Farming vacancies harder to fill despite declining workforce

Farming businesses are finding it increasingly difficult to recruit new staff, despite the total number of jobs in agriculture falling.

The most recent figures released by Defra show the total agricultural labour force in the UK in 2017 was estimated at 419,000, down 2,000 from the previous year and half of what it was in 1973.

However, consultants and farm leaders are warning that competition for jobs is actually in decline, with fewer applicants for full-time roles such as herd managers as well as part-time roles like harvest staff.

See also: Contracts of employment – how to get the basics right

Factors include agricuture’s ongoing inability to attract more would-be workers from outside the industry, the flow of good people heading into related food and agri-business roles, and the number of farmworkers now reaching retirement age.  

Recruitment experts report that farmers are increasingly having to make compromises when it comes to selecting staff and it is taking longer to fill jobs than it used to. They are also having to offer increasingly generous packages to compete to secure the right calibre of candidate, which is driving up their cost base.

Ian Lindsay of recruitment business LKL Services said it has “never been harder” to find the skilled staff necessary to work on the UK’s dairy farms and a good herdsman can have their pick of jobs.

“Even four or five years ago you could publish an advert and you would get about a dozen decent CVs. Now in some instances you are lucky to get one,” he said. ”You certainly don’t have that choice.

“Generally most jobs are getting filled – but they are taking longer and farmers are facing compromises, such as accepting people with less experience than they want, outsourcing some of the skilled jobs or training them up.” 

Andrew Wraith, director in the food and farming department at Savills, said it was also getting increasingly difficult to recruit good people to work on arable farms, with an “underwhelming” number of quality applications coming forward.

This had implications for labour and machinery costs.

“When you are talking about controlling labour costs, then that is fine to a degree, but the issue is if you want someone good you have to pay what you have to pay.”

Defra figures show the total compensation to agricultural employees in 2017 was £2.6bn, an increase of £80m on the previous year, which was mainly driven by the rise in the minimum wage.

Struggle for part-time staff

Helen Kenvin, human resources co-ordinator for Sentry, said it had been “a slog” to recruit harvest students this year and she had been told by one university that there were not enough students for the vacancies advertised.

“We definitely struggled this year – in fact, I have one manager who is still looking to fill a position.”

Stuart Goodinson, managing director of De Lacy executive recruitment, said he was not convinced the problem was getting worse, but acknowledged the difficulty of finding staff because of the low volume of applicants.

The problem was particularly acute in places such as Scotland and Cornwall, as people were unwilling to relocate to those areas, he said.

There were also problems along the south coast, where staff were needed to run vegetable picking operations.

What can employers do to help themselves?

  • Recruitment specialists say being valued and allowed to progress in their roles is often more of an attraction to employees than the headline salary – although the salary will need to be competitive.
  • It’s important to develop a reputation as a good employer – make time to sell your business as a great place to work and become known as an employer who is willing to invest in your people.
  • Don’t be scared of people outgrowing your job if you do invest in them – you will reap the benefits while they are with you and they will be an advocate for your business if they leave.
  • Quality accommodation can be a draw for employees – although it depends on what the cost implications will be for the employee.