May 9, 1997
Right Approach Lures Good Dairy Help
Dairy farmers have long heard the legends and myths of what life is like for their hired help:
That may be the lore of being a hired hand, according to UW-River Falls extension dairy specialist Professor Dennis Cooper. Yet, those conditions generally are not the case.
But the bad reputation of dairy farm employment seems to refuse to disappear-and that drives away many potentially good employees. And that shouldn't be-and isn't always-the outcome.
Over the past several years, Cooper has talked with over a thousand Wisconsin and Minnesota dairy operators about their experiences hiring and keeping highly qualified staff.
What he has found is that many dairy operators are remarkably successful at employee relations. Some operators are thought to provide such a quality work experience that they have literally dozens of names of prospective employees waiting for a phone call to begin work.
"As I've talked to farmers about their recruiting, one idea has emerged to explain why some of them are so successful: farmers who pay attention to the image of dairy work have no trouble recruiting help."
Conversely, some farmers are so fearful of trying to recruit the right person that they choose not to expand their dairy operations even when it's apparent that they could significantly increase their income by doing so.
To be a good employer requires a concerted effort to hire good employees. "We all get the employees we deserve," Cooper says.
Dairy farm work suffers from some great a stereotype that it has automatically become the "default' image for every operator. Among the general public and prospective employees, good operations are thought to be the exception. "Dairy farms are thought to be a nice place to visit Grandma and Grampa, but not a place to build a career," Cooper says.
For operators who want to turn that image around, Cooper says, it requires to actively acknowledge the stereotype exists, and then to follow some common sense steps to overcome that through an agressive advertising and public relations campaign.
The first step, Cooper says, "is to say; 'My farm is different.' And then to say that as many ways as you can."
With so many employees now being drawn from the non-farming sector, advertisements have to state the case clearly to get those prospective employees.
Cooper adds some of the best operators believe there is an advantage to hiring inexperienced employees; they don't have bad habits that must be broken.
The best dairy operators also have specific tactics to recruit their help:
-When they post an advertisement for a vacany, say what it will pay. "Many farmers are reluctant to say what the range will be because they don't want to lose their negotiating edge."
But the most successful operators have found it makes more sense to be so specific that they will state the job pays $8 an hour with a 50 cent raise after a probationary period, Cooper says.
"That immediately counters the negative stereotype."
-Address the work hours issue head-on: state what they will be on a daily basis.
-Spend the extra money to buy a larger advertisement and then tout your operation. "Some farms will put in that they have clean, modern facilities. That indicates that there is a newness and cleanliness to the operation, without equipment breaking down all the time."
-Build a home-grown public relations campaign. Publicize newsworthy activities in community newspapers. Theses news releases, or contacts to get news coverage, can range from new hirings to plant expanion and upgrades.
Cooper notes he has heard vivid examples of publicity leading to employment. He recalled one operation that was unsuccessful in its advertising campaign to hire a mechanic. But a story in the local newspaper a short time later about the farm's expansion and need for a mechanic led to five applications.
-Consider a brochure about the dairy operation for distribution to prospective employees. Although this might be more appropriate to larger operations, even smaller family farms might consider such a venture. At a minimum, Cooper says, they can writer better employee advertising copy.
-Buy goodwill advertising. When an operation hires a new employee, the manager should purchase an ad that welcomes the new staff member. Cooper says the same should apply for promotions, and perhaps even to social events like the annual farm picnic.
-Schedule tours. Work with the local school district to have youngsters take farm tours, and hand out treats like ice cream. "That creates word-of-mouth about the quality of your operation," Cooper notes.
-Be prepared to answer prospective employee queries in a courteous, professional manner. Cooper suggests ensuring that operators work to be friendly, interested and business-like in those contacts. He adds that the job description should be next to the telephone so that any question can be answered without hesitation.
-Develop a reputation as being a preferred employee. Treat employees well and word-of-mouth will help build the farm's reputation.
"That's how one operation gets 60 applicants for every job. People love to apply there even when there is no job available."
Cooper acknowledges that these activities are hard work. But he also points out that an assertive advertising and publicity campaign to hire the right person will save money and aggravation. He notes that an amount equal to one-fourth of an annual salary is expended just to train a person.
"I cannot over-emphasize the importance of recruiting the right peron. It is so important that it requires a substantial investment of time and resources to do it right. But it will pay off by reducing productivity problems and turnover," Cooper concludes.