As fewer farm staff take on
recruiting the best people is
more important than ever.
In the first of three
articles on recruitment and
Mike Stones talks to an
ATB trainer about
how to separate the
wheat from the chaff
when it comes to
filling farm vacancies
APPALLING. Thats ATB training provider Rosie Barfoots frank assessment of staff selection on some farms.
Nervous employers with no clear idea of the person theyre looking for, lack of preparation for interviews, failure to ask the right questions or listen to replies are all common problems. In fact staff selection can be a sorry business from beginning to end, complains Mrs Barfoot, an Agricultural Training Board provider for eight years.
"Selecting the right farm staff is not an easy process," she concedes. "But there are basic steps that would help people find and keep top quality people."
Never before has that challenge been more difficult or more important. With fewer farm workers, and fewer youngsters interested in farming, the pool of potential recruits is drying up rapidly. Yet the level of expertise required from staff and the greater responsibilities they carry make it vital to place the right people in the right jobs, stresses Mrs Barfoot.
Her recipe for recruitment success includes six basic ingredients. Those include: The nature of the job vacancy, deciding who you are looking for, advertising, making the initial selection, conducting the interview and offering the job.
Be clear about the nature of the job vacancy, she says. "Dont just think Berts retiring next month so we need a replacement. First ask, is a replacement needed? There may be an opportunity to cut costs."
If a vacancy exists, ask what the job entails? Answering that question will help to select the best person and to gauge the recruits progress. It could also prove invaluable if a dispute occurs.
The next step is to decide who you are looking for. List the skills, qualities and characteristics of the person you want. Some qualities are needed in all jobs such as honesty, integrity, and a sense of responsibility and humour. Basic skills of literacy and numeracy are important for all jobs.
Specialist skills will depend on the nature of the job. For example, spray operators will need a PA1 and PA2 spraying certificate or the ability to get them. Defining the job and your ideal candidate is the relatively easy bit.
More difficult is finding someone to fit the bill. With luck you could find someone simply, quickly and cheaply by word of mouth. More often than not, advertising is the best way of recruiting top quality staff.
"The best place to advertise for most jobs in agriculture is in the farming Press. But other means can be effective too. The local job centre will be useful if you have no accommodation. And local newspapers and radio are worth considering."
Before placing your advertisement, look up old copies of farming magazines to study advertisement styles. Or you could contact a recruitment agency which may offer limited free recruitment advice or, for a fee, a complete recruitment service.
When preparing the ad, always ask candidates to supply a hand-written application and a CV, recommends Mrs Barfoot. Deciding who to interview can be frustrated by lack of hard information so ensure the ad asks for enough detail to make selection decisions.
"You can often learn a lot from letters of application. One employer discovered his spray man couldnt read only when he attended a FEPA spraying course." Applications usually fall into one of three categories: the good, the bad and the borderline. "Judging the borderliners can be tricky. Some talented stock people and general farm workers find it difficult to communicate on paper. So make allowances," advises Mrs Barfoot.
Next comes the thorny question of interviewing candidates. "Although interviews can be traumatic for all concerned, planning (by both parties) helps them run smoothly. Prepare questions you want all candidates to answer and then specific ones based on individuals letters of application." General questions include:
• Why are you applying for this job?
• Why are you the right person for this job?
• What have you to offer in the role?
The key to interviewing success is planning. Be clear what you want to find out and prepare a question list. Decide before the interview, and after looking at the candidates CVs, what you want to find out about their personalities, skills, and experience and qualifications. "Prepare open questions, beginning with how, why and what, that require detailed answers."
When it comes to conducting interviews, first put candidates at their ease. Ask general questions to help them relax.
A vitally important skill is the ability to listen. "Sometimes interviewers ask questions without listening to the answers. Thats a pity because you could miss an important point that needs delving into."
Ask about hobbies because they can reveal aspects of a candidates personality. "People with interests outside farming generally are more balanced than those who are obsessive about agriculture," comments Mrs Barfoot.
Can you work with them?
Gut feelings are important. How do you feel about the person sitting opposite? Could you work with them? Could you trust them? Do you feel comfortable with them? "Explore the way you feel about the candidate and learn to trust your intuitions. A good personality and sense of humour can be more important than an armful of qualifications."
Dont forget the handshake test. "It might sound like a cliche but you can tell a lot from someones handshake. A firm and welcoming handshake must be a good sign."
Nervousness or lack of communication skills can sometimes conceal top quality performers. "Someone could be a superb stock person yet lack the ability to talk with ease," she acknowledges.
When recruiting for senior positions or offering a tied cottage, try to meet the candidates partners because they have an important bearing on the teams success.
Tailor the interview to the nature of the job. Interviews for senior roles, such as a manager, assistant manager or head herd person, merit more detailed selection than for a general farm worker. For management roles ask candidates to prepare a business plan or to suggest ways in which the business could be improved. Take candidates for a walk around the farm or stock yard. Ask them what improvements they would make.
After making your selection, phone the person to offer the job before sending written confirmation. That letter should set out the terms and conditions together with information about job responsibilities and any probation period. Wait until you receive their written acceptance before refusing the other candidates.
But whats the point in following such elaborate procedures if you want to recruit a second tractor driver? Mrs Barfoot is keen to refute such snobbishness.
"Employing the wrong person can have devastating consequences for any business whether in terms of theft, lost production or accidents. As individual staff carry ever more responsibility its never been more important to select the best candidate for the job."
So beat the appalling recruitment blues by using planning to make the right recruitment decision first time, says Mrs Barfoot.
Take candidates for a tour around the farm, recommends ATB-Landbase trainer Rosie Barfoot, pictured with David Durban. David is herd manager on the estate managed by Rosies husband Ken Barfoot.
At the cutting edge of agricultural training, ATB trainer Rosie Barfoot explains courses on offer to combine operator Joe Scott (centre) and apprentice Michael Webb at Ashby St Legers Farm. Northamptonshire.
CANDIDATES FROM HELL
• Mr Shifty – refuses to make eye contact; reluctant to supply job references. Nervous or something to hide?
• Mr Know-it-all – instant expert on any subject.
• Mr Chop-and-change – never stays long in any job.
• Mr Monosyllabic – only gives yes/no answers.
• Mr Slap-happy – casual appearance, casual about interview, perhaps casual about work?
• Mr Chip-on-my-shoulder – argumentative, typically all take and no give.
• Mr Clock-watcher – "Im off at 6pm regardless mate."
• Mr Hold-my-hand – works well under total direction. Lost if expected to make own decisions.
INTERVIEWERS FROM HELL
• Mr Cripplingly nervous – offhand manner; lectures candidates, avoids eye contact.
• Mr Monologue – asks questions without listening to replies which could provide valuable information.
• Mr Vague – lack of preparation; puts no thought into the job description or interview.
• Mr Weve-always-done-it-this-way – inflexible approach to farming and management; uninterested in new ideas.
• Mr Feudal – treats workforce as serfs; doesnt expect staff to think, only to carry out instructions.
• Identify the nature of the job vacancy.
• Decide who youre looking for.
• Advertise the vacancy.
• Select candidates for interview.
• Conduct the interview.
• Offer the job.
Below: Communication is the key to any good recruitment interview. Rosie talks through performance figures with herd manager David Durban in the parlour at Ashby St Legers Farm.