2 August 2002

Supplying skilled staff when &where

theyre required

Finding skilled labour to

tackle seasonal work is

becoming more difficult as

prospects for full-time farm

employment diminish.

Peter Hill finds out whether

machinery rings can help

THE drive to reduce labour and machinery costs by using fewer but higher capacity machines is having an unwelcome side-effect. As the decline in full-time employment in agriculture discourages newcomers and pushes established workers into other industries, so the pool from which seasonal labour has traditionally be drawn is drying up.

"It is not over-stating the case to say agriculture is facing a labour crisis, especially in the arable sector," says Vernon Knott of the Essex and Suffolk Machinery Ring. "Farmers can only afford to keep a core full-time labour force and are finding it increasingly difficult to get seasonal staff with the necessary skills to operate modern tractors and machinery for harvest and other busy times."

Finding ways of retaining skilled staff is a challenge for the industry as a whole but one that a number of machinery rings have taken upon themselves to tackle.

In Shropshire, for example, SASTAK has performed the role of labour agency for the past six years, bringing together farmers needing staff and workers with time on their hands. It handles casual as well as skilled staff and meeting growing demand for farm secretarial services.

Indeed, labour supply now represents almost 40% of the rings £1m-plus turnover.

"We supply staff with all sorts of skills to different types of farm but there is a lot of demand for relief and full-time milkers, and for seasonal tractor drivers and combine operators," says SASTAK chief executive Julia Brereton. "Farms that need extra staff at certain times of the year, such as potato growers and arable units that just grow cereals, are among our main clients."

Unlike traditional machinery ring transactions, in which both supplier and demander pay commission to cover ring administration costs, employment rules mostly shift the onus on to the demander when it comes to taking on staff through the ring.

SASTAK charges 5% to 10% commission, depending on the length of contract and type of work involved.

Using the ring in this way, however, saves a lot of time and effort (and the cost of advertising) spent sourcing and verifying the skills and experience of part-time workers. For the most part, it also avoids the risk of having to pay for self-employed individuals who choose not to pay their dues to the Inland Revenue.

Handling income tax and National Insurance administration and payments is also an attraction for most of the 80 or so skilled regulars and 120 casual workers that SASTAK has on its books. Seeking employment through the ring also saves workers time involved in applying individually to advertised posts.

"We can help anyone with reasonable experience, skills and qualifications to find part-time placements that suit their character and qualifications," says Ms Brereton. "We can not guarantee year-round employment but its something we do achieve in some cases, even if it is not always in farming."

Long-term plans to help tackle the labour shortage include training and sourcing casuals from overseas.

"Were planning to work with colleges and training groups to encourage more individuals to get the necessary skills and qualifications that different employees need," says Ms Brereton. "And for casual labour, the ring is looking at ways of becoming directly involved in sourcing and licensing foreign labour, particularly from eastern Europe."

The main challenge, though, is to find ways of meeting the aspirations of skilled and qualified operators so that they remain available to farmers and contractors.

"There are highly skilled people with good self-motivation who want to stay involved in agriculture," she says. "The challenge is to find placements that keep them in work all year round, even if that means a period of employment outside the industry."

At times when farm demand is slack, SASTAK looks for placements in manufacturing, road haulage, construction and road building.

With several rings making a success of their labour agency activities, Stephen Roberson of the Machinery Rings Association, is keen to help others get involved.

"Its a complex and labour-intensive activity that needs a lot of pump-priming finance in the early stages," he says. "But rings clearly have a role to play. When we surveyed farmers in East Anglia, they consistently identified the regions machinery rings as the most satisfactory supplier of seasonal labour." &#42

SASTAK chief executive Julia Brereton (right) with operations manager Rachael Evans.