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Hiring great employees requires exceptional recruitment and selection

Bob Milligan for Progressive Dairy Published on 20 September 2021

As we exit the pandemic, I believe the greatest challenge for essentially every business – including dairy farms – is hiring and retaining a great workforce.

We are in the greatest period of employee mobility perhaps in history. There are many factors in play:

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  • Employees were reluctant to changes jobs during the pandemic.

  • The stresses, challenges and altered circumstances during the pandemic resulted in many employees altering their expectations of and desired benefits from work. Many of those with altered circumstances (lost job, reduced hours, work from home, etc.) have adapted such that they will be slow to return to their previous career, even when the job returns.

  • A return to the tight labor market trend at the start of the pandemic.

  • Incentives and circumstances that make returning to the workforce unattractive, difficult and, in some cases, impossible. These include governmental economic benefits, children learning situations and spousal workforce situations.

In my opinion, two factors increase the likelihood of a successful hire:

1. A positive image of the dairy farm as an employer. I often refer to this as a preferred employer. A positive image is created by a healthy business culture, leaders and supervisors who care about employees, opportunities for employee growth/career advancement and fair compensation.

2. Recruiting processes that attract qualified applicants and selection practices that persuade them to join the farm.

Most of my articles thus far have been focused toward the first factor. This article, as we traverse the current crisis, focuses on the second.

Before talking directly about hiring, let’s introduce a contrast. In the 40-plus years I have worked with farmers, I have never heard a farmer exclaim: “I can’t produce milk or corn or soybeans.” It certainly is not because producing milk and crops is easy; you and I recognize the difficulties. Then why? Farmers produce milk and crops because it is their job; they work every day in planning and producing milk, crops and other products.

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Similarly, hiring is an integral part of your position as a farm owner/leader/manager. Those who succeed at hiring great employees make hiring a priority. They work at it year-round. They also recognize that hiring the best has one major difference from purchasing a tractor or a feed wagon. The hiring choices are more important as there are greater productivity differences among candidates than among different brands of equipment.

Begin your recruitment by identifying what you are looking for. Begin with a job description. Then use the job description to carefully identify and articulate the three to five most important “competencies” to succeed in the position. Competencies are the skills, knowledge, experience, performance behaviors and personal attributes required to succeed in the position.

The following is an example competency set for a milker position:

  • Successful experience doing repetitive tasks
  • Positive work attitude
  • Reliability
  • Gentleness

I have always said the goal of recruiting is to reach and persuade many qualified candidates to apply for the open position. In today’s world, the “many” – meaning a pool of candidates – may be a pipe dream for other than the highest skilled and leadership positions.

Recruiting includes promoting the positive attributes of the farm and the available position, and providing information about what will enable a candidate to succeed – the competencies.

The positive attributes are sadly lacking in most dairy farm recruitment materials I read. Think of recruitment as advertising. Think about why you farm; use those thoughts to brainstorm positives about your farm and the position.

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Your recruitment plan should include informal word-of-mouth communications, want ads – online and in print, job announcements and possibly formal job services. In this current labor market, working your network – employees, agribusiness professionals, farmer colleagues, family, friends – is especially important.

The following position announcement for a milker position – same ideas could be used in other recruitment forms – incorporates the competencies defined above for this position:

EXCELLENCE, TRAINING, TEAM ATMOSPHERE! We are seeking reliable, gentle workers to milk our prized herd of dairy cows. Top of the Hill Dairy Farm is a progressive family business producing wholesome, nutritious milk for families like yours. We are committed to producing superior-quality milk for consumers and to providing outstanding job satisfaction for our employees. The new employees will be responsible for all tasks required to milk our herd of cows in a timely and professional manner. The position requires gentleness with the animals and precision in the milking process. We provide initial training and continuing training. Weekday and weekend regular hours are available. Are you looking for a change? Apply to help serve consumers like you! Applications available at …

Great marketing materials can be developed using the following items: Lead with a positive statement or job characteristic that attracts attention, give the job title, say something positive about the business, describe the job, explain qualifications necessary for success in the position, provide information on wages and benefits as appropriate, and say how to apply for the job.

I have always defined selection as choosing from the pool of candidates the individual who best matches the competencies needed to succeed in the position. As was stated above, today the idea of a pool is often infeasible. Selection, then, must mean a process to determine whether this candidate matches the competencies needed to succeed. The urgency of making an offer (before the candidates accepts another position) means that this must be a structured, streamlined, fast process.

Remember that in interviewing you are determining the “fit” of this candidate for the position and promoting the position and your farm so the candidate is likely to accept should you decide to offer him or her the position.

The selection process involves many steps, typically the following: review of résumés and/or application forms; one or more employment interviews; testing, assessments and simulations; reference checks and recommendations; and hiring.

The heart of selection is the interview. Here are some ideas to ensure you are prepared for the interview: Recognize that an interview is an important, stressful event requiring structure. You should now be refining your current selection process to meet today’s time demands. Construct a schedule for the interview. Make certain the candidate fully understands in advance what to expect – anything he or she should bring or prepare, interview time (start and end), interview location, interview schedule and format, appropriate dress. At the end of the interview, inform the candidate about the next step, including when they will hear from you next.

A prepared set of questions asked of all candidates is a unanimous recommendation of interviewing experts and practitioners. A structured interview or interviews is essential in these times where speed is crucial.

A concluding remark

The key to successful hiring is large quantities of your most valuable asset: time. It must be a priority. The internet and social media have greatly reduced the financial cost of recruitment but, at the same time, the increasingly difficult labor market has increased the time requirement for hiring. end mark

PHOTO: Getty Images.

Bob Milligan is also professor emeritus, Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management, Cornell University.

Bob Milligan
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