Successful strategies used by growers to secure a viable workforce in times of significant labour shortage?
Over the past few years, Harvest Trail Service providers have collected information from a large number of growers and employers across the country.
Here are some of the most successful strategies used by growers to secure and retain a workforce in times of shortage. It is likely that not one but a number of these might be right for you.
Market forces have, in some cases, generated higher wages and piece rates, which have encouraged some people not otherwise interested. Many growers have done the calculations and accepted, albeit reluctantly, that a lower margin for their produce resulting from higher wages is better than a total loss from a crop they cannot get to market without labour. The viability of each commodity will determine how generous increases can be.
Providing accommodation (and transport)
Providing accommodation, or at least organising it, is also a powerful drawcard. For workers willing to relocate, finding a budget bed before travelling to a regional area can be daunting, so if the employer can provide it, it removes a significant barrier. And while providing accommodation is strongly encouraged, it must be noted that it is not legal to insist on a particular accommodation as a condition of employment. Whether the employer subsidises the accommodation is also a consideration, but the cheaper it is, the greater drawcard it becomes.
And, of course, if the accommodation is provided by the employer, a fair and reasonable rental fee can be charged, which can help offset the cost of supply.
Inductions and instruction/training
Although many tasks in horticulture are low-skilled, providing a good induction and decent training to give a rookie the best chance of succeeding is essential. While growers will be busy during this peak period, taking the time to demonstrate practical techniques and allowing workers to develop can be time well spent. If the grower does not have the time, upping the wages of their best worker to the supervisor level to undertake this job could well return dividends.
Many commodities have a build-up period at the start of their season. Consider a broader workforce with fewer hours rather than taking on an initially limited crew with large working hours. This provides an opportunity for inexperienced starters to become work-hardened gradually, with initial shorter working hours giving them a chance to recover. When the season peaks, your now experienced staff are more likely to be able to handle full working days. If you don’t burn out your inexperienced workers by not starting them at full hours at the peak, they may be more likely to stay.
Patience and encouragement
Harvest can be a very stressful time for farmers, but taking frustrations out on the workers is a recipe for dissatisfaction. Everybody works better if they feel they are being treated and supported appropriately. Even if that is not how you feel, patience and encouragement will result in a more positive attitude from staff, greater job satisfaction, and a more stable workforce. Workers who feel well treated are far more likely to respond with effort and even loyalty, regardless of wages.
Everyone loves something for free. To show appreciation to a workforce by giving them something for nothing will win friends, and it does not have to cost much. A simple sausage sizzle at the end of the week to help the crew wind-down will cost little per head but will win appreciation from many. It also provides an opportunity for positive, casual interaction with the workers that may not be realistic during the busy working day. Other acknowledgements such as ’employee of the week’ or even publicly rewarding your best performers with gift cards can be low-cost encouragements to reduce staff turnover.
Small social events and an end of harvest celebration can mean a lot and may even convince your workers to return the following year.
Flexible work hours
Being able to accommodate various or individual needs of your employees may be another strategy to consider. Parents with school-aged or pre-school kids may not be in a position to work your typical harvest day but could be available to work, say 9 am to 3 pm. After all, 6 hours of productivity per day is 30 hours per week!
Have a think about offering training and development opportunities for your workers and upskilling or cross-skilling them on different tasks around your farm. This provides variety to your employees and builds engagement, which results in a stronger work ethic and better retention.
Consider your ‘brand’ and have a social media presence – either in the form of your Company or yourself promoting your farm. Use the platform for sharing interesting things about your farm or workplace. Connect with previous employees (good ones!) and get them to write great things about working for you. Share pictures and videos of your farm and/or workers on your farm performing tasks. Also, share photos of the end of the week or end of harvest celebrations, showing your team having a good time and socialising together. The power of social media, word of mouth and good news stories open doors not just locally but nationally and even internationally.
Consider local unskilled labour
With visa holder numbers vastly reduced over the last 18-24 months, if you haven’t already, now might be the time to open up opportunities to local unskilled labour. By offering a supportive and encouraging workplace, showing patience and being willing to train your employees, you might find the most reliable workers you’ve ever had who come back harvest after harvest to help you. Many local out of work jobseekers actually want to help their farming community and give back, which should be tapped into. But in many cases, their experience on farm will determine the success of this strategy.
Mutual support mechanisms – involve family groups
Make a holiday of it! Encourage family, near and far, to come to help you during your peak season. Aunts, uncles, parents, kids, nieces, nephews, grandkids, and their friends! Do it for the love of it as well as a bit of pocket money – offer produce as payment, take your crops and cook with it in the evenings or over the weekends to showcase how connected you are to your work – it’s a whole family affair and can be a lot of fun!
Job sharing across employers
Not sure whether you have enough continuous and consistent work over a period of time? Maybe you only need a handful of people for a few days to help you get through a particularly challenging and intense time? Chat with your peers and other local farmers and see if they can spare some hands for a few days. For all you know, they may not have enough work to retain their workers either, and this might be the way to keep them in the area for longer to help everyone out.
The most successful employers are the ones who communicate openly and transparently with their employees. As mentioned earlier, the experience of a worker on your farm, not just in terms of the work they do, but of the interactions they have with supervisors, farm managers and farm owners, is paramount to success. And the key to those relationships is open and honest communication, encouragement, direction, guidance and training, as well as clear ways of working when it comes to the days and hours they are required to work.