KANSAS CITY, MISSOURI, US — Agriculture needs to attract young people, improve working conditions and perceptions and leverage new technology to combat a labor and skills shortage that is hurting the industry’s productivity. 

Editor’s note: This is the second in a two-part series examining labor shortages in the global agriculture sector.

With increased competition and a smaller rural labor pool, agriculture also can grow its workforce by looking at the opportunities immigration presents, developing and updating HR management practices and increasing reliance on automation, according to the Canadian Agricultural Human Resource Council (CAHRC), a non-profit organization focused on addressing human resource issues facing agricultural businesses in Canada.

Higher wages and the appeal of urban areas can make jobs in other industries, such as manufacturing or construction, more appealing to workers. 

“Consequently, agriculture employers must, more than ever, understand their value proposition to employees,” CAHRC said. “Offering other benefits such as flexibility, benefits packages and opportunities for career advancement can be vital in attracting and retaining workers.”

Recruitment strategies

It’s important to listen to potential workers and what is important to them because that changes every few years, said Jessi Sletten, vice president, human resources talent acquisition for CHS Inc., a diversified global agribusiness cooperative that employs 10,000 people across the world. 

“You see big shifts in the workforce, what motivates them, what matters to them,” Sletten said. “If you’re always keeping that listening top of mind, that’s really the best way to keep ahead of it. If you keep doing the same things over and over again, but the workforce is changing, you will not be competitive.”

CHS is trying new programs, such as participating in the US Department of Defense’s SkillBridge program, which helps people transition from active military service into the workforce. 

“We offer roles all across the country, we can relocate people and we have robust training programs, all of which benefit transitioning service members,” Sletten said. 

A recent group of service members completed 12 weeks of work at CHS and were offered full-time employment, which they accepted. 

“What I love about this is you’re reaching talent before they’re actively applying for jobs,” Sletten said. “These are people that may have decades of military experience and in some cases advanced degrees. Being a large cooperative with roles all across the US, we have to find some of those organizations that could help us broaden our reach to talent who may not be familiar with us.” 

CHS also is partnering with the US Department of Labor on an apprenticeship program, along with a community college in Nebraska, to provide on-the-job training for crop input applicators, which is a tough position to fill. 

“It helps the students with job placement and we’re getting qualified and trained people in the fields more quickly,” Sletten said. “This type of partnership just makes sense.”

To combat the loss of workers to retirement, CHS actively builds succession plans and works to hire and train employees to prepare them to take on roles vacated by retirement.

“We need to recruit new employees and intentionally place and train them to take on roles where we anticipate a retirement will be coming,” Sletten said. “We’re working to make sure we have a talent pipeline to meet that need ahead of that retirement, which is a shift in previous practices. Before, it wouldn’t have been uncommon to receive a retirement notice and then post the job. Companies now don’t want to be in that position.”

Establishing a pipeline is particularly beneficial for positions that are harder to fill, such as operations leadership roles, which require management skills, customer and farmer-owner relations, supply chain management and more. 

CAHRC found that Canadian agriculture sector employers heavily rely on word of mouth to find workers, which has the benefit of being less costly and taking less time. However, it limits the number of potential workers an employer can reach. 

There is a need to develop more innovative recruitment strategies, including educating youth about career opportunities, CAHRC said. It is essential to highlight the range of technical and non-technical career opportunities in the sector, it said. 

The International Association of Operative Millers (IAOM) is trying new ways to educate a diverse, and young, audience about the milling industry. It recently partnered with several milling companies and the Girl Scouts for the first-of-its-kind flour milling patch program that included hands-on activities and information about the milling process from field to fork.

“We have been trying to find ways to increase awareness about the industry because we know it’s a great place to build a career,” said Melinda Farris, chief executive officer of the IAOM. “Members are having difficulty finding enough qualified knowledge workers. There’s a pretty dire need.”

The French flour milling industry, which employs about 6,100 people, is trying several different strategies to educate about the industry and fill technical positions, said Anne-Céline Contamine, executive director of the National Association of French Milling. 

It launched an education campaign called Chasseursdegraines.fr to promote jobs in mills and bakeries. A special bakery bag is being distributed with a QR code that leads to the website with information on jobs and a map with the mills that are hiring. 

The three-year program was launched in cooperation with the ministry of agricultur. 

The organization also is developing new millers with an e-learning platform to help existing employees become millers. It negotiated with employee union representatives to improve working conditions and increase the minimum salary by 11.5%. 

“We all need to get involved,” Contamine said. “The company has to develop its brand. We wrote corporate social responsibility guidelines to help millers to engage. Companies will work on their values and their brand and have the best chance to attract candidates.”

Cargill, which employs 160,000 people across 70 countries, is expanding its outreach and recruiting marketing campaigns to reach a broader talent pool, said Steph Lundquist, chief human resources officer at Cargill.

“We are opening ourselves up to wider talent pools, adding in diversity and attracting individuals that may both have otherwise thought of agriculture through flexible schedules in facilities and our innovation in areas of digital, data and sustainability,” she said. 

Immigrant labor 

Being creative or strategic in where to recruit people is a big advantage, said Jennifer Ifft, associate professor and extension specialist in agricultural policy at Kansas State University (KSU). Tapping into the pool of foreign workers is common in multiple countries and provides an important source of labor for agriculture globally. In the United States, the H-2A visa program has played an important role in helping with labor shortages by providing the means to bring foreign-born workers to the United States for seasonal farm labor. 

The number of positions requested and approved under the program increased sevenfold from 48,000 positions in 2005 to 371,000 in 2022, according to the US Department of Agriculture. 

However, the program is complicated, expensive and has been insufficient in recent years, particularly during persistent labor shortages, the National Immigration Forum said. The US House Committee on Agriculture released a final report on March 7 with more than 20 recommendations to streamline the program and make labor more affordable. 

These included streamlining the recruiting and hiring of H-2A employees, expanding the program to meet year-round needs, paying employees based on duties performed and reforming wage calculation standards. 

Cargill said it encourages continued work to support immigration and the ability to support talent as they gain experience outside their country of origin. 

In Canada, the number of Temporary Foreign Workers has increased more than 30% over the last five years from 53,840 to 70,370 in 2022. But CAHRC said immigrants are an underutilized source of labor, with more than 437,000 immigrating to Canada in 2022. 

Challenges include attracting immigrants with relevant skills and experience for working in agriculture. 

In the Netherlands, more than 530,000 migrants are employed across all sectors and are in several segments of the agri-food system, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Migrants often face discrimination and are dependent on employers. The government set up a task force to review the conditions for migrant workers. 

“The main short-term recommendations of the task force include improving the social protection for migrant labor, including temporary and seasonal workers, closer monitoring of work agencies and contractors, improving the housing for migrant workers and improving the safety and working conditions of temporary migrant labor,” the OECD said.  

Automation advantages

Increasing the amount of automation at agriculture facilities also can help with labor shortages. For example, CHS completed a renovation at its grain facility in Herman, Minnesota, US, that enables farmers to drop off grain outside of regular business hours. It also means that during harvest, CHS employees can have more flexibility. 

Labor-saving technologies bring new opportunities to the sector, making it more attractive to potential employees, the OECD said. Ironically, it also increases the need for more highly educated and highly skilled workers in the sector, which can be even more difficult to find. 

“Emerging labor-saving technologies bring new opportunities to the sector...but they raise important questions on the continuous need for upskilling of the labor force,” the OECD said. 

Making smart use of technology doesn’t have to mean major changes like new machinery or automated processes. It could be smaller improvements that make people or processes more efficient, Ifft said. Cargill is working to accelerate critical points in its hiring process to improve the candidate experience, Lundquist said. 

“For example, we are using AI (artificial intelligence) to assist in candidate application and interview scheduling to allow us to create efficiencies in the process,” she said. 

A mix of policies are needed to address the complex challenges, the OECD said, including policies on the general labor market, education and training, immigration and agriculture-specific training policies.  

“The agricultural sector also has an important role to play in contributing to finding the best solutions to addressing these shortages in the sector,” the OECD said.

Part One - A heavy lift for labor: Industry searches for solutions as shortages hurt productivity, service and morale