August 5, 2016

Planning for the future with a more efficient workforce

Workforce planning can help farmers to operate more efficiently. Rob Grima, a Farm Management Consultant at Planfarm, shares his practical tips for managing a valuable resource.

Every farm needs a well-skilled and efficient workforce but the right employees can be hard to find. Rob Grima, a Farm Management Consultant at Planfarm, discusses the importance of workforce planning and shares his tips for becoming an employer of choice.

Workforce planning can help farmers to make their business more resilient by using their resources in a more efficient way.

The National Farmers’ Federation (NFF) defines workforce planning as “a continual process used to align the needs and priorities of the organisation with those of its workforce to ensure it can meet its legislative, regulatory, service and production requirements and organisational objectives”. It has also identified three fundamental aspects of workforce planning that, when done well, can lead to improved performance and productivity:

  • attracting and retaining the right people;
  • managing performance; and
  • managing skill development.

A complex challenge

The principles of workplace planning apply across all industries, but many farmers must deal with more complex challenges than their counterparts in the corporate world.

Distance from metropolitan hubs and the seasonal nature of the industry can make it difficult for farmers to attract and retain skilled and semi-skilled workers. Many farmers also need to draw on extra resources at certain times of year. The 2014 NFF Agriculture Workforce – Farm Sector Employer Survey found that 65 per cent of family farms employ casual staff and about 24 per cent employ part-time, contract and/or seasonal workers.

“Here in Western Australia most farmers with mixed or crop dominant broadacre farms have one or two permanent staff and then take on two or three casuals at harvest and up to six at seeding,” says Rob Grima, a Farm Management Consultant at Planfarm. “That means, twice a year, they must find people with the necessary skills or capabilities who are willing to live in the region for a short time and put in the hours required. Wheat farmers spend up to 80 per cent of their operating expenses in the seeding period and immediately afterwards so they’re under a lot of pressure to get it right.”

Positive steps

Some challenges are beyond their control but farmers can still formulate a workforce plan then take active steps to implement it by positioning themselves as an employer of choice, says Grima.

“In a competitive market farmers need to present themselves as a good option for employment and, where it applies, a career,” he says. “Some farm businesses are already doing this very well.

“Those leading the charge have a professional approach to their business relationships, including those with the people they employ. This makes them more attractive to quality employees and can also help them to manage performance by establishing a benchmark for the standard of work they expect.”

“In the past, a seasonal farm worker was often expected to be a jack of all trades – everything from a tractor driver and mechanic to a welder,” says Grima. “Now farm businesses have expanded, the people they employ are more likely to be chosen for a specific role.”

Increasing mechanisation and a growing reliance on technology have also raised the level of skills required.

“Forward-thinking farmers have a clear idea of the skills they need and understand the importance of providing ongoing training and regular feedback.”

Effective induction

Planfarm recently conducted a survey of clients who employ both permanent and seasonal workers.

“We asked whether they had an induction process in place and, if so, what form it took,” says Grima. “About a quarter said they use a formal Human Resources and Industrial Relations process to ensure their new employees understand what’s expected of them and what they’re entitled to. About half of the respondents said they use a more informal process.”

He sees this as an important step forward.

“Over the past few years many farmers have recognised the value of providing new employees with details of what the job entails and all the information they need to do it safely and effectively.”

A leadership role

Grima believes good workforce planning is underpinned by strong leadership skills.

“Good leadership begins with how you behave in front of your employees because this influences the way they operate,” he says. “For example, if you fly off the handle every time there’s a problem they’ll stop coming to you with problems. They won’t be happy in the job and you’ll miss out on opportunities to resolve issues before they escalate.

“The most successful farmers I’ve seen strive for mutual trust and respect. They keep channels of communication open with regular staff meetings or toolbox meetings and they do their best to make sure everyone feels they’re pulling together towards the same goal. When you and your workers are operating as a team it’s much easier to plan for the future.”

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