Engage Your Workforce

Keeping your workforce motivated is even more important during an economic slump.
By Erika Osmundson

The overall economy, H1N1, and perceptions of the swine industry have all had an impact on the view potential and current employees have about employment in the pork sector. Some would say that there is a dark cloud hanging over the industry at the moment. But, is it really as doom and gloom as some may think?

According to statistics pulled from AgCareers.com, the leading online job board for the agriculture and food industries, job postings within agriculture overall were slightly up from 2008 to 2009. Specifically, jobs in the pork sector also saw a slight increase of 4 percent in 2009.

Members of the AgCareers.com team recently sought out input on the state of employment within the swine industry from several human resource leaders at Hog Slat, Inc; PIC North America; Seaboard Foods; and The Maschhoffs. Through several investigative interviews, AgCareers.com found common threads these industry leaders shared regarding careers in pork production

The State of Employee Morale

"Everyone has been affected by the economy and I would say that our employee morale is 'typical'," says Tony Thomas, Human Resource Manager for PIC North America. "For the most part, morale is pretty good. It is tough to see some of our customers struggle, but we have also seen some customers develop creative ways to weather this storm, and that gives our employees some resolve."

Of all four groups that were interviewed, morale was noted as high, even for groups that had a more challenging year.

"In general, I think that our employees morale is good," says Jamie Overton Thomas, Training and Recruiting Manager for Hog Slat, Inc. "While we've been through a difficult year, our organization used some creative strategies to retain employees, which helped keep spirits up."

Overton Thomas mentions that while all employees from hourly to management had to make some sacrifices to help keep costs in line, the shared challenge continues to strengthen the family environment on which they pride themselves. She also notes the importance of communication to employees throughout this time.

Troy Van Hauen, Director of Human Resources at The Maschhoffs, agrees that communication is key to keeping morale high during difficult times. He attributes their positive employee morale to the company's open door policy, transparency at all levels and getting employees involved in decision-making.

"We don't lock ourselves in our rooms," says Van Hauen. "A lot of trust is built for an employee when they get a chance to contribute and understand why they are doing what they are doing."

Populating the Pipeline

Finding good people interested in a career in the pork industry can be difficult and even more challenging when the sector is perceived to be struggling. Finding ways to interact and engage with potential employees is important. Our industry panelists point out some great ways to engage young people specifically, as they are the future of this industry.

"I remind students that I speak with that we are in the food industry," says Kay Stinson, Director of Human Resources for Seaboard Foods. "And, even though we are often driven by markets out of our control, we are still in the field of food production and people need food."

Stinson stresses the stability of the industry and that careers in the swine industry are more diverse and professional than many think. This sentiment is echoed by Van Hauen.

"We are professional swine producers, not just pig farmers," he states. "I talk with students about animal care, health, marketing, transportation and finance" all components of a business. As an industry we need to do a better job of sharing who we are and the ideals that we have with those outside of the pork and agribusiness industries.

"We have a genuine group of people in our industry," adds Van Hauen."We have something that others don't and we need to teach others about our principles and code of conduct within the pork industry."

PIC engages young people through an internship program that helps students learn about different aspects of the business, says Thomas. Internship programs are a great experience for the student, but also an economical resource to complete special projects and generate fresh, new ideas.

Connecting with this young talent can pose a challenge. Thomas mentions that beyond trying to connect directly with the student, he works with faculty and student advisors to help spread the word on campuses. However, building and maintaining a consistent on-campus presence can be difficult due to the peaks and valleys of the swine industry.

"As an industry we come and go with our on-campus presence - there is no middle ground," says Thomas. "We need to do a better job of maintaining a presence to build a more effective brand as an industry and as individual organizations."

Retaining Talent

As the economy rebounds, the potential for new employment opportunities will increase. While a little turnover within a business is often good, too much can create problems for an organization. The panel members agreed there is some concern about this movement, but all believe the problem can be alleviated with effective retention programs.

Seaboard Food's employer brand campaign is 'The Company that Works for You.' Stinson says they focus on programs and activities that employees are going to get the most value out of, for example, their 'Back to School Barbeque.' Not only does the company invite its employees' families, but also the local school faculty members.

"This type of approach says to employees that we (Seaboard Foods) are supportive and encouraging of you and the commitment you have to your children's education," states Stinson.

Stinson adds that another retention tactic on which they are focused is the training and education of their employees, particularly as it pertains to succession planning. The company looks at the talent needed and what current employees are doing within their jobs.

"We want people to know that there is a vested interest in them and the potential opportunities that are available for them," she says.

This ideal is shared by Van Hauen, who says The Maschhoffs organization has developed specific Leadership Development Programs for employees to help them grow their career. He believes it's important to focus on programs that aren't just about money, especially when times are tough.

Some programs require an investment but the rewards generally overcome the expense. Wellness programs may be one of those; they are popular and have been shown to improve retention in many studies. Hog Slat, Inc. recently developed and promotes a comprehensive wellness plan for employees.

"The wellness plan works as part of our health insurance plan to encourage employees to take a proactive role in improving their own health by offering incentives and premium reductions based on participation," says Overton Thomas. "Often times, employees don't look at the real cost of their health insurance benefits."

Overton Thomas says that during promotional events for the program, they bring the real costs of healthcare to the table. The Hog Slat plan gives employees the power to control their own healthcare costs which they appreciate. In addition, it shows employees what they can do to help reduce healthcare expenses to the company and gives them some responsibility to the company's bottom line.

Portraying a Positive Image

Industry leaders within the pork industry have the passion to lead our organizations and are inherently optimistic, says Thomas. But he warns that when we talk with employees or potential candidates, we need to speak the truth.

"From a realist's standpoint, we don't want to sell blue sky," says Thomas. "Employees respect honesty and we need to try to be realistic with them."

Stinson suggests that when communicating with the public about employment within the swine industry, we think about what is important.

"People want to know there is a game plan for the organization, management and themselves," says Stinson. "Employees want to know how the work they do fits within the mission of sustainability of the organization."

This type of direction gives employees the passion they need to stay engaged with the organization. Also, Stinson said that there is always the ability to foster intellectual and creative growth among employees, thereby creating more profitability later.

Final Thoughts

While the past year was challenging, the global demand for food has never been higher nor has the capability to produce safe, high-quality food for a global market ever been more advanced. These two factors bode well for the swine industry.

Overton Thomas believes we need to remind the public that the pork industry, unlike many industries, is not a fad. Humans will always incorporate healthy and safe protein into a balanced diet.

"The world's population grows by approximately 200,000 people per day," says Overton Thomas. "That's 200,000 people who cannot possibly produce enough food for themselves and need others to do it for them. This type of job security, along with the social importance associated with being a provider of food should be shared with the public on a regular basis so our industry can continue to recruit the best and brightest."

With the steadfast determination of the people within the industry, and a focus on engaging our workforce, the industry will once again thrive.

"It was enlightening to talk with these industry leaders, as they spread a refreshing light," says Eric Spell, President of AgCareers.com. "Right now, it is imperative that we communicate the positives about the swine industry and continue to advocate not only for our own organizations but the industry as a whole. Working together is our best chance to continue to move the swine industry on to bigger and better things."

Editor’s Note: Erika Osmundson is the Marketing and Communications Manager for AgCareers.com. For more information on this and other HR topics, contact AgCareers.com at agcareers@agcareers.com. AgCareers.com is the leading online job board and human resource service provider for agribusiness.