Agri-businesses face challenges recruiting and retaining employees

Dan Hansen
Professor Paul D. Mitchell, director of the Renk Agri-business Institute at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

STEVENS POINT – Unemployment in Wisconsin is currently at record-low levels. While that’s good news for job seekers, it poses significant challenges for businesses — including agri-businesses — looking to hire qualified employees.

At a recent grower meeting, Professor Paul D. Mitchell, director of the Renk Agri-business Institute at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, addressed some of the challenges facing the state’s diverse agriculture industry looking to hire and keep good workers.

“When I was in graduate school we were told that 6 percent was full employment and that anything below 6 percent was heating up the economy too much,” Mitchell said. “We’re well below that today, at less than 3 percent. So, if you don’t have a job today, the problem is not with the job market.” 

It’s really tough to find good employees because while the state’s population continues to grow, the number of people in the workforce remains flat. “It’s currently at about 3 million and we expect a 5 percent decline of people in the 25 to 54 age group who will be working in next 30 years.

Fewer younger people are working and more older people are working today but it’s not enough to close the worker gap.

Recruiting effort

“When it comes to retention, we do a pretty good job of keeping people in the millennial age group, ranking 13th in the nation, but we’re only 44th in attracting workers from out of state, which I found surprising,” Mitchell related.

Responding to this shortage, Gov. Walker has proposed spending $7 million in advertising to improve the state’s image and attract new workers, especially from northern Illinois and the Twin Cities.

“One problem is that jobs are available in places where people aren’t living,” Mitchell noted. 

“Getting people to move into these communities is often difficult due to lack of transportation, child care and other issues. A food processing company recently built a production facility in Sun Prairie because that’s where the people are and where they expect to get a workforce,” he explained.

Several of Wisconsin’s major industries have partnered with the University of Wisconsin in the Accelerate Wisconsin Be Bold III initiative to help businesses compete effectively and prosper in a constantly changing world.

“They’ve identified food manufacturing as demonstrating significant and sustainable job growth and capacity for wealth creation,” said Mitchell. “Their recommendations include establishing a better connection with school systems from K-12 through college graduate programs.”

Lack of awareness

"Many students aren’t currently aware of the variety of jobs in the food industry and other areas of agriculture,” Mitchell acknowledged. “A key to success is building awareness of the available jobs and improving the reputation of agricultural businesses in the state.

“When working with schools, businesses need to clarify expectations by developing better educator awareness and helping tailor curriculums to better prepare students for jobs in the agriculture industry,” Mitchell advised. “We also need to create more internships and apprenticeships.”

Mitchell thinks a partnership between government and private industry can be effective in recruiting and retaining employees. “But the private sector can probably do a better job of getting employees for their specific needs,” he said.

“Agriculture is not all just about farmers growing corn or producing class III milk. It’s broader than that, with all the support industries and farmers marketing value-added consumer products,” Mitchell stressed.

Valuable programs

Mitchell noted there are a lot of programs currently available for employees to improve their job skills. 

“There’s everything from basic entry level training to leadership skills and business management skills. Many bring in experts to provide the latest information on new production techniques and marketing trends. Technical schools and private providers are offering this training.” he reported.

Mitchell suggested that agri-businesses recruit students during their senior year in college.

“We’re currently seeing success in the recruitment of ag business majors for sales and marketing, accounting, purchasing, and human resource positions,” he said.

A new business certificate in now being offered in the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS), according to Mitchell. “Agronomy or entomology students can also earn a business certificate, and increase their business skills in addition to knowing how fertilizer works,” he said.

“Students don’t like career fairs, and I don’t think companies to either,” said Mitchell. “Students are looking for something more informal, where they can just sit down and talk.”

Mitchell suggested employers become involved with groups like the Ag Business Club, Badger Crops Club, and National Agri-marketing Association. “These are networking organizations that can help you locate quality employees, especially those who are looking for internships and summer jobs. November through January is the best time to get them,” he advised.

“Every undergraduate major at CALS has to do a capstone course in their department, and they’re all looking for projects. They would love to have a project where three of four students could work on a marketing study or feasibility analysis over a semester.” said Mitchell. “This is a great way to connect with many of these seniors.”