Whenever I'm tempted to write about the growing need for a solid employee workforce in the swine industry, I remember what they say about a rock and a hard place.
On one hand, a discussion about employee relations could be misconstrued as a push to promote large hog operations.
On the other hand, it's important to recognize there are thousands of hog operations with 1-3 employees. Some are looking for new employees; others may be trying to hang onto the good workers they already have.
And, of course, there are many family operations that aren't the least bit interested in hiring and firing and the hassles that go with it.
Fair enough. So I'll loosely disguise my efforts here as a discussion about personnel management.
Alongside environmental regulations and food safety concerns, I believe maintaining a quality workforce could be one of the factors limiting growth of our pork industry.
It's not much of a stretch to see how many of the principles of good personnel management apply to extended family, neighbors, lenders, local businesspeople, etc. The people working with your hog operation must be motivated and committed to its success.
The pork industry could use a good "mentoring program" to attract more young people.
Consider what the Danes are offering American students - a free 20-week course on pork production in Denmark. An additional six months of on-job training is offered as an option.
I'm told that if worldwide demand for pork unfolds in the next decade the way some predict, U.S. annual production would have to grow to roughly 127 million hogs to match it.
Considering U.S. hog production has grown at a rate of about a million hogs/year in recent years, we're going to fall far shy of that optimistic goal.
If you're interested in capturing more of that potential, we will need more people.
"I raised hogs with my Dad ever since I was little," states an 'employee trainer' for the nation's largest hog enterprise. "This is extremely complicated compared to what he did. We've come a long way as far as production. And this is a lot more enjoyable."
Raising hogs should be an "enjoyable" experience, particularly if you're trying to convince a son or daughter, neighbor, new college graduate to come work in your hog unit.
We've devoted a good share of this issue to personnel management and motivating people. We didn't limit it to employees.
You'll find an article on a new employee training program, but you'll also find a couple of articles offering insight into what motivated several families to become more aggressive in setting future plans.
Personnel management is a key input. People skills spill into the many relationships that support the pork industry. Whether you're working with other producers to establish a more efficient breeding-gestation-farrowing unit to supply the pigs you need for finishing or hiring a unit manager for such a unit, you'll need those skills.
You may be negotiating a new packer contract. Or, you may want to build an alliance with area farmers to supply specific corn hybrids to fulfill your feed needs. With good personnel management skills, you may be able to incorporate your manure management program into his crop nutrient program.
About a year ago, we reported the results of an employer-employee survey, tracking salaries, benefits, job responsibilities and working conditions.
For perspective, written comments from a couple of respondents speak volumes:
An employee in a midwestern state wrote: "Raising the pigs is the easy part of any large hog operation. Managing employees is the biggest challenge. Owners seem to be better managers of livestock, input materials and finances than as leaders to their employees. I have read several reports of surveys and it's so ironic that wages and compensation fall near the bottom of the list of what employees value most in their jobs but it places near the top of the list of what owners think employees value most in their jobs.
"Consequently, I have chosen to search for a career outside of hog production despite the fact that I have devoted most of my life to it, along with my formal education," he added.
Another employee was having a tough time finding a "good" employer. "(The owners of) this farm are lacking a lot of knowledge on subjects such as space requirements, practicing disease control, people skills, time management and lack of trust in employees.
"I also feel (there are) several people, like myself, who are knowledgeable and committed to raising hogs, but are discouraged through not being able to find good employers and do not like continuously changing farms."
Finally, one more comment from a friend who's in charge of swine research programs for a major company:
"You can teach people to raise hogs - but you can't teach compassion for the animal. You can teach workers to care for hogs, but you can't teach them to care about hogs."
It's one of those nuggets that you just know will fit into a talk or editorial someday. Today's that day. Perhaps it could serve as Rule No. 1 in developing a pork industry mentoring program. - L