we know put it in very stark terms: Finding plant employees who would show up for work consistently and could pass a drug test is incredibly difficult. Growing feed and grain companies demand larger numbers of employees; organizations with long serving employees must deal with the turnover that retirements will inevitably create. Your competition has the same human talent challenges you do and create turnover when they lure your employees away. More broadly, in an economy with near full employment, there are lots of opportunities for the kind of people you want and need in your organization. In this column, we will address some of the key points to thinking strategically about your human talent needs and offer some ideas for creating a robust human talent pipeline for your feed and grain company.

Plan for your talent needs

If you’re going to have success in finding the right people for your organization, you’re going to have to build a hiring plan. You simply must have a good sense for the kind of people you’re looking for, the roles they will fill and when you’re going to need them. Obviously, you’re also going to have unexpected turnover that will create demand for people that you could not anticipate. However, there are a lot of areas where careful thought can help you identify your human talent needs before you actually need the employee in your business.

Growth is an obvious area — if your feed and grain business is growing, then you have to be focused on what kind of people and how many of those individuals you will need to support the growth. For some feed and grain companies growth may be constrained by the lack of human talent so this becomes a front and center issue — and one you can anticipate. Retirements present another area that you can plan for. Of course, it is hard to predict retirements 100% of the time. But, you know the age demographic of your workforce and roughly when you can expect someone to retire. Planning for retirements may set in motion a domino effect as you think about who might take the retirees’ job and what new opening that move will create in your organization. Likewise, you may have some high turnover positions in your organization such as seasonal help, plant labor, truck drivers, etc. For some of these positions, it may seem that no matter what you do you see turnover. The point here: You have to be recruiting constantly to ensure you keep these high turnover positions filled.

A good human talent hiring plan is more than simply numbers of people:Don’t forget to give careful thought to the kinds of skills that your organization needs — now and in the future. The changing industry and technologies we use in our industry may mean that you need a new type of employee or one with different skills as you look to the future. This issue of skills deserves careful thought and is an important part of your hiring plan. The bottom line here is that giving careful thought to the demographics of your employee base, expected turnover and growth and future needs of your organization will put you far, far ahead in the proverbial war for talent. Now, with a hiring plan in hand, let’s turn our attention to building a robust talent pipeline.

High school

Most of us probably shake our heads when we see a story on the sports page about some college coach reaching into the junior high ranks to recruit a future basketball prospect. However, those coaches are probably on to something. Given the likelihood that you’re going to want to hire some people who know your area and want to stay in your area, starting with high school students is none too early. Getting to know Future FFA and 4-H advisers, keeping tabs on the children of customers and staying close to high school counselors are all ways of identifying students who might be potential employees. With appropriate safety and other precautions, you may want to even consider a high school intern program. Even a program that employs the intern for a limited number of hours may give you some insights into a young person’s desire and ability to work in your industry. And, such internships provide a great experience for students. Likewise, there’s a whole variety of ways that you can elevate the visibility of your organization with local high schools by sponsoring events and contests, hosting classes at your place of business, allowing your employees to support class projects/speak in classes, etc. The possibilities are limited only by your creativity, and such visibility can put you on the radar of that young man or woman who may want to go to work right out of high school.

Note too, that you may want to get creative here about helping these future employees with their education. Perhaps while they’re working on an internship in your organization, you can contribute to a scholarship fund for them. Or, you can consider helping fund their tuition at a community college where they go to school part-time while working for you with the rest of their time. (We touched on this topic in our column – “Continuing Education for Your Employees — And You,” in June/July 2014). These kinds of programs may help you become an employer of choice for young men and women in your local area.

Community college/university

Of course, many positions demand more than a high school education. Some of the techniques outlined above for high schools would certainly work with community colleges and universities. Begin by getting to know key instructors in areas of interest to your company, having your people (or yourself) serve as guest lecturers/speakers at club meetings, hosting field trips, supporting scholarships and attending career fairs. These activities and many more can raise your visibility with potential students and their faculty and advisers.

Intern programs are an extremely important way to provide educational opportunities/work experience for community college/undergraduate students and for you to better understand how a student might or might not fit your organization. Please note that intern programs are not just for the largest feed and grain organizations — even a small feed and grain company can bring an intern on for a summer. And, if you happen to be close to a community college or university, you may be able to host an intern while they are going to school (or are taking distance education courses). One key point: If you do host an intern, give them something meaningful to do. You won’t learn much about them (and they won’t learn much about the job you have for them) if they do nothing but menial tasks during their internship.

Competitors/suppliers

The savvy managers we know are constantly evaluating the people working for competitors and/or suppliers. Competitors who are working through a rough patch may create uncertainty among their employees and an opportunity for you to bring those employees on board. Likewise, suppliers working through a consolidation may be shedding people, again creating opportunities for you to hire someone who’s looking for something different/more stable.

This is where having a hiring plan becomes so important. Perhaps you don’t have an opening available today, but you know that a key employee is going to retire next year. That knowledge will allow you to bridge someone into the role from a competitor/supplier who happens to be available now. We know this is not always possible but with a hiring plan in hand you’re in a much better position to take advantage of hiring opportunities than if you haven’t been thoughtful about assessing your longer-term needs.

Web-sites/consultants

Today, social media and job websites offer alternative ways to recruit employees. Networking websites such as LinkedIn™ allow you to follow individuals and/or post job openings to literally a global audience. Feed and grain associations or other industry groups may allow you to post job openings on their websites or to distribute your position description to their members. Firms such as AgCareers.com provide places to share your hiring needs. And, of course there are a variety of placement firms that will help fill positions for you. These social media, websites and hiring services allow you to expand your search dramatically over the personal network you have locally or regionally. In addition, do not overlook websites such as your area’s Craigslist page — they have a section devoted to local jobs and typically generate good traffic at minimal or no cost.

A potential novel approach to “testing” employees prior to hiring (akin to the internships for high school and college students discussed above) is to hire consultants on specific projects, which may provide an opportunity to observe their performance with the agreed upon thought (between you and them), that it may lead to an full-time job opportunity. Penelope Trunk discusses this on a website titled “Life Reimagined,” in an article titled “Consultants Get Great Job Offers.” For an opposing view to this strategy (which says you should lean toward always hiring a consultant – at least for a specific project), see a recent article in Forbes titled, “Is This the End of Employment,” by Liz Ryan.

Looking inside
Of course, an important source of employees should be your own workforce. We’ve written on this before (most recently in our column “Managing Talent for Success: Today and Tomorrow,” in October/November 2011), but growing your own employees, preparing them for increased responsibilities and then moving them into higher level positions may be your single most important source of talent. Bringing people into your more senior positions whom you know well, have observed their performance over time and who know your organization and customers, can dramatically lower the risk of a bad hire relative to the risk of bringing in someone from the outside who brings none of this history/experience to the position. (Yes, we are aware that hiring from the outside can also have some real advantages.)

Providing a robust career path for employees can make your organization more appealing to work for, improve motivation of your people and can encourage retention. Again, this takes a very deliberate approach to identify employees who have upside potential, to provide the appropriate training and professional development to those employees,and to give them increased responsibilities so they are ready when the opportunity arises, all of which is under your control.

Thoughts on the changing nature of the “challenge”

Finding talent may mean you need to stretch your own perspective on what you are looking for. You may need to hire a person who otherwise meets your criteria for a position, but doesn’t have an agricultural background. Then you will need to get creative on how to help them build an understanding of our industry as quickly and effectively as possible. Perhaps your organization has been accustomed to hiring mostly
young men into positions. At both of our universities, more than 60% of our undergraduate students are now women. Making sure your organization is attractive to a young woman and is capable of supporting her
career advancement may be critical to securing the talent that you need.

You may need to get creative in other ways. Perhaps the employee you are looking to hire has a dualcareer spouse looking for a job in your area. Can you help them find something for the spouse locally and in the process hopefully create a situation where the couple is even more likely to stay in your area for the longer term? Perhaps for some positions you may be able to allow someone to telecommute from another location for a few days a week. And, as we said earlier, getting creative with incentives such as training programs, scholarships and other educational opportunities may be required to make your offer the one that stands out to attract the talent you need.

Upshot

In the end, building an organization that’s a great place to work may well be the most important way you solve your human talent challenge. Keeping retention high and turnover low means you have less need to go to the talent marketplace.

Having strong professional development programs, a good compensation plan and advancement opportunities means people may stay with you as opposed to looking for other opportunities. Word gets around if your organization is the “one to work for” in your area. So, build a great place to work and a robust human talent hiring plan — then be deliberate in your search for the right people that fit your organization. Do these things and you position your feed and grain company to win the war for talent and distinguish your business in an increasingly competitive market. ❚

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