Unemployment rates are some of the lowest in recent history. That’s good news, right? Well, it is unless you are looking for employees. Such is the case with many in the agriculture industry, and fingers are being pointed at the immigration policies coming out of Washington, D.C., as the major culprit of the diminished workforce.
“Labor is a key producer concern with an unclear path regarding immigration and the ability to effectively address it,” says Bill Winkelman, National Pork Board vice president of Producer and Industry Relations. “It is an important piece and something I know NPPC is focused on through a special task force. Pork producers cannot completely rely on immigration reform, but need ways to engage local communities about our attractive work opportunities. What our producers are consistently telling us is that, with fewer of our local folks being involved in agriculture and the continued distance that we’re seeing from the connectivity in their family to somebody that was originally involved with farming, they’re just not being exposed to what those opportunities are.”
Josh Flint, associate director of communications, talent acquisition and retention for The Maschhoffs, echoes that sentiment. “Access to labor has become more and more challenging over the years. And it’s something that our HR team witnesses firsthand every day,” he says. That challenge has been compounded by more and more young people moving out of rural areas.
Winkelman says the NPB hears from producers about those experiences of trying to talk to young people, only to realize that the youth just have no idea what modern pork production really is, and what’s involved and why it’s a viable opportunity.
“If they want to stay local, they’re really kind of unaware of the opportunities in pork production,” he says.
Show and tell at schools
Flint tries to do his part to get youth interested in a potential hog production career. He has spent a day teaching a consumer science class to six sections of students in Greenville, Ill., a rural community of about 7,000 people about 51 miles east of St. Louis. “A lot of these folks have no concept of what swine production is, of what we do,” he says.
As a starter, Flint asks the students the common question: What do you want to be when you grow up? “A lot of them want to be civil servants, which is great. They want to be police officers or teachers.”
Then the discussion turns to pay scale. “They have no idea how much money you make (as a police officer or a teacher); how much a farm manager makes,” Flint says.
“What if I told you, you don’t have to go out to get a criminal justice degree or go to the police academy, you don’t have to get that education degree. You can start in a swine farm literally after you graduate (from high school), learn the skills you need, and one day become a farm manager,” he says to the students.
Flint says students get really interested when they hear that they can potentially make more working in hog production as a farm manager versus what they might earn as a teacher or a police officer after college — and of course without running up debt from student loans.
“One of the eye-openers for me was, they don’t realize how lucrative” pork production can be, Flint says.
The NPB has launched a task force to tackle the labor shortage, and one of the solutions is to find a way to tap into the local youth movement of which Flint speaks.
“They [task force members] have given us guidance about working at the middle school, high school level,” Winkelman says, and getting better recruiting tools into the hands of the school counselors and vocational agriculture instructors to get to students at a younger age “to try to create awareness, as well as some of the attractiveness that comes with the possibilities of a career to support hog production.”
In this highly competitive job market, how do you reach potential employees, especially if the intent is to reach middle school and high school students? To entice any prospective hog production employees, Winkelman says the task force has deemed it important to appeal to the younger audience by “showing” them what it’s like to work in a hog barn, but also by showing them people working in production systems who they can relate to.
“The other thing we know about this generation is that they don’t tend to want to read things. What they’re very used to is getting information on their phone, and they’re very in tune with YouTube videos and looking at things in a video, in a short video format,” he says.
To achieve that goal, a group of 10 short videos is being planned to be able to show youth and people of all ages what it is like to work in different phases of hog production, and by showing young people in those production positions.
“We’re scheduling our visits with several different producers who have young people who fit this definition of during high school, having found out about working on a hog farm — and now they’re recently out of high school, and that they really enjoy what they’re doing, and they explain what they do,” Winkelman says, “kind of like a day in their life and why they like what they’re doing.”
Realizing the message needs to be short, to keep prospective future employees’ attentions, these videos will each be three to five minutes long. Videos will highlight a day in the life in the farrowing room, in gestation, breeding and grow-finish, as well as maintenance positions on a production farm, in trucking and in land nutrient management.
“We want to show the students that a career in hog production is a very real possibility, and one that can be very rewarding, as well as varied in what they can do on the farm,” he says. “And if they can see it with relatable faces that others who viewed these videos will say, ‘Yeah, that guy or that gal looks like me. I can relate to that.’”
Short social media ‘bites’
The Maschhoffs’ Flint says his company’s traditional recruitment tool of newspaper advertising has been replaced by the use of social media outreach, primarily through Facebook.
“A lot of people will say word of mouth is always the best, and I absolutely do not disagree with that. Word of mouth is tremendous,” he says. “But I think word of mouth, the way word of mouth occurs, has changed.” Social media platforms have become the new word-of-mouth conduit, replacing coffee shop conversations.
Since the labor issue is industrywide, the NPB reached out to producers, state pork associations and pork affiliates such as the NPPC and the U.S. Pork Center of Excellence for task force members to join NPB staff in this endeavor. Also, since video production is not cheap, task force members enlisted the help of high school counselors and high school agriculture teachers to get a better feel for what would pique the interest of their students.
“We’ve learned a lot more about what they think will be effective,” Winkelman says. That package will include more than just the videos, with the “development of curriculum that they can actually use in their classrooms.
“So, in addition to having the videos that they can show, also, just some very practical pieces that they can use as part of a lesson plan as they’re exploring careers in a broader sense in agriculture.
“This will allow the teachers and the interested students to dive in a little deeper. ‘You just saw this young person working in farrowing; they talked to you about what their life was. Here’s a little bit more background information,’ ” he says.
The curriculum lesson will allow students to learn more than what was available in the short videos, explaining potential growth from an entry-level job as well as other places that the students could find a fit in that production system or in the swine industry.
Winkelman says the first video, with a completion target of this summer, will be “an accumulation of all the different shots that we get from these different interviews, as an overview picture of pig production today. Here’s what the pig production industry is about today.” The production of the subsequent videos will continue with the intent of being ready for schools’ fall semester.
In addition to using these videos to get youth thinking down the hog production career path, Winkelman says the videos will also be available for hog production systems that are actively recruiting their own workforce. Actually, these videos will be made available wherever there is a need or desire to reach an untapped labor force, such as with state pork associations at youth events.
“We’re exploring how it fits into our partnership with FFA, and the national breed associations, NJSA [National Junior Swine Association] and Team Purebred for events that they might be sponsoring,” he says.
College not a must
Winkelman says the primary target are those students who may not necessarily be looking to further their education after graduating from high school.
“But we also know that there’s going to be kids in those rooms that are interested beyond that. So, we also want to make sure that we’re relating to those kids that even are planning to go to college, and how the pork industry still has a place for them as well,” he says.
“So, while we may be primarily looking at people for entry-level barn workers, we also want to make sure that there was that connection that there are further career opportunities. … While these videos will show a day in the life, they will also show someone the youth can connect with, saying ‘Here’s how I got here, here’s what I do and here’s why I like it.’ ”
He sees the supporting materials as a way to open further discussion about the opportunity for advancement and other career paths within pork production companies.
As pork production continues to change, and the labor situation more than likely to remain fluid, Winkelman expects this project to continue to evolve.
“It’s hard to know where the system is going to be five years from now, but we do want these videos to kind of have an evergreen effect to them,” he says.
“How do you consider that, even? One of the most conscious ways we thought about that is we also know that young people are very connected to technology.
“And so one of the things that we’re certainly going to be looking for as we’re out there in the barns, talking about what they do, is try to highlight where technology is actually being used and deployed within that particular farm,” he says.
“That’s probably the most evident way that we think that we can have some kind of evergreen component to this, as to particularly point out that technology is here and that we even see more of that coming, and that technology will continue to grow in terms of what we’re doing within those farms.
“All the while driving home the fact that pig care is still the No. 1 concern: that we can really try to hone in on with these young people as the opportunity to interact with animals. So that they’ve got a connection with taking care of animals, and that piece that’s so critical,” Winkelman says.
Though these videos will be targeted at school-aged youth, Flint sees the benefit of including them in Operation Main Street presentations with community groups. “We have to understand that we’re not just trying to convince a student that there’s a career opportunity here,” he says.
“We’re also trying to convince their moms and dads, because that’s really who’s generally making the investment in that student’s future.”