Profit by retaining workers with fair pay, good communications and advancement opportunities

By Renee Stern
Contributing Editor

Retention is the flip side of labor problems for growers: After what can be a struggle to hire enough workers, you want to keep them on the job.

Dealing with employee turnover costs time and money to find and train replacements, whether filling gaps in full-time or seasonal crews.

"Turnover is terribly expensive and frustrating," says Karen Lewis, a Washington State University Extension educator in Ephrata. "It makes people not want to be employers."

Too much turnover also reduces the pool of potential replacements.

"It affects the reputation of a company and feeds on itself," says Howard Rosenberg, a University of California Extension ag labor management specialist in Berkeley. Job-seekers often are less interested in companies suffering an employee exodus.

Conversely, "Nothing substitutes for building a reputation as a good place to work, since recruitment is usually word-of-mouth," he says.

Make the right hiring decisions
Raising retention rates starts with hiring decisions.

"Recruitment and retention work together," Lewis says. "Get the right people for the right job with the right tools."

As more workers migrate out of agriculture to other industries, growers may have a harder time finding replacements with the necessary skills.

"Not everyone is a tractor driver or knows how to handle vines," says Ray Jacobsen, co-owner of J&L Vineyards in Fresno, Calif.

Jacobsen relies on a longtime core crew of 12 to 15 full-time workers, but has addressed ongoing difficulties in filling seasonal needs by gradually switching to grapes that require less labor. Over the years the farm has moved first from table grapes to raisins, and now is shifting again into wine grapes that can be machine-harvested.

Reducing labor needs through crop changes isn't an option for many growers, nor does it entirely eliminate problems with employee turnover.

Review management and benefits
Stable management and a sound benefits package have helped Sagemoor Vineyards in Pasco, Wash., hold onto a base of full-time workers, says General Manager Kent Waliser.

Turnover's biggest cost comes from hiring the wrong replacements, he says.

"They're disruptive to everyone they come in contact with, and it means more supervisory or management time to deal with it," Waliser says.

"First-line supervisors are where it's at," Rosenberg says.

They determine many of the outcomes for companies and production workers.

He's put together a supervision development program that includes a two-day short course for foremen, crew leaders and other first-line supervisors. Among the topics covered are how to teach skills, integrate new workers into a crew, deal with conflicts and receive ideas.

But, he says, "First-line supervision is too important to be left entirely to first-line supervisors." Higher levels of management must be involved.

That's fostered in the second program component, a seminar for managers that emphasizes communications across levels of participating companies. Fundamental to both components is clarifying the role, responsibilities and expectations of first-line supervisors.

Another tool is an online seminar in interpersonal negotiation skills, developed by Gregorio Billikopf, a University of California Cooperative Extension farm advisor in Modesto.

Pay and benefits rank high
Agricultural workers in surveys cited difficulties in relationships with family, co-workers and supervisors as the No. 2 reason for leaving a job, Billikopf says. That may seem outside employers' control, but many workers don't know how to negotiate and handle simple disagreements.

Pay and benefits were the top cause for turnover. Altogether, these two areas accounted for two-thirds of turnover in Billikopf's studies. Focusing attention there should raise retention rates significantly, he says.

"You can have every sort of feel-good thing, but if people don't feel they're paid fairly, they're not going to stay," Waliser says. "And the reverse is true as well."

Compensation carries greater weight for entry-level and temporary positions, Rosenberg says.

"Today's pay" and "tomorrow's pay" are both important, he says. Workers who see opportunities to move up and earn more in the future are more likely to stay on, even at lower present wages.

Although pay structures and benefits packages vary by location, employers increasingly must offer health coverage to retain workers, says John McClung, president of the Texas Produce Association in Mission.

Tree-fruit growers traditionally have used bonuses to encourage seasonal workers to finish out their tasks, Lewis says.

"But bonuses mean less and less all the time. What moves people changes over time," she says.

Higher prices for gas, food and other necessities have changed the picture. "Respect used to be No. 1," Lewis says. "But being respected at home because they're employed and providing for their family trumped all that."

Find out workers' needs

Growers with more-distant fields and orchards may need to offer transportation help, whether through car pools or other compensation, to attract and retain workers, she says.

"You have to talk to your workers and see what they need," Lewis says. Hosting a harvest barbecue and buying each worker a company jacket is no longer enough.

"If you only have $40 per employee to spend, it's better to give them a food or fuel card instead of something cosmetic to feel part of a team," she says.

Friends and family connect employees to a network that spreads the word about the desirable companies to work for as well as the less-desirable operations, Waliser says.

Growers can tap into those networks when it comes to hiring as a way to bolster internal communities, Rosenberg says. Those ties help keep people on the job—or encourage them to leave together.

Maintaining contacts during the off-season with at least the key people in seasonal crews is another way to encourage them to return, he says. Consider sending Christmas cards, for example, as well as updates on projected schedule needs.

"Agricultural workers respond to the same variables as other workers," McClung says.

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University of California's Agricultural Personnel Management Program:

University of California's Agricultural Labor Management resources:

University of California's Agricultural Labor Management resources, in Spanish: