Contractors’ challenges: What they are and how to solve them

Contractors are having to modernise their working practices in order to attract more staff after suffering another challenging year for recruitment, widely described as the biggest problem facing the industry.

Speaking at the second Farmers Weekly Contractors’ Roundtable event at the New Holland factory near Bruges, Belgium, business owners described the challenge of recruiting both full-time and part-time staff.

Those who require part-time staff during the summer months are struggling to recruit overseas farm workers as the weakened pound has lowered their earning potential.

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Meanwhile, the highly skilled year-round staff who can turn their hand to a variety of jobs throughout the seasons are leaving for other jobs that offer more money and a better work-life balance.

Farm contracting is never going to be a nine-to-five job with predictable hours, but bosses say they are fighting back by offering more perks to attract and retain labour.

Gavin Strathern, who runs Essex-based Blackwater Baling, is making the most of his business’ proximity to London to attract youngsters from overseas who are keen to experience some of the sights of the capital once they’ve saved up some spending money.

For full-time staff, like other employers he is offering ultra-flexible working hours outside peak work times, allowing them to claw back the additional hours they have clocked up to spend more time with family members.

Incentives offered at other firms included Christmas bonus schemes and meals when working long hours.

Where to find new recruits

Rachael Timms, who along with partner Brian Thompson established a groundworks contracting business in 2014 in Leicestershire, said many contractors could also look to recruit one very underrepresented industry demographic – women.

This imbalance could be remedied by making the job attractive to all from an earlier age, with a consensus from those present that the industry needed to target schools to find willing apprentices, and it needed to be done in both urban and rural areas.

More also needed to be made of the exciting technology and kit now used on farm, with part of the re-branding exercise calling an operator role a “technician”.

Kent contractor Jamie Forknall said he had successfully built links with local colleges, including Hadlow and Plumpton, but felt that more government funding was required to help with on-the-job training, similar to youth training schemes of the past.

Management of health and safety

It’s not just on hourly rates where agricultural contracting is compared with more corporate sectors, but in attitudes to health and safety.

Health and Safety Executive (HSE) officials have reduced deaths and injuries in many sectors
by introducing a more risk-averse culture, but it’s well known that farming still lags behind.

Chris Gardner, who operates a hedge-trimming business which specialises in cutting beneath electricity lines for power companies, but also works for farmers, says the differences are clear in his field.

Power companies are scrupulous in demanding all relevant certificates of competence and risk assessments to ensure he is capable of operating his machine and that he takes every precaution in the dangerous environment in which he operates.

However, farming landowners rarely ask for anything before allowing operators on to their land, and in some cases, such as with forage harvesters, no formal competency certificate even exists.

HSE rules

While drivers will rightly argue that they don’t need a piece of paper to prove they can drive, in the event of an accident, HSE rules say the farmer can be penalised if they can’t prove they checked competence and made contractors aware of health and safety policies.

Taking the lead on operator safety will therefore give contractors an additional way to promote their business and may in time see them win jobs over less-certified rivals.

National Association of Agricultural Contractors treasurer Jim Farquharson said: “I think in time there will be an assurance scheme for contractors in the way there is for the feed scheme now.

“With health and safety you are guilty until proven innocent – you have to show the protocols you have followed that prove that you have not been negligent.”

New Holland tractor and trailer

© Tim Scrivener

He highlighted that helping contractors stay on the right side of HSE legislation was a service already offered to NAAC members at no extra charge.

Contractors at the event also said they would welcome legislation changes to beef up safety standards, such as introducing tractor MOTs.

Mr Forknall employs students and, with regular inspections from college tutors, takes no chances with health and safety, ensuring, for example, that all pto guards are in place and no passengers are carried in machines.

“My insurance company demands that I have a certificate for my loader [telehandler] every year, my sprayer has to have an MOT, so why doesn’t the tractor have an MOT?”

“I think the future for manufacturers is air brakes on everything that comes out of the factory, including tractors.”

Cashflow concerns

Contracting companies are increasingly becoming a source of credit for cash-strapped farmers who are leaving it longer and longer to pay their bills.

This is putting contractors’ own finances under pressure and, as farm businesses get larger, means exposure to a single business can run to tens of thousands of pounds.

Isle of Wight contractor Robert Chapman said: “Nine years ago you sent an invoice and you got a cheque, but now people are using their 30-day terms and everyone is struggling.”

He said it was difficult for contracting firms as they were trapped between farmers delaying payments and suppliers which would not wait for their money, such as diesel firms and the companies providing machinery finance.

Many contractors now have explicit payment terms on their invoices, such as 30 days, and they start the clock ticking by generating bills as early as possible.

Software is already coming online, such as John Deere’s MyJobConnect, that will create a job, send it to staff, collect data as the job is executed for costing, and then produce and send a bill to the customer with little human input.

Combined with hardware such as GPS tracking, that allows operators to carry out jobs more accurately and efficiently, provide a huge opportunity for contractors to build and sell expertise as part of their offering.

Hertfordshire contractor Geoff Simms said: “I’m very much signed up to the use of technology and when it works it is fantastic.

“It boosts efficiency, increases operator satisfaction and reduces fatigue, but when you start trying to link two or three things together is where it falls down.”

Thanks to New Holland for its sponsorship which enabled us to hold the contractor roundtable. Farmers Weekly had complete editorial control of this report.

Sponsor’s message

New Holland logoNew Holland’s reputation is built on the success of our customers. Having recently expanded our full line of equipment with implements, we are ready to meet the needs of the most demanding professional customers.

We take pride in supporting the Contractors’ Roundtable to work closely with our audience, to open the doors of our production facilities (this year the Combine factory in Belgium) and to be at the forefront of industry trends – making sure we remain the best partner in the field.